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Everything you wanted to know about the Parthenon Sculptures.. and are not afraid to ask

This was the theme of an informative seminar held on 1 May at the University of NSW on the perennial subject of the Parthenon Marbles and why they should be returned to Greece.

Under the auspices of the Greek Festival of Sydney, David Hill and George Vardas of the newly revamped Australian Parthenon Association (formerly known as Australians for the Return of the Parthenon Sculptures), gave separate but inter-linked presentations on the history and significance of the Parthenon and its sculptures and recent developments in the ongoing campaign for their repatriation.

So what is it about the Parthenon and its sculptures that is so alluring?

(From L-R) George Vardas, Christine Gazepis Stavropoulos and David Hill

As David Hill explained, the Parthenon is unique as a building and the purest expression of the Golden Age of Classical Greece in the fifth century BC. The monument of all monuments. And the sculptures that once adorned the Parthenon constitute the “most important surviving ancient artefacts in the world”.

Hill, the Chair of the Australian committee, praised the naturalised idealism of movement and grace personified by these sculptural forms. Or as the Romantic poet Shelley once wrote, their “marbl’d immortality”.

The image of the temple built by Pericles at the height of greatness of Classical Greece is in fact the logo of UNESCO which itself has recognised the Parthenon as an emblematic building of outstanding universal value inscribed on the World Heritage List. Its fine architectural forms and lines have inspired architects in the Classical Greek revival style. The rich sculptural adornments of the Parthenon, overseen by the master sculptor Phidias, have also inspired writers and poets over generations.

And then along came Lord Elgin in 1801.

Abusing his diplomatic and political status as the British Ambassador to the Sublime Porte in Constantinople, Elgin and his men bribed and cajoled local Ottoman officials and proceeded to wreak havoc on the structure of the Parthenon as they hacked off substantial parts of the pedimental sculptures, metopes and a large section of the incomparable Panathenaic frieze.

Elgin later produced an English translation of a Turkish translation of a (never found) Ottoman document puroprting to have given him permission to remove the sculptures. The legaility of Elgin’s actions has always been challenged.

Elgin, out of financial desperation and the failure of his marriage (and consequential loss of an inheritance), was forced to ‘sell’ the collection of looted ‘Elgin Marbles’ to the British Government which transferred them by legislative fiat to the British Museum in 1816. They have remained imprisoned in Bloomsbury for over 200 years. As David posited, if you set out to decontextualize the sculptures of the Parthenon, you could not do better than the soulless and drab Duveen Gallery.

Poseidon torn between London (left) and Athens (right)

The insult to the sculptural integrity of the Parthenon and its sculptures is highlighted by the divided torso of the god Poseidon between the British Museum and the Acropolis Museum. There are also numerous other examples of sculptural pieces torn between museums.

David Hill is buoyed by recent developments and told the engaged and knowledgeable audience that he remains optimistic that the Parthenon Sculptures will be returned sooner rather than later, particularly as the current Greek Government has now taken up the issue more forthrightly than its predecessors.

Recalling Melina Mercouri’s immortal words, Hill reminded the audience that the sculptures are the “essence of our Greekness” and we eagerly await the day of reckoning for their reunification in the Acropolis Museum in their natural context and in line of sight with the Parthenon which they once adorned.

The Committee’s co-vice president, George Vardas, reviewed recent developments in the international campaign and pointed out that the recent impetus in calls for the reunification of the sculptures looted by Lord Elgin at the turn of the nineteenth century can be traced back to the visit to Athens by a formidable legal team assembled by David Hill at the request of the then Greek Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras. The team of Geoffrey Robertson QC, Professor Norman Palmer and Amal Clooney went to Athens in 2014 and met with senior Greek Government ministers and advisors.

The legal team eventually put together a lengthy legal advice for the Greek Government, parts of which are summarised in Robertson’s book “Who Owns History?” and includes, notably, an interesting discussion of how Greece, through the United Nations or UNESCO, can seek to have a legal question on the return of significant looted cultural property -the “keys to a nation’s ancient history” – referred to the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion.

It is reassuring that both the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and the Culture Minister, Dr Lina Mendoni, have in recent months expressly stated that Greece reserves all its rights, both diplomatic, cultural and legal, in pursuing the claim for return.

In late September 2021 the 22nd Session of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee on the return of cultural property convened in Paris (both in person and by audio-visual link) and after hearing a detailed submission from the Greek side and a predictable but well-worn response from the British Culture Ministry representative, the UNESCO committee unanimously decided that the issue of the return of the Parthenon Sculptures remains properly an inter-governmental dispute (and not simply an issue between museums, as the UK maintains) and urged the British Government to enter into a genuine, bona fide dialogue with the Greeks in respect of what UNESCO termed was the “legitimate and rightful demand of “Greece”.

The 23rd session of the UNESCO Intergovernment Committee will take place in Paris later this month and it will indeed be interesting to see how the British respond this time round.

Fresh on the success at UNESCO. the Greek Prime Minister went to No. 10 Downing Street and met with his UK counterpart and raised the issue of return directly with Boris Johnson with a view to working out a roadmap to find an acceptable solution. Johnson, for his part, resorted to the tired old argument that the British Museum Trustees are solely responsible for the curation of the sculptures and governments cannot intervene. In turn the Trustees of the British Museum traditionally duck for cover by asserting that they are bound by the British Museum Act 1963 which effectively prevents them from de-accessioning any item in their collection. As Clooney writes in the legal advice, this is but another example of eternal buck-passing.

According to Vardas, it’s a case of “Cultural Catch-22”.

But not all of the conservative establishment in London is buying this any more. On 11 January 2022 The Times of London finally declared in an editorial that for more than 50 years the British government, supported by that newspaper, had resisted calls for the return of these artefacts that are so fundamental to Greece’s cultural identity, but that it could no longer do so. For times and circumstances change, according to The Times and the sculptures belong in Athens and they should now return.

The Palermo fragment returns

The return of the so-called Palermo fragment from Sicily in early 2022 is also a positive step in the campaign. The fragment from the Panathenaic frieze was acquired in around 1816 by Robert Fagan, a contemporary of Elgin’s, and at the time the British Consul in Sicily, and eventually wound up in the Antonino Salinas Archaeological Museum of Palermo. In an example of enlightened cultural diplomacy and museological practice, the Greek and Sicilian authorities have agreed for the fragment to be returned and deposited in the Acropolis Museum, effectively in perpetuity, with the Greeks initially to send to Palermo two rare Classical Greek artefacts by way of short-term loans.

There are instances of other fragments from the Parthenon in museums across Europe, including the Louvre, the Vatican, Vienna and Copenhagen, and George Vardas urged that the Greek gaze should also shift to those pieces as Greece uses its considerable cultural diplomatic cache to apply more pressure on the recalcitrant British Museum.

During an informative Q&A session at the end of the presentations, discussion turned to the growing movement in repatriation of looted cultural artefacts in colonial times and examples were given of the Benin Bronzes, the Maqdala treasures from Ethiopia and even, closer to home, the case of the Gweagal shield taken by Captain Cook’s landing party after its first encounters with indigenous warriors in Botany Bay and today locked away in a glass cabinet in the rather disingenuously named ‘Enlightenment Room’ of the British Museum.

There is indeed a growing awareness and rising tide of sentiment that significant cultural artefacts taken under dubious circumstances should now be returned to their countries of origin.

It’s time for the Parthenon Sculptures to finally go home.

George Vardas

Co-Vice President, Australian Parthenon Association


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