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The nature of the rejection of UNESCO mediation for Marbles

Kwame Opoku [1] gives his analysis on the British Museum and British Government’s rejection of mediation through UNESCO [2] to resolve the Parthenon Marbles dispute.

A metope from the Parthenon Sculptures, currently in the British Museum [3]

A metope from the Parthenon Sculptures, currently in the British Museum

Kwame Opoku (by email)


Very few readers will be surprised by the negative response of the British Museum and the British Government to the Greek request for UNESCO mediation over the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum.(1) The real surprise is that it took such  a long time, from 9 August 2913 to 26 March 2015 to send the British response. We used to think that a prompt reply or a response within a reasonable period was the hallmark of politeness.

The negative response consists of two separate letters to UNESCO, one from the British Government and the other from the British Museum. Though both letters conveyed a negative reply, it appears better, for clarity to discuss them separately. We will also see clearly the division of labour between the two British institutions that are united in the final objective but adopt different paths and style.


The response of the British Museum bears all the hallmarks we have come to associate with this institution in the matter of the Parthenon Marbles: arrogance, defiance and provocation.

In a letter dated 26 March to the UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the British Museum states in the opening paragraph:

“After full and careful consideration, we have decided respectfully to decline this request. We believe that the more constructive way forward, on which we have already embarked, is to collaborate directly with other museums and cultural institutions, not just in Greece but across the world”.

The request of Greece for mediation on the Parthenon Marbles in London is drowned in the area of collaboration with “other museums and cultural institutions, not just in Greece but across the world”. The specific question of the Greek sculptures, their ownership and location is not the object of attention and concentration.

The letter expresses admiration for the work of UNESCO in the area of “preservation and safeguarding the world’s endangered cultural heritage.”

The Chairman of the Board of Trustees immediately points out that the Parthenon Sculptures do not fall within this category. The method used here is fairly simple. You narrow the competence of UNESCO to the preservation and safeguarding the world’s endangered cultural heritage and declare UNESCO’s involvement in other areas as undesirable:

“the Trustees would want to develop existing good relations with colleagues and institutions in Greece, and to explore collaborative ventures, not on a government-to-government basis but directly between institutions. This is why we believe that UNESCO involvement is not the best way forward”

The Board of Trustees of the British Museum seem to have forgotten that UNESCO has a broad mandate that covers most areas of culture as well as disputes relating to cultural artefacts. Indeed the Organization has specifically, through its Intergovernmental Committee, (Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation) the duty to assist States in settling disputes such as those relating to the Parthenon Sculptures. This dispute has been before UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for a long time. The mediation procedure is one of several procedures available for dispute settlement. (2)

As we are now used to,, the British Museum’s letter contains the usual claim that the museum is there for the whole world and works on behalf of audiences from the whole world, forgetting that the majority of the world would have no visa to London and would also not be able to afford the costs involved in a visit to London.

The museum’s letter, as we could expect, is full of references to the alleged international role of the museum for the benefit of humanity:

“The British Museum, as you know, is not a government body, and the collections do not belong to the British Government. The Trustees of the British Museum hold them not only for the British people, but for the benefit of the world public, present and future. The Trustees have a legal and moral responsibility to preserve and maintain all the collections in their care, to treat them as inalienable and to make them accessible to world audiences”

“Museums holding Greek works, whether in Greece, the UK or elsewhere in the world, are naturally united in a shared endeavour to show the importance of the legacy of ancient Greece. The British Museum is committed to playing its full part in sharing the value of that legacy for all humanity.”

Most readers would be used to this standard propaganda of the British Museum in its role as self-appointed saviour of humanity’s cultural heritage. But what would come to many as a surprise is that the venerable museum advances its own wrong-doing as a demonstration of its commitment to humanity’s culture’

The letter of the museum refers to the notorious and controversial loan of Ilissos to Russia as an example of sharing the legacy of ancient Greece;

“In this same spirit, the Trustees recently lent one of the Parthenon Sculptures to the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, and were pleased to learn that in only six weeks some 140,000 Russian visitors had the chance to see it there. This was a new audience for this extraordinary work of ancient Greek art, most of whom could not have visited either Athens or London.”

The loan of one of the contested Parthenon Marbles to Russia was condemned by many as wrong and was described by Peter Aspden, Financial Times critic  as “ill-conceived trip to Russia”(3)

It requires a great amount of arrogance, self-confidence and provocation to advance an action condemned by most people as evidence of international co-operation. (4)

The British Museum also refers to what it calls ”the historic distribution of the surviving Parthenon Sculptures:”

“Views on the historic distribution of the surviving Parthenon Sculptures naturally differ, though there is unanimous recognition that the original totality of the sculptural decoration cannot now be reassembled as so much has been lost, and that the surviving sculptures can never again take their place on the building.”

