Monday, 11 February 2019

History, Heritage and Memory: How did the Parthenon Sculptures become the spoils of empire?

History, Heritage and Memory: 

how did the Parthenon Sculptures become the spoils of empire?

"The past exercises a profound fascination over us and the continuing museum phenomenon and the charisma of objects are a testament to this.  Cultural treasures are a part of our dreaming and memory and spiritual landscape.”[1]

The Parthenon Marbles, comprising the sculptured pediments, metopes and frieze removed by Lord Elgin and his men from the Parthenon in Athens in the early part of the nineteenth century and placed in the British Museum in 1816, symbolise the “entire body of unrepatriated cultural property in the world’s museum” and constitute an “essential part of our common past”.[2]   In the two hundred years since their removal, the Parthenon Marbles have become a paradigm for forcibly-removed cultural treasures and invariably the debate about their return raises issues such as ‘who owns the past’, how historians have recorded the removal of cultural property in the past and what are the implications of the different ways of representing the past.

When the classicist, Mary Beard, inquires, “Can a simple monument act as a symbol of nationhood and of world culture?”[3] she underlines the contradictions surrounding the contemporary life of the Marbles and prompts reflection of the wider historical issues of cultural politics, collecting ethics and the responsibility for curating of a past common to all those who regard themselves as westerners.  The material remains of the past take on particular importance within nationalist discourses, serving to legitimise and authenticate particular national traditions. Archaeological monuments are conserved, managed and presented in their original settings.  Portable antiquities, however, are often acquired, housed and represented in institutions such as museums which developed between the mid-eighteenth and late nineteenth centuries for the purposes of celebrating and dramatising the unity of the nation through representations of national culture. The acquisition of material culture by the state for the nation and their display in museums is articulated through the notion of national patrimony or heritage.

In The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, David Lowenthal distinguishes between history and heritage.  Unlike history, heritage is not an inquiry into the past but a celebration of it, not an effort to know what actually happened but a profession of faith in a past tailored to present-day purposes”.[4]  According to Lowenthal, that heritage mandates misreadings of the past in order to reshape the past so as to preserve it.  The word “history” means both the past and accounts about the past which are two different concepts: the past that was and the past as chronicled.  In turn, who interprets and presents the past? Historiography involves re-interpreting, re-membering, re-arranging and transforming perceptions about the past.  Our relationship to the past is inevitably a constructed one involving the historian as narrator for history is not just about the pursuit of the irretrievably lost past but is also about its reconstruction or representation in varying forms and for varying purposes in the present. [5] 

The post-modernist approach to historiography contends that the past has occurred: it has gone and can only be brought back again or re-presented by historians in very different media and not as actual events.[6]  In this respect, Lowenthal is in agreement with Jenkins.  No history can achieve a wholly faithful and final account of the past.  No historical account can recover the totality of any past events because their content is virtually infinite.[7]  This approach is in contrast to the empiricist paradigm of so-called objective history writing and the nineteenth century concept of the metanarrative – the idea that there is one great story or that the past is reported ‘as it actually was’ and the historian is able to find the historical truth.

When the Parthenon Marbles arrived in the British Museum in 1816, it was at a time when great empires needed great museums.  Their reception was an example of the “essential resocialisation of objects in the modern period – the creation of the ‘history of things’”.[8]   Donald Horne in The Great Museum notes the trend that developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to establish a museum of antiquities.  In addition to art museums the “new European desire to order the universe” saw the evolution of other museums, including ethnology and historical museums “stocked with either the loot of empire or the relics of Europe’s suddenly vanquished peasant cultures”.[9]  To him, structures such as the British Museum which transform objects into monuments, merely affirm the “legitimitacy of imperial domination”.[10]  Julian Spalding in The Poetic Museum contends that museums are not just packed with things from the past; they are “riddled with past thoughts”.[11]  In the case of the British Museum, its task is to illuminate world cultures through artefacts which are “a depleted product of the Enlightenment”.[12]  Andre Malraux in Voices of Silence described the way in which objects of the past were stripped of their worlds and resettled chronologically in the land of art.  In a sense, museum objects became “worldless” to the extent that while the museum is about the past, it cannot be the objects, still obviously present, that are gone, but their worlds.  According to Malraux, the “modern gallery not only isolates the work of art from its context but makes it foregather with rival or even hostile works.”[13] 

