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UK government rejects Parthenon Marbles UNESCO mediation

In September 2013, after long deliberation, the Greek Government made the decision to invite the Britain (via UNESCO) into mediation [1] to resolve the Parthenon Sculptures issue.

Since then, the issue of the Parthenon Marbles has risen far higher up the agenda, publicised first by George Clooney [2], and then the presence of his wife Amal, as a member of a team of lawyers [3] invited to Athens to advise on potential legal action.

Most recently, the British Museum themselves pushed the case of the Marbles back into the limelight with an (arguably) ill received decision to secretly loan one of the sculptures to the Hermitage museum [4] in St Petersburg.

All this time, despite the issue of the Parthenon Marbles making international news headlines on numerous occasions, no response to the request was forthcoming from the British Government or the British Museum, other than the fact that they were considering it and would respond in due course.

During this period, ICOMOS passed a resolution [5] in support of the mediation request, letters were written [6] to the Prime Minister and questions were asked [7] in Parliament. Earlier this month, Andrew George MP tabled an Early Day motion [8] intended to draw attention to this inaction.

Suddenly today, the British Museum published responses on their website from themselves and the British Government, that were sent to UNESCO to be forwarded on to the Greek Government.

As one might have predicted, the response was negative.

Now, maybe it just took seventeen months of careful thinking to arrive at the decision that they did not want to enter into mediation, but alarm bells are ringing regarding the timing of this. Following the 2010 General Election in the UK, the decision was made that from then on, Parliament would operate on five year fixed terms – so for the first time ever, the date of the next election was known well in advance.

Although Parliament is to be dissolved on 30th March 2015 prior to the election, it was prorogued on 26th March. What this means is that at prorogation, all parliamentary business ends, although that Parliament would still exist until dissolution.

It seems an unlikely coincidence that the date of 26th March is exactly the same one given on the top of the two letters of response to the mediation request. To me, this looks like the person who fires of an email that they know will be contentious, just before leaving the office for a two week holiday. They leave it until he last minute, hoping that someone else will deal with the fallout, or that it will be forgotten by their return.

In my day job as an architect, I have on occasion come across similar behaviour, in the context of planning application rejections. The objections were filed at the latest possible point in the process, where the other party had no time to respond, meaning that the whole process would be for an entire month until the next committee meeting. The end result of this process though, was that it was discovered that the objecting party was not being entirely honest – their awkwardly obstructive tactics merely drew attention to this fact, and in the end, it transpired that the validity of their objections was entirely cast into doubt by far greater transgressions on their own part.

I can not help noting a parallel between these two situations. If the British Government / British Museum felt that they were sitting entirely comfortable and had a strong case, why would they not respond on a timescale where the other party could reply at leisure if they so desired within the current session of Parliament? There has been more than enough time in which to do so, and the timing of this announcement merely highlights the level of awkward obstructiveness that is faced when anyone tried to actually engage the British Government or the British Museum in discussions on the issue.

I have previously highlighted the carrot and stick approach [9] to cultural property negotiations. Like many, I was never convinced UNESCO mediation would work, as there was nothing to compel the British Museum to enter into the process. They feel that they are sitting comfortably, so why should they voluntarily enter into a procedure, the outcome of which might be that they end up significantly less comfortable? If a potential threat of legal action was also on the horizon though, then the mediation might have been perceived very differently. Suddenly, mediation would become a distinctly palatable alternative to a costly and high profile lawsuit, which could sully the name of the institution and drag on for years.

As yet, no official proposals have been made for litigation, although we know that it has been considered. Who knows whether if and when it does take place, mediation will still be available as an option. If the mediation offer is withdrawn, the British Museum / British Government might well regret not taking the offer when it was available.

All this highlights that importance of the Greek Government keeping up the pressure on Britain. The first serious attempt at negotiation may not have worked, but it should be followed up with alternative options, making sure that the UK realises that attempting to ignore the situation will not make it go away. The issue of the Marbles is one that needs to be resolved, and mealy mouthed talk of Universal Museums [10] and denial of the existence of past loan requests [11] is not the way to achieve this.

Part of the Parthenon frieze in the British Museum [12]

Part of the Parthenon frieze in the British Museum

British Museum [13]

Alfredo Pérez de Armiñán
Assistant Director-General for Culture
United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation
1 Rue Miollis
75732 Paris Cedex 15

26 March 2015

The Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum: UNESCO mediation proposal

I write on behalf of the Trustees of the British Museum, who at their meeting of 19th March 2015 considered the request put forward by the Greek Government that they should enter into a process of mediation, facilitated by UNESCO, on the subject of the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum. 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 British Museum admires and supports the work of UNESCO, fully acknowledging the importance of its unique ability, as an intergovernmental agency, to address the serious issue of the threats to, and the destruction of, cultural heritage around the world. The Museum has a long history of collaboration with UNESCO, notably in Iraq in 2003-5, and is currently engaged with UNESCO in formulating responses to the crisis in Syria, including the illicit trafficking of antiquities. The Museum would wish always to align itself with UNESCO’s purposes in the preservation and safeguarding of the world’s endangered cultural heritage. However, the surviving Parthenon Sculptures, carefully preserved in a number of European museums, clearly do not fall into this category.

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.

In pursuit of this aim, 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. 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.

