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Greek Prime Minister talks to Tony Blair about return of Elgin Marbles

Greek Prime Minister, Costas Simitis, is going to raise the issue of the Parthenon Sculptures with Tony Blair whilst on an official visit to Britain.

Macedonian Press Agency [1]

London, 29 October 2002 (12:06 UTC+2)

Greece officially asked for the return of the Parthenon Marbles during Prime Minister Kostas Simitis’ meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London, concerning EU enlargement and Cyprus’ accession. Mr. Simitis stressed that discussions must begin, so that the marbles can be placed in the new Acropolis Museum for the 2004 Olympics.

As Mr. Simitis mentioned, all issues concerning bilateral relations and the EU were discussed sincerely.

The first topic on the day’s agenda was Cyprus’ accession to the EU, and resolving the political problem there. Mr. Simitis pointed out that the Turkish Cypriots show a lack of proposals in finding ways out of the dead end.

The two Prime Ministers also discussed the Greek Presidency of the EU, mainly concentrating on completing the enlargement. According to a decision made at the Brussels Summit Meeting, the Act for the accession of 10 new member-states will take place on April 16 in Athens.

Concerning dealing with illegal immigration and political asylum, Mr. Simitis underlined that ways were found for the views of the two countries to coincide.

On his side, Mr. Blair raised the issue of the British nationals who were tried for espionage while photographing a military airfield. Mr. Simitis pointed out that justice is independent and expressed his hopes that the issue turns out well.

Christian Science Monitor [2]

from the November 08, 2002 edition
BRITAIN HAS THEM: Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreau, with his wife and daughter, visit the British Museum in London that houses the Elgin Marbles.
The saga of the missing marbles

Greece’s hopes of forcing Britain to return the Parthenon Marbles by 2004 have hit a new snag.
By Coral M. Davenport | Special to The Christian Science Monitor
ATHENS – Not long after Greece won the right to host the 2004 Olympics, organizers here began dreaming of another kind of victory.

For almost two decades, Greece had been trying to force Britain to return its most cherished antiquities – statues and friezes that once adorned the Parthenon. What better way to pressure London, they reasoned, than to build a museum to showcase the Parthenon Marbles and open it just in time for the Games?

But, in an ironic twist, the museum itself is being criticized as a threat to Greece’s heritage. On the site where the New Acropolis Museum is being built, archaelogical ruins have been discovered, opening the latest chapter in an an epic cultural saga.

“The ruins are very, very important…. There isn’t anything like this anywhere in Athens,” says Thanos Papathanassopoulos, a Culture Ministry official who has joined forces with a handful of local residents, historians and archaelogists to protest the museum’s construction.

Fearing that the ruins – of an early Christian settlement – will be sacrificed in the campaign to recover the lost marbles, they are filing suit against the government.

The excavated museum site is packed with foundations of buildings and houses built between the 2nd and 7th century, a period archaelogists say is sparsely represented in Athens. The site also includes ancient roads, a circular marble fountain or well, and two nearly complete tiled floors. Acropolis Museum director Dimitrios Pantermalis the site is unusual because it contains ancient wells and water-reservoirs, rare in the parched city.

Protesters say it isn’t worth destroying parts of the site to make way for the $100 million museum.

But others say the new exhibition space is vital to efforts to bringing back the 2,500-year-old marbles.

“I think the new museum is absolutely crucial because it takes away the last remaining argument about returning the marbles – the argument that the Greeks wouldn’t take care of them, or that no one would see them, that they’d have nowhere to put them,” says Anthony Snodgrass, a retired Cambridge archeologist who heads an international campaign for the marbles’ return.

In the new museum, which would also display other archeaological treasures, the space designed for the marbles would be left mostly bare, with labels marking the spots where the missing sculptures would be displayed. Greeks hope that,with thousands of visitors seeing those empty spaces during Athens’ moment on the world stage, the pressure on Britain will reach a breaking point.

Late last month, Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis gave his British counterpart, Tony Blair, a letter outlining proposals for either returning the marbles permanently or sending them to Greece on a long-term loan. It was the first time Athens had taken the case directly to Downing Street.

Italy, which also owns a fragment of the marbles, said last month that it plans to return part of a statue of Peitho, goddess of persuasion and seduction –to Greece in a 99-year loan.

In Britain, the sculptures are known as the Elgin marbles, named after Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, who cut them off the temple 200 years ago and carted them back to England. While some pieces were dispersed among various European museums, most were sold to the British Museum, which resolutely refuses to return them.

The British Ministry of Culture, Media and Sport, however, has said that while no moves of the marbles are planned, it is now open to talks with Greece.

Next week, just across the street from the British Museum, Greece is making an elaborate presentation on the New Acropolis Museum and the missing marbles to ratchet up the pressure on London.

Britain has long claimed that it houses and displays the sculptures better than Greece ever could. Even Greeks admit this was justified: many Greek museums are overcrowded and poorly organized, and many art works were damaged during a 1999 earthquake in Athens.

But Greece says the new museum answers these criticisms. Designed by Bernard Tschumi, an internationally renowned architect who recently retired as dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, it will be built mostly of glass, with a direct view to the Parthenon.

The marbles would be displayed on the museum’s top floor and arranged in the same order and proportions they had on the Parthenon, which would be clearly visible behind them. “We have restored the relationship in looking at the frieze as it would be while walking around the Parthenon itself,” says Tschumi. “The same Attic light will shine on them.”

To protect the marbles, builders say glass will be treated with ultraviolet light filters, and foundations built with the same shock-absorbent earthquake-proof technology used in California museums.