The acquisition of the Parthenon marbles was “arguably the single most important event in the history of the British Museum”.[14]   In The representation of the past museums and heritage in the postmodern world Kevin Walsh describes the British Museum in its formative years as being little more accessible than the Renaissance cabinets of curiosity that preceded it.  It was the acquisition of the Elgin marbles in 1814 to 1815 that gave the museum its international reputation in the field of classical antiquities.  Its perceived aims were the ordering and understanding of the world which was obviously closely tied to Britain's perceived role as “imperial master of the universe”.[15]   In the British Museum the viewer’s perception of the Parthenon Marbles has been constructed through the museum’s possession of the sculptures and its role (through the naming or identification of the sculptures as the Elgin Collection of Parthenon Sculptures) in defining the context within which the sculptures are placed.  According to Walsh:
“The homogeneous form of the museum display represents the past as an
  undifferentiated path of progress towards the modern, where our discovery
  and acquisition of past material culture legitimates the modern Western
  position as the inheritor of civilisation.”[16] 

The British Museum has been instrumental in constructing grand narratives of nation and empire.  The first definitive account of the acquisition of the sculptures by the Elgin was “Lord Elgin and His Collection” by A H Smith on the one hundredth anniversary of their reception in the British Museum.  The work is in the tradition of empirical narrative writing and derives from what Herbert Butterfield has termed the Whig interpretation of history - the theory that we study the past for the sake of the present and in so doing we can “simplify the study of history by providing an excuse for leaving things out.”[17]  The history of the marbles in England unfolded from the study of great men and great collectors [18].  Imperial expansion saw the introduction of artefacts from another culture – trophies which simultaneously express “victory, ownership, control and dominion.” [19]  Smith reviewed the available records, including the testimony of Elgin before the House of Commons Select Committee which was convened to consider the purchase of the sculptures from Elgin.  After reviewing the ‘facts’ Smith concluded that Elgin had acted honourably and with a “a single-minded enthusiasm for the promotion of knowledge and art”.[20]

            This “Whig” view of historiography permeates the early literature on the Parthenon Marbles.  It was said that the modern day Greeks were “incapable of admiring the genius of their predecessors” and that the British were now more deserving of inheriting those works as they were more appreciative of the value of the sculptures and what they represented.[21]  In a guidebook published by the British Museum in 1886 it was simply stated that the sculptures were removed by Elgin who obtained a firman for that object.[22]  By 1900 with the publication by Smith of The Sculptures of the Parthenon, it was claimed that Elgin, alarmed at the “rapid destruction of the Athenian monuments”, obtained from the Porte “extended powers under which he was permitted to remove the original sculptures.”[23]  This was perpetuated with the publication in 1921 of A Short Guide to the Sculptures of the Parthenon in the British Museum in which it is claimed that the sculptures of Athens "were rapidly perishing from neglect and mutilation" and that much was lost by the time Lord Elgin had arrived in Athens before completing the rescue of a valuable collection of sculptures".[24]  In a later publication, An Historical Guide to the Sculptures of the Parthenon, the Museum contends that the remaining sculptures of the Parthenon were "continually exposed to the vandalism of stone robbers, line burners, curio hunters and religious iconoclasts" and that but for Elgin's intervention it is probable that many of the remaining sculptures would have been damaged beyond recognition. [25]
These works are conspicuously silent as to the manner in which Elgin and his men proceeded to remove the various sculptures from the structure.  In Haynes, The Parthenon Frieze [26] the author asserts that Lord Elgin in 1799 obtained the Sultan's permission to take away "whatever sculpture he wished".   In a subsequent publication by Robertson and Frantz, The Parthenon Frieze [27] the authors write that both the fabric and sculpture of the Parthenon had begun to deteriorate rapidly through the ravages of nature and man and that this had caused Lord Elgin, who had come in 1799 intending only to draw and take casts of the sculpture, to change his plans and he thereafter contrived to purchase a large part of the carvings and remove them to London.  Progressively, Elgin is portrayed as the saviour of the marbles.   The circumstances in which Elgin used his ambassadorial influence to obtain a firman or edict from the Ottoman authorities to remove the sculptures, let alone the doubts that remain as to whether that authority actually conferred power on Elgin’s men to saw off and take away large amounts of statuary from the Parthenon, are also largely ignored in the official histories of the British Museum.[28]  Indeed, as far as Ian Jenkins, a former assistant keeper in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities in the British Museum, is concerned, Elgin’s men set about gathering together the battered remains of the freeze, pediment and metope sculptures for transport to England". [29]