The potential of this approach can be seen in the British Museum’s current special exhibition Defining Beauty, the Body in Ancient Greek Art, which opened to the public today. Here some of the Parthenon Sculptures are displayed with other works that similarly show the intense humanism of ancient Greek civilisation, including masterpieces generously lent by museums around the world. Nowhere else in the world is it now, or has it ever been, possible to see these objects together. The aesthetic impact is considerable, and the intellectual content compelling. This seems to us to point the way forward, as an example of the great public benefit that arises from museums internationally using and sharing their collections in this way.

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. Visitor surveys revealed that the display of the sculpture was received with great interest and warm enthusiasm. After two and a half thousand years, this was Russia’s first glimpse of the splendours of fifth-century Athens that have played such a central part in shaping Russian consciousness and culture.

Such initiatives, arranged directly between the participating institutions, seem to the Trustees a natural way of building from the fact that the surviving Parthenon Sculptures are shared among a number of European collections. This means that the sculptures can already be seen in a different historical context in each museum, and the Trustees believe this to be to the great benefit of world audiences. The sculptures in London are already seen by more than six million visitors each year, free of charge.

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 scholars of the British Museum and of other institutions that hold Parthenon Sculptures enjoy excellent collaborative relationships with Greek museums and universities, in Athens and elsewhere. These have included collaboration on research projects, publications and exhibitions. The British Museum has routinely lent to Greece, and indeed British Museum objects are currently on loan to the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens. This demonstrates the warm relationships of mutual trust and respect that have been built up between scholars in Athens and London. The Acropolis Museum and the British Museum are both centres for Parthenon studies, and curators and colleagues from each institution have together discussed their common efforts to seek new audiences and to find new ways of interpretation.

As Trustees we attach great importance to these joint ventures, and believe that both the study of the Parthenon Sculptures and their display to the widest possible audiences illuminates not only the Classical Greek achievement but also its impact on the world. In conclusion, therefore, we would invite our colleagues in Greek museums to continue to work with us and to explore new ways of enabling the whole world to see, study and enjoy the sculptures of the Parthenon.

We are sending this letter both in English and in Greek, and are copying it to the Ministers for Culture and Europe, who are replying separately to Mr Bandarin’s letter of 9 August 2013.

Sir Richard Lambert
Chairman of the British Museum Board of Trustees

British Government [14]

26 March 2015
Alfredo Pérez de Armiñán
Assistant Director-General for Culture
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
1 Rue Miollis
75732 Paris Cedex 15
Dear Mr
Pérez de Armiñán,


We are writing in response to the letter of 9 August 2013 from your predecessor, Francesco Bandarin, to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and Minister for Equalities, the Foreign Secretary and the Director of the British Museum.

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). The issue of the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum has been the subject of much discussion over the years both within the Committee and elsewhere, and while the UK is not formally a member of the Committee, officials from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the British Museum have regularly attended and sought to assist the Committee in its work.

Mr Bandarin asked us to consider a request put forward by the Greek Government to agree to a process of mediation, facilitated by UNESCO, with a view to transferring the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum to Greece. At the Nineteenth Session of the ICPRCP in October 2014, the UK acknowledged that UNESCO stands ready to facilitate mediation discussions and the ICPRCP adopted a recommendation that invites the parties to consider making use of the mediation process as proposed by Greece.

While we remain keen to cooperate with UNESCO in its work, the fact remains that the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum were legally acquired by Lord Elgin under the laws pertaining at the time and the Trustees of the British Museum have had clear legal title to the sculptures since 1816. Neither the British Government nor the British Museum are aware of any new arguments to the contrary since 1985, when a formal Greek request for the return of the sculptures was turned down by the British Government. We have seen nothing to suggest that Greece’s purpose in seeking mediation on this issue is anything other than to achieve the permanent transfer of the Parthenon sculptures now in the British Museum to Greece and on terms that would deny the British Museum’s right of ownership, either in law or as a practical reality. Given our equally clear position, this leads us to conclude that mediation would not carry this debate substantially forward.

In addition to the matter of clear legal title, a further relevant factor is that the Trustees of the British Museum are prevented by law from de-accessioning objects in the Museum’s collections unless they are duplicates or unfit for retention. Successive governments have indicated their support for this important legal principle, which is in common with the legal obligations of all the UK’s major public museums and protects the integrity of the British Museum’s collections.

We acknowledge that the Greek Government has aspirations relating to the transfer of the sculptures to Greece and all of us who have had the opportunity to visit the Acropolis Museum greatly admire it. The Acropolis Museum has allowed a greater proportion of the rich collection of sculptures from the Acropolis in Athens to be exhibited than ever before, and has provided a fitting home for many of the Parthenon sculptures that have been removed from the temple in recent years.

Given the global nature of the collection held by the British Museum, the many millions of visitors who visit each year have the opportunity to understand the significance of the Parthenon sculptures in the context of world history and they can do so free of charge. While we understand the strength of contrary opinion, we think that this is something of incalculable international benefit.

In that spirit, the British Museum has a long history of friendly collaboration with colleagues in the Greek Archaeological Service and has contributed to discussions around the restoration of the Acropolis monuments. It has also worked on a project to scan elements of the surviving Parthenon sculptures in both Athens and London. The UK Government is keen that the process of mutual, bilateral cooperation that exists between the UK and Greece on cultural matters should continue to develop.

Setting aside the differences relating to the Parthenon sculptures, we believe that there is scope for further co-operation and collaboratio n between the British Museum and the Acropolis Museum in the years ahead, and we hope that this path can be pursued.

We are copying this letter to Sir Richard Lambert, Chairman of the Trustees of the British Museum, who is replying separately to Mr Bandarin’s letter.

Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy

Minister for Europe