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A report from the Roundtable on the Parthenon Marbles held in Brussels.

In addition to the articles I posted earlier [1], Marbles Reunited has written a report [2] on the event held in Brussels earlier this week, and Tom Flynn has also posted a transcript of his talk [3].

The report that follows is based on my notes taken during the event. I have not tried to capture everything, just the key points. I am hoping that my comments do not misrepresent what the speakers were saying – some it was from the live translation there, and some of it was from the responses to questions afterwards, rather than from the original speeches.

After introductions by Krister Kumlin [4] & a brief video, Tom Flynn [5] was the first speaker, and pointed out, that when considering the acquisition of obviously looted artefacts “Most museums now know better”. The thing is of course, how to get museums to act retrospectively – to apply the rules that they would use now to actions that they made well before their current rules and guidelines came into force.

He also added, that “Nowadays, the social network acts as a critical filter to the acquisition of disputed artefacts”. This is a good point, as museums nowadays have a far greater interaction with the public than perhaps ever before. People’s opinions mean more to them than they ever used to, and as a result, it is important to let museums know if what you think they are doing is morally unacceptable.

German MEP Jo Leinen [6] had a simple message – drawing on the words of another German politician, he quoted Willie Brandt “we have to unite what belongs together”.

The Spanish MEP, Miguel Angel Martínez Martínez [7] took a slightly different viewpoint from some of the other speakers, looking at this action by Britain, in the context of other actions that occur within Europe. He felt that it was particularly important that the countries of northern Europe, in some way recognise that although they might be economically the powerhouses of Europe today, they still owe so much culturally to the Mediterranean countries in the South of Europe. He stressed a message that Campaigns such as Marbles Reunited have also long emphasised, that “It is not about sending the Parthenon Marbles back to Athens, but about reuniting them”.

Bernard Tschumi [8], the architect of the New Acropolis Museum [9] was not able to attend the event in person, but provided a pre-recorded video. He pointed out the importance of the Parthenon Frieze itself, noting that “The Parthenon frieze is not just a sculpture, but an astonishing piece of narrative”. He explained that the design of the new museum had “reconstituted the continuity of the frieze”. Another important point that he made, was that “No photograph can ever reconstitute the emotions of standing in the Parthenon Gallery at the Acropolis Museum” I have often thought the same thing myself, although this is not the only location that this applies to – the Acropolis itself is an even better example. For this reason, I feel that any who feel ambivalent to the case really ought to try to visit Athens & experience both these locations for themselves and understanding the magic of the spaces, before perhaps re-evaluating their feelings on the issue.

Louis Godart [10] explained how the restitution of Italian artefacts from US Museums had been secured, explaining that “In Italy, we approached museums in the US & said that if they did not return artefacts, we would not lend anything to them, but that if they cooperated, then we would make long term loans of other artefacts in return”. Exchanges of artefacts were one of the proposals put forward by Evangelos Venizelos when he was Greek Culture Minister in 2003, although Greece has always been reluctant to issue any sort of threats to withdraw cooperation – the carrot was presented, but with no stick as an alternative, the donkey wasn’t that interested in it…

Maurice Davies [11], from the Museums Association in the UK explained that every few years he is asked to speak about the Parthenon Sculptures, and that each time he does this, he looks to see what has changed in the intervening period. He started off lamenting that things had not happened at the pace he might have hoped for describing how “Some years ago, I wrote that I would like within the next 10 years, to see some of the marbles from the British Museum displayed in Athens, at least temporarily. Unfortunately, this has not yet happened”. He quickly became more upbeat though, as he considered other areas in which progress had been made, pointing out that “Things are improving – ten years ago, there was no proper communication between the Acropolis Museum & the British Museum”. He called for further “quiet collaboration between museums – based on their common interests, not their differences”. He went on to explain how these things happen slowly “I believe that through this collaboration, the first small step on the journey has now been taken”.

On the ways to approach the issue, he was reluctant to see politicians taking too big a role in the proceedings, as he knows their propensity for creating deadlines based on elections dates, without considering that sometimes tasks take much longer. He pointed out that “Progress is most often achieved if politicians set the context, but then remain in the background”.

Journalist Henry Porter [12] described how his interest in the case of the Marbles had been inspired by Christopher Hitchens [13] Book: The Parthenon Marbles: The Case for Reunification [14], where he pointed out that “Hitchens was at his most forensic, analytical & brilliantly polemical”. He went on to describe his own feelings, that “Visiting the Duveen Gallery is like coming across a beautiful renaissance drawing that you know is stolen in a friend’s apartment – you are struck by its beauty, yet you feel that it is wrong to appreciate it in that context”.