Keith Thomson in his polemic, Treasures on Earth, comments that museums, at best, are magical places, repositories for the wonders of the world, dynamic participants in our interpretations of the past, and places for launching dreams of the future.  At their worst, museums are perceived as places where the past is stored but rarely consulted.  In the case of the Elgin Marbles all the British Museum could do is essentially to establish a series of “reconstructions of reality”.[30]  Chris Healy in From the Ruins of Colonialism: History as Social Memory refers to the historical embeddedness of the museum as a cultural institution, as a collection machine and as an exhibitionary apparatus.  The British Museum is an institution in which the “stratified layers of its own past persist in the present”[31]

            This interpretation of who owns the past and where the past lies in the British Museum is not confined to historical discourses in the past.  In the face of calls for the restitution of the sculptures the British Museum has resorted to novel interpretations of the past and the role of the museum in history.  The British Museum is an “instrument of memory … allied to the functioning of collective memory … a place of memory”[32] following in the tradition of  “theatres of memory”.[33]  It was established as a “museum of universal knowledge in the spirit of the European Enlightenment”.[34]  According to Jenkins, the story of the Parthenon sculptures is inextricably bound up with the museum to which they belong.”  The (former) Elgin room of the British Museum is still the inner sanctum of Bloomsbury and remains one of the “one of the central places on earth”.[35]   The Whig interpretation of British imperial and colonial history is nowhere more apparent than in the claim that the Parthenon Marbles, as a great icon of western art because of the fact of their removal, have been transformed because of that repositioning and now constitute the "pictorial representation of England as a free society and the liberator of other peoples".[36]  Whilst museums can be interpreters of the past, as Spalding reminds us, “they can enhance and explain the past but they are not its only resting place.”[37]
             The Acropolis, the monument of the national Greek past, is an example of how the past is perceived as complete.  It is not simply a historical monument but is conceptualised as history itself.  Even as a ruin, the Parthenon and the magnificent sculptures that once adorned it represent the “longevity of human creation” and stand as a testament to humanity’s “defiance against the sands of … the hourglass.”[38]  Of ruins such as the Parthenon it has been said: “When we contemplate ruins, we contemplate our future.”[39]  Similarly, the Elgin Collection of Parthenon Sculptures not only attest to the ravages of time but embody traces “of a great past to be recalled.”[40] 

            Our admiration and appreciation of the Parthenon Marbles as a beacon from the past recall what Lowenthal has written in the context of the misappropriation of history as heritage:
“The past is everywhere.  All around us lie features which, like ourselves
  and out thoughts, have more or less recognisable antecedents.  Relics,
  histories, memories suffuse human experience … Whether it is celebrated
  or rejected, attended to or ignored, the past is omnipresent.”[41]

