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James Beresford on the appropriateness of EU funding of the Acropolis Museum

Regular readers of this website will already be familiar with James Beresford from an earlier piece that he wrote for the Museums Association Journal about the declining visitor numbers at the New Acropolis Museum [1].

Here, he follows on from the Round Table event [2] held at the European Parliament in Brussels last month. As with his previous article, he raises some interesting points, although I don’t agree with many of the conclusions that he reaches. I met him a few weeks ago & found he had an amazing knowledge of restitution issues, spreading far wider that that of the Parthenon Marbles. At the same time, he likes to provoke – to get readers agitated & to confront people’s preconceptions (which is probably what a lot of the magazine editors want too).

Both the BCRPM & the Swiss Committee for the Reunification of the Marbles have written responses to his piece, which I have included at the end, as theses go some way to answering many of the points that he raises.

The Parliament [3]

EU funding for new Acropolis museum branded ‘inappropriate’
By James Beresford – 7th November 2013

James Beresford says European funding for Athens’ new Acropolis museum runs counter to the treaty of the EU’s requirement for such support to promote ‘solidarity among the member states’.

This article is in response to Rodi Kratsa’s article of 22 October.

The roundtable discussion held in the European parliament building on October 15 debating the return of the Parthenon/Elgin marbles, should be of great interest to European parliamentarians.

The meeting in Brussels promoted the view that the ancient sculptures be moved from the British museum to the purpose-built new Acropolis museum in Athens. Unfortunately, however, rather than a true roundtable discussion, the meeting – sponsored by the Greek culture ministry – consisted entirely of MEPs and campaigners strongly in favour of repatriation of the Marbles; dissenting voices were noticeably absent.

The attendees of the meeting also glossed over one of the more worrying aspects of the marbles issue that threatens European unity and cooperation: whether the Greek government abused its right to EU funding resources in an effort to bolster national claims for the disputed sculptures.

Since opening in 2009, the new Acropolis museum has taken centre stage in Greek demands for the return of the Parthenon sculptures. Greek politicians have long acknowledged that the museum was built to strengthen claims for the return of the marbles from Britain.

In May 2005, then Greek prime minister Kostas Karamanlis issued a press release urging: ‘Works on the monuments, and on the new Acropolis museum, must be speeded up so that our country can present credible arguments both in seeking extra [EU] funds for culture and in demanding the return of the Parthenon sculptures.’

Greece did indeed receive the funds required to finish the new Acropolis Museum. Through the European regional development fund (ERDF), Brussels ploughed €85m into the museum’s construction, almost twice that contributed by the Greek government. However, with hindsight, it now appears inappropriate that Greece was ever granted this money.

According to article three of the treaty of the European Union, the ERDF was established ‘to promote economic, social and territorial cohesion, and solidarity among member states’. Regulations directly relating to the ERDF also highlight the need to support ‘cross-border, transnational and interregional cooperation’.

This aim of nurturing ‘solidarity’ and ‘cooperation’ among EU nations is clearly at odds with the role of the new Acropolis museum – a building always intended to be used as a rod with which to beat the back of the British. Should it have been obvious to those awarding ERDF monies that the Greek construction project ran counter to one of the primary goals for which the fund was established?

The economic benefits resulting from the new Acropolis museum have also been negligible. Attendance is currently 50-75 per cent lower than the Greek government projected during construction. Visitor numbers have dropped by almost half over the last three years, while the decline in ticket sales now barely covers the running costs of the museum, threatening to turn the already expensive project into another drain on the heavily indebted Greek state.

Should the EU have withheld funding for the museum and forced Greece to pay its own way? A study by Global Financial Integrity in 2012 estimated tax evasion and bribery lost Greece about €120bn over the previous decade – the period when the new Acropolis museum was under construction.

A study commissioned by the European parliament and published in September also emphasised the ‘endemic corruption and a severe disillusionment with the political establishment’ that still exists within Greece. (A native of scandal-hit Zakynthos, ‘The Island of the Blind’, MEP Rodi Kratsa must already be well aware of this.)

Yet despite haemorrhaging its own taxation revenue, and concerns regarding political corruption, the Greek government was nevertheless offered ERDF support for the museum project. EU taxpayers might well question why their money was siphoned off into the bottomless pit of Greek public expenditure and used to fund a museum that ran more than €90m over budget, with construction driven in large part by the Greek desire to possess artworks that have been legally owned by another EU nation for 200 years.

An article by MEP Rodi Krasta that appeared in The Parliament on October 22 also addressed the marbles issue while focusing on international ethics and the historical importance of the Parthenon. The ancient temple is certainly a potent symbol of classical culture, and of values and ideals that permeate through to the present. Yet the Greek MEP failed to do full justice to the complex history of the temple.

Constructed from wealth extorted from allies of Athens, the Parthenon functioned as the treasure house of empire into which poured the riches of a Mafia state running a vast protection racket spanning Greece and its islands. While the Parthenon is indeed a symbol of the greatness of classical Greece, it is equally true that the ruined temple serves as an icon of the financial duplicity of the political elite of Athens towards their friends and partners.

James Beresford is a writer based in Athens. He is currently writing a book on the effects of the economic crisis on the Greek heritage sector


James Beresford is as usual engagingly provocative, so let us be provoked
James Beresford writes that European funding for Athens’ new Acropolis museum runs counter to the treaty of the EU’s requirement for such support to promote ‘solidarity among the member states’.

To read his article click here

James Beresford is as usual engagingly provocative, so let us be provoked. The BCRPM ask him to consider:

1. Our understanding was that the Brussels round table was convened to advance, not to discuss the pros and cons of, the case for the reunification of the Sculptures of the Parthenon.

