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Why the “No Marbles – No flame” flame campaign for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures won’t succeed

The Olympics in Athens in 2004 was seen as a key milestone for the return of the Parthenon Marbles. At that point in time, it was intended that the New Acropolis Museum would be finished by the time the Olympics arrived in the city. I myself was one of the original members of the Parthenon 2004 (now re-branded as Marbles Reunited [1]) campaign, which wanted a commitment from the British government by the time of the Olympics that the sculptures would be returned.

Alas, it was not to be. Greek politics got in the way of the issue, with the PASOK government being replaced by Nea Dimokratia, only a few months before the Olympics. This has the knock on effects of cancelling pre-planned spending for publicity for the campaign for the return of the marbles, before it was able to make the desired impact. A further problem at this stage was that the ND government, while in opposition had been vehement opponents of the building of the New Acropolis Museum [2] in the first place, which ran on into arguments well after change of government, as they were forced to reverse their policy, in an attempt to re-claim the building project as their own.

As the 2012 Olympics approaches in London & the election season has well & truly hit Greece, we get a sense of history repeating, as similar moves are afoot to connect the event to the return of the Parthenon Sculptures from the British Museum. There is a logical connection to be made here – the case regarding the marbles is one between Greece & the UK – and in a similar way, the Olympics represent a strong tie in of ideas that originate from Greek culture, coming to the UK. As such, it represents an ideal time to highlight the issue – magazines want to run Greek related features & the intertwined history of the two countries is at the forefront of people’s minds for a few weeks.

However, there are other campaigns that want to take a more destructive approach to it – blocking the Olympic flame from being handed over to Britain, unless the Parthenon Marbles are returned.

I can see a number of flaws to this approach – not least the fact, that current events mean that the planned handover later this week are riding on the back of events [3], that with hindsight are unlikely to be seen as one of the high-points in Greece’s history. I don’t claim to fully understand Greek politics (although I try my hardest), but I have had a lot of insights into how British politics and the British press work.

As with the events disrupting the Olympic torch relay before the Beijing Olympics, mixing politics with a sporting event which is meant to unite countries is unlikely to be a good combination. People are meant to be looking at how the countries set aside their differences for the sake of the competition, rather than antagonising each other.

Within the UK, some of the newspapers are already in support of the Parthenon Marbles return campaigns, but others are strongly against it. Such antagonistic actions as disrupting the lead up to the Olympics, will not be portrayed well by these papers (that point I am willing to stake money on) and these papers are read by many who believe everything they read in those papers. As such, the open minded people who support the return of the Marbles might hold their existing point of views, but many of those against restitution will use this as another point to shore up their arguments, that keeping them in the British Museum is the best option. A move to return the Marbles is only ever in the end likely to come from the British Government (although they might claim otherwise), and one thing about governments is that they like to be re-elected. If their constituents are all seen to be against the return of the sculptures, then British MPs are unlikely to see it as a key issue to support.

As such, the British Government is more likely to support maintaining the status quo regarding their policy on the marbles, when subjected to such demands. Campaigns for the return of the marbles are far more likely to succeed, when they manage to put the issue in such a way that the government can see the eventual return as their decision, not one they have been forced into taking. Governments and politicians like to gain public attention in a positive light – the magnanimous gesture of taking the decision to return the sculptures, in front of the international press could be seen as a vote winner, while being portrayed as supine whipping boys to the demands of foreign nationalistic campaigns (for this is how the press would portray it) would not be thought of as a vote winning exercise by many.

For these reasons, I can’t see the No Marbles – No Flame aspect of certain current campaigns as being likely to succeed in its aims of returning the marbles, although like other current events in Greece, it may well a way to grab a few minutes of fame for a few people [4].

In some ways, this has been a long running theme of campaigns from within Greece for the return of the Marbles. Greek politicians see the event as a vote winner domestically (which it nearly always is), yet they are afraid to actually deal with it internationally – because such actions inevitably would lead to some form of compromise or negotiated deal – which could well be reported in a bad light by the Greek press as their having given up more of the country’s heritage in return for what was rightfully theirs in the first place. Greek politicians all know this and are generally great at playing the Greek press – but few seem to think in as much detail about how to work with the British Press – despite the fact that the UK’s media are in many ways the ones that could decide the eventual fate of the sculptures.

As it happens, the timing of current events surrounding Greece’s general election & the Eurozone crisis are likely to completely overshadow any attempts to bloc the handover of the flame, limiting the amount of reporting it will get in the press – particularly as it is now predicted by many, that it will happen on the same day as a new general election is going to be called.

On the other hand, I could be completely wrong & David Cameron may be already writing his speech for Thursday evening’s surprise decision to return the Parthenon Sculptures – I’ve been wrong about many things in the past – but I have a feeling that I probably won’t be this time.

Campaigning for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures is an admirable cause, which I am fully behind, but it should be done in a way that aims to move the issue forwards rather than pushing back much of the progress that has already been made. A lot like Greek elections really…

From:
Athens News [5]

Parthenon Marbles campaigners fired up by flame handover
by George White
9 May 2012

Campaigners seeking the return of the Parthenon Marbles – also known as the Elgin Marbles – to Greece are hoping that attention on the London Olympics and the torch relay will further their effort.

Alexis Mantheakis, chairman of the International Parthenon Sculptures Action Committee spoke to the Athens News ahead of Thursday’s ceremony at Ancient Olympia to light the flame for the July 27–August 12 London Olympics.

“We have no objection to the Olympic Flame as such because it’s a tradition,” Mantheakis said.

“But as for the hand over, I think it’s up to the members and people on their own to decide what they should do in this case, because it is a definite paradox in handing over the flame at this time to Britain. It’s a matter of each person’s conscience and his sense of history as to whether this flame should be given.”

He did not say whether he knew of any protests being planned at Olympia or the handover in Athens.

The marble sculptures were removed from the Acropolis by Lord Elgin, Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire more than 200 years ago. The campaign for their return received a major boost in 2009 with the inauguration of the new Acropolis Museum.

The British Museum in London has refused to consider handing back the collection, even in the form of a longterm loan. (Video and text: George White)