[1] Greenfield, J. The Return of Cultural Treasures (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, 2nd ed) page 312
[2] Merryman, J H “Thinking about the Elgin Marbles” (1985) 83 Michigan Law Review, page 1985
[3] Beard, M. The Parthenon (Profile Books, London, 2002)
[4]Lowenthal, D. The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998) page x.  Lowenthal proceeds to define “heritage” as a reflection of “nostalgia for imperial self-esteem” (at page 6) – a definition that assumes significance in the context of our consideration of the British Museum.
[5] Jenkins, K.  Re-thinking History (Routledge, London and New York, 1991) page 15. Jenkins argues that there is a difference between the ‘past’ (“all that has gone on before everywhere”) and ‘history’ (“that which has been written/recorded about the past”).  We cannot know the past when we cannot presently experience or access it. 
[6] Ibid. page 8.
[7] Lowenthal, D.  The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1985) pages 214-215
[8] Fisher, P. “The Future’s Past”, New Literary History  page 588
[9] Horne, D. The Great Museum: The Re-Presentation of History (Pluto Press, London and Sydney, 1984) page 15.  It is perhaps no co-incidence that the cover of the paperback edition of this work features a photograph of the Elgin Marbles in the Duveen Gallery of the British Museum.
[10] Ibid. page 31
[11] Spalding, J. The Poetic Museum: Reviving Historic Collections (Prestel, Munich, 2002) page 13
[12] Ibid. page 7
[13] Malraux, A. Voices of Silence Paladin, St Albans, 1974) page s 13-14
[14] Jenkins, K. Archaeologists and Aesthetes in the Sculpture Galleries of the British Museum 1800-1939
[15] Walsh, The Representation of the Past: Museums and heritage in the post-modern world (Routledge, London and New York, 1992) page 30
[16] Ibid. page 36.  Walsh comments that this is nowhere more evident than in the acquisition or looting (depending on the position of the responder) of classical material culture and its subsequent display in museums.
[17] Butterfield quoted by Bentley, M. Modern Historiography: An Introduction (Routledge, London and New York, 1999) page 64
[18] Elgin is lauded as a “great collector” by William Treue in Art Plunder: The fate of works of art in war, revolution and peace (Methuen & Co., London, 1960) page 133.
[19] Jordanaova, L. “Objects of Knowledge: A Historical Perspective on Museums” in Vergo, P. (ed.) The New Museology (Reaktion Books, London, 1989) page 32
[20] Smith, A H. “Lord Elgin and his Collection” Journal of Hellenic Studies Vol. 36 (1916) page 348.
[21] Lowenthal, D. The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998) page 243
[22] A Guide to the Sculptures of the Parthenon (British Museum, 3rd ed. 1886) page 3
[23] Smith, A H. A Catalogue of the Sculptures of the Parthenon in the British Museum (British Museum, 1900) pages 9-10.
[24] Trustees of the British Museum, A Short Guide to the Sculptures of the Parthenon in the British Museum (Elgin Collection) (1921) at page 3.
[25] Trustees of the British Museum, An Historical Guide to the Sculptures of the Parthenon (1971) at page 8
[26] Haynes, D. The Parthenon Frieze (Batchwood Press, 1959)  at page 3
[27] Robertson , M. & Frantz, A. The Parthenon Frieze (New York University Press, 1975) at page 13.
[28] The Sultan’s firman was in terms that Elgin’s men could take moulds of the sculptures as well as measurements although they were permitted to remove “any pieces of stone with inscriptions or figures thereon”.  Debate has raged as to whether this only applied to stones already on the ground or discovered during excavation or whether it authorised the forcible removal of integral pedimental sculptures, metopes and frieze from the walls of the Parthenon.  It is interesting that the document also stated that the local officials in Athens should honour the firman given to Lord Elgin “particularly as there is no harm in the said figures and edifices being thus viewed, contemplated and designed.”  David Rudenstine has argued that the wording of the firman does not provide the claimed justification for Elgin’s actions and challenges the implicit rationale of the British Museum that “acceptance of the past requires accepting Elgin’s dismantling of the Parthenon”: Rudenstine, D. “The Legality of Elgin’s Taking” (Book Review) International Journal of Cultural Property Vol. 8 No. 1 1999 page 357.
[29] Jenkins, I. The Parthenon Frieze  (University of Texas Press, 1994) at page 16.
[30] Thomson, K S. Treasures on Earth: Museums, Collections and Paradoxes (Faber and Faber, London, 2002) page 22
[31] Healy, C. The Ruins of Colonialism: History as Social Memory (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997)
[32] Mack, J. The Museum of the Mind (The British Museum Press, London, 2003) pages 13-14
[33] Ibid. page 15.  The current director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, in the preface claims that the British Museum has acquired its own “cargo of memories” and as such it has become a “place of pilgrimage”.
[34] Wilson, D “Return and Restitution: A Museum Perspective” in McBryde, I. op.cit. page 101.  Wilson, a former director of the British Museum, writes that it is difficult to “adjust modern terms to the morality of the past”.
[35] Bernard Ashmole quoted in Jenkins, I. Archaeologists & Aesthetes in the Sculpture Galleries of the British Museum 1800-1939 (British Museum Press, London, 1992) page 229.
[36] Daily Telegraph, 29 June 1998.
[37] Spalding, J. op. cit. page 113
[38] Jusdanis, G. “Farewell to the Classical: Excavations in Modernism” Modernism/modernity Vol. 11 No. 1 (2004) page 37
[39] Woodward, C. In Ruins (Chatto & Windus, London, 2001) page 2
[40] Shanks, M. Classical Archaeology of Greece: Experiences of the Discipline (Routledge, London and New York, 1996) page 72
[41] Lowenthal, D. The Past is a Foreign Country op. cit. page xv