The use of the word “distribution” is in many ways misleading. It creates the impression that there had been a conscious and deliberate decision to divide the Parthenon Sculptures among the nations that hold them at present. This, as we all know, was never the case but it helps to divert attention from asking how the sculptures came to London. The statement that the sculptures cannot be all replaced in the ancient Acropolis is undoubtedly aimed, at the arguments for reunification of the sculptures in Athens. As far as I am aware, no one has ever suggested the Parthenon Sculptures could be put back at their old location. What has been suggested is that they should be reunited in the new Acropolis Museum where there is enough place for them.


The British Minister of State for Culture and Digital Economy sent a letter dated 26 March 2015 to the UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture in response to the UNESCO letter of 9 August 2013.

The Minister’s letter acknowledges the important role of UNESCO in the settlement of international disputes through the Intergovernmental Committee. The letter adds that officials of Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the British Museum have attended regularly meetings of the Committee even though Britain is not a member of the Committee.

Contrary to the British Museum letter which seems to be contesting the competence of UNESCO to be involved in such disputes, the Minister’s letter acknowledges UNESCO role in such disputes:

“We would first like to express how much we value the role that UNESCO plays in helping to safeguard cultural heritage and in providing a forum for the resolution of international disputes through the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation (ICPRCP”.

Are these differences of approach accidental? We can be sure that officials of both the Government and the British Museum worked together on both letters and that if there are any differences of approach or nuances, these are not accidental but intentional. You say nice things about them and we tell them where to get off.

The letter from Government declares that the sculptures in the British Museum were acquired legally by Lord Elgin under the laws then prevailing. The request for mediation was to seek the transfer of the sculptures to Athens and deny the British Museum’s right of ownership. The positions of the British and the Greeks are clear and mediation would not carry the debate forward:

“Given our equally clear position, this leads us to conclude that mediation would not carry this debate substantially forward.”

The global nature of the collections in the British Museum as well as legal restrictions on de-accession are thrown in for good measure.

Readers will no doubt have noticed the not so subtle attempts to relegate the dispute on the Parthenon Marbles to a dispute between museums and not States. As dispute between States, the British Government is under pressure from other States in the United Nations and UNESCO to settle the matter. As dispute between institutions there will be less pressure and the Greek museum will not be able to exert much pressure on the British Museum In their letters of rejection, the British Museum tells UNESCO to stay away from this dispute and concern itself with preservation and destruction of culture and not with the Parthenon Marbles that are very well kept. The British Government also agrees that the matter should be left to the museums that have excellent relations

The British Museum continues in its attempt to take hold of the narrative of Greek culture and history, presenting itself as major player in the dissemination of Greek culture by bringing the Greek legacy to Russia and elsewhere. The current exhibition, Defining Beauty, the Body in Ancient Greek Art is given as an example of the museum’s approach. Is it by sheer coincidence that the exhibition opens on the same date as the rejection of the Greek proposal was sent?

It is remarkable that the British Museum and the British Government continue to advance the museum’s propaganda that it holds the Parthenon Marbles on behalf of humanity. Does this humanity include the British people who have in countless opinion polls overwhelmingly and consistently decided that the Parthenon Marbles be returned to Greece. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, the majority of States through their representatives in the United Nations and UNESCO have in countless resolutions decided that the sculptures should be returned to Athens. So for which humanity is the British Museum working?

The British Government and the British Museum appear never to have seriously considered the possibility of resolving the Parthenon dispute. One can understand that when a party has no real chance of winning a fair game that it is not interested in entering the game. But is this attitude to be expected from States that are often telling others to follow the law and emphasize the need for democracy? Can there be democracy without a willingness to submit disputes with other States to the rule of Law and other peaceful methods of dispute settlement?

The double refusal by the British Government and the British Museum is surely not the last word on the question of the Parthenon Marbles which they both admit are Greek. Praising the grandeur and the legacy of Greek civilization but at the same time refusing to let the Greeks have their cultural artefacts so that they could also celebrate that legacy can surely not be right.

Kwame Opoku, 30 March 2015



1. Elginism, http://www.elginism.com/elgin-marbles/uk-government-rejects-parthenon-marbles-unesco-mediation/20150327/7859/



2. UNESCO Mediation and conciliation www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/…/mediation-and-conciliation

3. Financial Times 28/29 March 2015, p.16.

4. Kwame Opoku, Arrogance, Duplicity and Defiance with no End: British Museum Loans Parthenon Marble to Russia£.