Moving on from this, he looked at the notices from the British Museum in the Duveen Gallery. He was highly critical of the arrogance of some of the statements made by the museum, but in the end, took the positive approach that “The British Museum is reminding us that there are no strong arguments for the retention of the Marbles. If there were any, they would have written them on their notices”.

Professor Dusan Sidjanski [15] from the Swiss Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles was keen to emphasise a point that he has made to me many times before, that “We should avoid confrontation – this monument [the Parthenon] should not be the subject of litigation or a trial”. He also lamented the gloomy atmosphere of the British Museum, describing how “I’m saddened whenever I enter the Duveen Gallery at the British Museum – the time has come for the sculptures to see the light of day once more”.

The key messages from MEP Rodi Kratsa [16], who had facilitated the use of the European Parliament as a venue for the event, were about raising awareness. She talked about it both in the context both of the general public “The first thing that we need to do is raise awareness among members of the public & political decision makers” and then with respect to MEPs, noting that “We should prepare people [in the European Parliament] of action now, ready for the time in the future when the tools to take action become available”.

In the discussions afterwards, a number of further themes developed. In response to discussions of how perhaps European laws might be implemented that could affect the British Museum, Tom Flynn pointed out that “The British Museum would be against any suggestion of intervention from the European Parliament”. He also noted though that “The British Museum Act of 1963 is currently the great immovable object in the way of negotiations”. Finding solutions that can at least start with potential to circumvent this act is key, as it means that the discussions at least have a chance of starting, without being blocked at the first hurdle.

Miguel Angel Martínez Martínez took the view that legal action might well be the key to break the current deadlock on the Marbles, commenting that “I do not believe that they will return without a legal decision”. He also hinted though that the place to search for such a decision was not within the UK, as he pointed out that “A legally binding decision that compels the British Museum to return the Marbles will never come from a British court”. Perhaps most importantly (as an encouragement to those who want to get involved in the issue), he pointed out that “We will not succeed without a strong social mobilisation in Britain & in Greece to support the return of the sculptures”. This is exactly the sort of thing that organisations such as Marbles Reunited try to promote – and if more people join up with such groups, then social mobilisation like he describes becomes easier & more effective.

When asked how Greece could move things forward, Henry Porter suggested that “If I were the Greek government, I’d make friends with the current opposition party in the UK”, suggesting that not only is the Labour Party likely to be more receptive to the return of the sculptures, but that by negotiating with them while they are not in power, it would perhaps be easier to negotiate with them now, while the stakes seem lower, with the hope that agreements can be made on a route forward that is then pursued later once the political situation in the UK changes.

Echoing Tom Flynn’s comments regarding interference from political processes, Maurice Davies pointed out that “Ever since its founding, the British Museum has always been very sensitive to any hints of political interference”. He described how “In the UK, it is almost impossible for a politician to tell a museum what to do”. He then suggested something that pragmatically may well be a step forward, but at the same time might be unacceptable to many restitutionists, that “pragmatically, perhaps it would be easier to start by uniting some pieces together in Athens & others together in London”. In response to suggestions that a legal approach might be the answer, he countered that “No dispute over cultural property involving museums has ever been [directly] resolved by talking about the legal concepts of ownership”, and suggested that perhaps a better route would be to “Take things one step at a time, with no preconditions over the course that events might take”.

A final closing point that interested me came from the audience. Kelly Agathos, who I had met a few years previously when she was working for EasyCruise in Athens highlighted something that I’m sure many others following the case would agree with, when she pointed out that “In the past, the Greek government had opportunities, but did not grasp them”. There are a number of cases where this has (in my opinion) been the case, although there are of course other factors, such as other issues within Greek politics at the same time, and financial constraints, but it is a shame that the momentum of some events such as the 2004 Olympics & the opening of the New Acropolis Museum have perhaps not been capitalised on as fully as might have been possible.

Overall, it was a good event that was well attended & did a good job of raising awareness of the issue at a European level. From reading the discussions above, it will be clear that although everyone there shared a common aim, there were many different opinions on how to get to that goal. That is not to say any of the routes advocated are right or wrong, or even that any of them should be seen as mutually exclusive to the others. It is a complex cases & there are many different angles from which it might be approached, so it is important to explore & understand all of them, before mobilising in a particular direction.