Friday, 1 September 2017

The Return of the Parthenon Sculptures and the Cultural Heritage of Europe

1 September 2017

Subject:       Draft Working paper

                        "The Return of the Parthenon Sculptures and the Cultural                                           Heritage of Europe"

Origin:         Australian Committee for the Return of the Parthenon Sculptures

Objective: For consideration and discussion by the Greek and European Union authorities

Remarks: The attached working paper on "The Return of the Parthenon Sculptures and the Cultural Heritage of Europe” contains the main principles of a suggested European Union position  in  this regard, to be presented to the United Kingdom in the context of negotiations under Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union (TEU)


I have climbed the Acropolis today in all humility, acutely conscious of that which it has bestowed upon the world. For this place, infused with the spirit of the gods and with the valour of heroes, shelters within its recesses masterpieces that have left the irreplaceable mark of their grandeur on our Earth.

                         Director-General of the UNESCO Frederico Mayor (1989)

The wholeness of the Parthenon demands our respect and warrants every effort to reunify it … Let us, for a moment, consider the state of the central figures of the west pediment. Poseidon’s shoulders are held in London while his pectoral and abdominal muscles remain in Athens … This deliberate and sustained dismemberment of what are some of the most sublime images ever carved by humankind brings shame on those who work to uphold this state of affairs.

                                Joan Breton Connelly, “The Parthenon Enigma” (2014)

The Parthenon Marbles are for many people in Europe and outside of Europe the major symbol of the oldest and most important contribution which has ever been made by any people to European civilisation, with such an intensity that this contribution has also become decisive for universal civilisation.

                                                                  Miguel Angel Martinez Martinez 
                                                 (Vice President of the European Parliament)

I. Introduction

1.               The Parthenon Sculptures, comprising the sculptured pediments, metopes and frieze removed by Lord Elgin and his men from the Parthenon in Athens in the early part of the nineteenth century and placed in the British Museum in 1816, symbolise the “entire body of unrepatriated cultural property in the world’s museum” and constitute an “essential part of our common past”.[1]   In the more than two hundred years since their removal, the Elgin collection of Parthenon Sculptures have become a paradigm for forcibly-removed cultural treasures.

2.         On 9 July 1961 Greece and the then European Economic Community signed an agreement for Association which was hailed as “linking the cradle of European civilisation with the nucleus of a united Europe”.[2]

3.                On 7 May 1999 the European Parliament issued a written declaration stating, inter alia, that the Parliament took the view that the “return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece would be a key move in promoting Europe’s common cultural heritage”.  The Parliament also acknowledged that the Parthenon of the Acropolis and its sculptures form an “integral and invaluable part of the European cultural and architectural heritage.”[3]

4.               The United Kingdom has given notification under Article 50 of the TEU of its proposed withdrawal from the EU as a Member State.

5.               The EU is required to negotiate and attempt to conclude a withdrawal agreement with the UK, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for the withdrawing Member State’s future relationship with the Union.

6.               The agreement will be negotiated in the light of the European Council guidelines and in line with the negotiating directives. The EU expressly notes that its own negotiating directives may be amended and supplemented as necessary throughout the negotiations, in particular to reflect the European Council guidelines as they evolve and to take advantage of  an “exceptional horizontal competence” to cover all matters necessary to arrange the withdrawal.[4]

7.                It is submitted that one of the issues that should be the subject of direct negotiation between the EU and the UK is the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures currently on display in London with the remaining Parthenon sculptural elements in the Acropolis Museum in Athens in order to perfect the EU’s actual and principled commitment to the safeguarding and protection of European cultural heritage.

II. A Cultural Europe - principles and practice

8.               The legal basis of the proposal is Article 167 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). This states that the EU “shall contribute to the flowering of the cultures of the Member States, while respecting their national and regional diversity and at the same time bringing the common cultural heritage to the fore”.

9.                Article 167 has been described as “carrying the same weight as that of the free movement of goods” and as conferring an “important guarantee of respect for Member States’ cultural heritage as an indispensable element of a global European culture”.[5]

10.            The Treaty of Lisbon places great importance on culture: the preamble to the TEU explicitly refers to “drawing inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe”.