Stumbling on ancient ruins amid new construction is commonplace in Greece – and becoming increasingly frequent as Athens scrambles to complete dozens of Olympic venues and modernize by 2004. Construction on a long-delayed metro system was slowed by the discovery of countless graves, pots and sculptures, for example. Protesters held up construction of an Olympic rowing center 19 miles outside Athens, where ancient ruins were found on what is believed to be the site of the 490 BC Battle of Marathon, where an army of 192 Athenians repulsed 6,000 Persians.An Olympic equestrian center was stalled after discovery of an ancient brothel on the site. In some cases, the government has attempted to preserve such finds.

Pantermalis concedes that there’s no way to build the new museum without destroying at least some of the site. But much of the site will be preserved: Plans for the museum now call for it to be elevated on columns, with glass floors, so visitors can peer down at remains below the building. Pottery and sculpture found on-site will be displayed in the museum.

Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos has agreed to meet with the protesters and consider their arguments about the site. But for now, construction plans are moving forward.

With the time constraints, “there is no other solution,” says University of Crete archeologist Petros Themelis, who initially opposed the project. “The thing now is that we have to build this new museum. It has to be done.”

Kathimerini (English Edition) [3]

Saturday November 2, 2002 – Archive
Call for ‘permanent loan’ of Parthenon Marbles
Prime Minister Costas Simitis calling on his British counterpart Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street this week.


Greece’s campaign to bring back to Greece the Parthenon sculptures removed from the Acropolis by Lord Elgin around 200 years ago and now exhibited in the British Museum, was on the agenda of Prime Minister Costas Simitis’s visit to London this week. “I would like to report that I gave Mr Blair a note from the Culture Ministry regarding the Parthenon Marbles. I had discussed this issue in Athens with the culture minister. The idea is for a permanent loan — shall we say — a permanent exhibition of the Parthenon Marbles at the Acropolis Museum. In return, Greece will present exhibitions at the British Museum. That permanent exhibition of the Parthenon Marbles in Athens could be held in cooperation with the British Museum. Therefore this is what we have to discuss. I hope that the British will respond accordingly,” Simitis told a press conference in London this past Monday at 3.15 p.m., after his visit to 10 Downing Street, the home of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The reference to what are known abroad as the “Elgin Marbles” as the “Parthenon Marbles” was quite correct. Our readers are aware of this column’s long struggle to inform the public on the question of the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens, to the new Acropolis Museum being built for the purpose and which, as the prime minister assured us, “will be ready at the end of 2003, or early 2004.” It is the first time that the prime minister himself has raised the issue, and — as the people would be unanimous in saying — “It’s about time!” When asked what the foundation was for this latest approach and whether the British government’s stance had changed at all, Simitis replied, “It began with the evaluation that the time was approaching and therefore we had to try.” As for why this particular time had been chosen, and whether he was trying to achieve something in particular, he said: “In fact, I am trying to achieve something. I believe, however, that with all these issues, if you enter into discussions, if you exert pressure, if you present arguments, you can approach your goal. Now that the exhibition space will be ready by 2004, it is an opportunity to remind the British that the time has come for some decisions to be made.” Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos is off to London on November 11, accompanied by the museum’s architect, Bernard Tschumi, to present the design for the museum to distinguished British personalities who have taken a stand on the issue and to the British public and media. However, the word “return” appears to have been removed from the dictionary. Instead, phrases such as “permanent loan” and “permanent exhibition” in cooperation with the British Museum means that what’s ours is theirs, and even if they agree to give them back to us, they will still be theirs and, of course, we will be ever so grateful for the British Museum’s cooperation. Whoever can still hear Melina Mercouri calling for their return because “the Marbles are our culture, our treasure, our heritage,” well, they can turn a deaf ear to that siren call. Now is the time for diplomatic language, it seems. Perhaps the British committee for the “return” of the Marbles should change their name too, to something more diplomatic. Let us hope that reason will prevail, but not at the expense of truth, and that truth is that the Parthenon Marbles’ place is near the monument from which Lord Elgin removed them.

National Post [4]

Keep the marbles in Britain
National Post
Saturday, November 02, 2002

Greece has again called for the return of the Elgin Marbles — the sculptures that once adorned the Parthenon and now adorn the British Museum — and Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, is said to be considering the request.

Mr. Blair should put an immediate end to his ruminations.

The friezes were legally obtained by Lord Elgin nearly two centuries ago, and have been safeguarded by the British Museum in a manner that, while imperfect, puts Greece’s own track record of protecting its cultural patrimony to shame.

Many Greeks regard the removal of the Elgin Marbles in 1809 as a brazen act of vandalism. In fact, their removal and subsequent deposit in the British Museum arguably saved the marbles. Certainly it spared them the fate of many other classical antiquities, including other Acropolis sculptures, seriously damaged by misguided Greek “restoration” efforts, and by acid rain.

The current Greek initiative, presented to Mr. Blair by Costas Simitis, the Greek Prime Minister, and supported by a group of British cultural apologists, including (invariably) Vanessa Redgrave, proposes that the marbles be housed in a new museum in Athens. In return, Greece would lend other antiquities for display at the British Museum. The idea would be to restore the marbles to Greece in time for the 2004 Olympics.

The case for Greek curatorship remains unconvincing, however.

The head of the British Museum has observed that the Greeks do not have suitable premises to house their many other marbles and sculptures. There have also been complaints that even in constructing the footings for the new Athenian museum, builders damaged an important post-classical archaeological site, perpetuating the image of Greek stewardship as something of an oxymoron.

The loss of the Elgin Marbles would diminish the British Museum, one of the world’s great cultural institutions, and more ominously, it would invite other repatriation demands. Once the precedent had been set, there is not a medicine pouch or juju stick that would be safe from repatriation claims. This is reason enough for Britain to hang on to its precious marbles.