2. The ERDF is about economic, social and territorial cohesion. This is a macro political and economic and social project aimed at reducing inequalities within the single market. Its purpose is not to resolve cultural disputes between member states.

3. In the case of Greece tourism is a major industry. The major premise of the ERDF contribution to the Acropolis Museum was to assist Greek tourism by replacing the inadequate old Acropolis Museum with one fit to present Greece’s main tourist attraction.

4. The minor premise that the new Acropolis Museum would advance the case for the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles was in fact a riposte to the now obsolete argument of the British Museum that Greece had nowhere fit to display them.

5. Arguments about the economic success of the museum have to be seen in the context of Greece’s financial crisis, including the decline in tourist revenues.

6. Financial malpractice as a contributor to the crisis was not confined to Greece. This was the germ of truth in George Osborne’s comparison between Greece and the UK.

7. And who gained most from the ERDF grants to Greece? Northern European contractors, notably from Germany but probably also from the UK. Those of us who spent many happy youthful hours travelling in the old blue buses to remote parts of Greece marvel at the fleets of luxury Mercedes coaches which have replaced them. And who are we told paid the bribes which have landed at least one former Greek minister in gaol? German defence companies. No wonder the Greeks feel sore at having self-defeating and socially and economically destructive hyper-austerity imposed upon them by German bankers.

8. It is a fact that Pericles had moved the treasury of the Delian League to Athens in 454 BC, but scholars of ancient history advise us that the economic history of that period is too complex to draw simplistic connections between this and the financing of his great programme of public works some 15 years later. Athens had other sources of revenue, not least the silver mines at Lavrion, a windfall like our North Sea oil. There were also legitimate calls upon the funds of the Delian League to defend its members from Persian aggression before peace was concluded in 449 BC. Thus the riff about Periclean Athens being a mafia state is good yellow journalism but not good history.

9. It is also an uncomfortable fact that so much of the great monumental art in world history has been made possible only by the proceeds of military conquest or commercial and imperial exploitation.

10. It is an even more uncomfortable fact that large quantities of these products of conquest and empire have found their way as loot into the museums of subsequent imperial powers, not least those looted by Lord Elgin from the Parthenon.

The Parliament [5]

Restitution of Parthenon marbles to Athens would be ‘symbolic’ of the EU’s cooperative spirit
By Patricia van Gene-Saillet – 15th November 2013

Patricia van Gene-Saillet says the eventual return of the Parthenon marbles to Athens will achieve the original objective of their sculptor Phidias, namely unity and harmony rather than divisiveness.

This article is in response to James Beresford’s article of 7 November.

On 15 October 2013, the Swiss committee for the return of the Parthenon marbles organised a roundtable discussion on “the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles: a European concern” in collaboration with Rodi Kratsa MEP.

We indeed believe that the restitution of the Parthenon marbles to Athens by the British Museum could be a win-win solution, symbolic of the cooperative spirit which, after all, is what all museums aspire to, as do the EU’s member states.

In his article of 7 November, James Beresford undermines the value of our discussion by pointing out that all the speakers present were in favour of repatriation of the marbles to Greece.

What he fails to mention is that a broad spectrum of nationalities were represented – Swiss, Belgian, Swedish, German, Spanish, Greek and three Brits – an eloquent example of solidarity amongst an ever-growing number of Europeans in favour of return.

Moreover, the aim of our roundtable was not to preach to the converted, but to inform European parliamentarians of the issue and raise awareness among the European public about the necessity of preserving the integrity and unity of one of the major symbols of our common European culture.

The subsequent articles published in the British, Swiss and German press bear witness to the fact that, when informed, the public has difficulty countering arguments for return.

Beresford quotes article three of the treaty of the European Union, according to which the ERDF, the EU fund which provided a significant financial contribution to the construction of the new Acropolis Museum, was established to “promote economic, social and territorial cohesion and solidarity among Member States”.

It is undeniable that now that the Greeks have a magnificent, state-of-the-art museum at the foot of the Acropolis, waiting to reunite the treasures that adorned the Parthenon temple in their original geographical and cultural context, the British museum can no longer justify the argument that they are better equipped to protect and exhibit the marbles.

But the desire to remove the marbles from the British museum does not constitute an abuse of EU funding or an act of jingoism on the part of the Greeks. On the contrary, the new Acropolis museum is a gem of universal appeal to be appreciated by all nationalities alike, a hymn to the creative and democratic values which inspired the Ancient Greeks and which unite Europeans and indeed all of mankind today.

Moreover, since the aim of the ERDF is to promote regional development, it is only natural that it should be used to fund the new Acropolis museum which is enhancing the role of quality, cultural tourism in Greece.

It is curious that someone as critical as James Beresford about Greek society should wish to live and work in Greece. Indeed his negative, sweeping and inaccurate generalisations regarding endemic corruption, bribery and tax evasion, both in modern and ancient Greece, are exactly the sort of tabloid journalism which undermines solidarity amongst Europeans.

The British committee for the reunification of the Parthenon marbles, which can draw on the knowledge of membership which includes many distinguished scholars, has pointed out that Beresford’s “riff about Periclean Athens being a mafia state is good yellow journalism but not good history”.

We indeed believe that the restitution of the marbles to Athens by the British museum could be a win-win solution, symbolic of the cooperative spirit which, after all, is what all museums aspire to, as do EU member states.

Their aim is to promote cultural exchange for universal enjoyment and Greek museums could respond to the return of the marbles by offering a wide range of long-term exchanges or even donations of certain collections.

When the marbles are finally reunified in Athens, they will achieve the original objective of their sculptor Phidias, namely unity and harmony rather than divisiveness and being the ugly object of the nationalistic outpourings of certain journalists.

Patricia van Gene-Saillet is secretary of the Swiss committee for the return of the Parthenon marbles