11.            Article 3 of the TEU provides that the European Union shall respect the Member States' rich cultural and linguistic diversity, and ensure that Europe's cultural heritage is safeguarded and enhanced.

12.             Article 6 of the TFEU states that the EU’s competences in the field of culture are to “carry out actions to support, coordinate or supplement the actions of the Member States”.

13.            The EU has acknowledged the cultural dimension of the Treaties and the EU’s external actions on many occasions as a reflection of the fact that Europe’s cultural richness and diversity is closely linked to its role and influence in the world. 

14.            Although the Council of Europe’s Directive 2014/60/EU provides that cultural objects which have been unlawfully removed from the territory of a Member State on or after 1 January 1993 shall be returned in accordance with the procedure and in the circumstances set out in the Directive, it expressly acknowledges that each Member State may apply the arrangements provided for in this Directive to requests for the return of cultural objects unlawfully removed from the territory of other Member States prior to 1 January 1993.[6] 

15.            In 2011 the European Parliament passed a resolution in which it acknowledged, inter alia, that culture has intrinsic value, enriches people’s lives and fosters mutual understanding and respect and further noted that the European Agenda for Culture sets the strategic objective of promoting culture as a “vital element” in the EU’s international relations.  It further acknowledged that cultural cooperation and cultural dialogue are the “building blocks of cultural diplomacy”. [7]

16.            The European Parliament re-affirmed that, in terms of culture and European values, it wants to underline the crosscutting nature and the importance of culture in all aspects of life and believes that culture needs to be taken into consideration in all EU external policies in line with article 167(4) of TFEU.

17.       The European Parliament in this resolution emphasised the importance of cultural diplomacy and cultural co-operation in advancing and communicating throughout the world the EU’s and the Member States’ interests in the values that make up European culture, and further emphasised the need to adopt a “comprehensive approach to cultural mediation and cultural exchange and the role of culture in fostering democratisation, human rights, conflict prevention and peace building”.

18.           The Parliament also urged that steps be taken to prevent the unlawful appropriation of cultural heritage and called for the adoption of a “coherent strategy for the protection and promotion of cultural and natural heritage”.

19.            On 30 May 2014 the Council of Europe published its Conclusions on cultural heritage as a strategic resource for a sustainable Europe [8] in which it again noted that the European Treaty stipulates that the Union shall ensure that Europe's cultural heritage (consisting of the resources inherited from the past in all forms and aspects - tangible, intangible, including monuments, sites and landscapes)   is safeguarded and enhanced, and again re-stated that cultural heritage is a major asset for Europe and an important component of the European project.

20.       In 2017 the European Parliament endorsed an official communication Towards an EU strategy for international cultural relations [9] and, inter alia, specifically stated as follows:

(a)    Culture is a common good and cultural heritage is a “universal legacy”;
(b)   The communication towards an EU strategy for international cultural relations provides a framework for the EU’s international cultural relations and priorities;
(c)    The EU and neighbouring states have historically influenced each other with regard to culture;
(d)   The EU, as a key partner of the United Nations, should work closely with UNESCO to protect global cultural heritage; and
(e)   Cultural diplomacy can function as an envoy of the EU and its Member States and help promote the role of cultural cooperation as a soft power tool in European external relations.

 21.          In terms of governance the European Parliament called for the establishment of a cultural diplomacy platform and called upon the European Commission to include culture in all existing and future bilateral and multilateral agreements in order to place further emphasis on the economic potential of cultural heritage.

 22.          In the context of an “inclusive and shared European narrative” the European Parliament also declared that the decision for the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018 is an opportunity to “contribute to the promotion of cultural heritage, with an integrated approach, as an important element of the EU’s international dimension, building on the interest of partner countries on Europe’s heritage and expertise”.

 23.      And as the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, Tibor Navracsics, has declared in support of the strategy to place culture at the heart of EU international relations:

           "Culture is the hidden gem of our foreign policy. It helps to promote dialogue and mutual                     understanding. Culture is therefore crucial in building long-term relationships with countries             across the whole world: it has a great role to play in making the EU a stronger global                         actor." [10]

III. The case for the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures

24.     The historical and legal case for reunification of the Elgin collection is set out in the                             advice The Case for the Return of the Parthenon Sculptures provided in 2015 to the Greek             Government by an eminent English team of lawyers led by Geoffrey Robertson QC. [11]

25.       As Robertson reminds us, the Parthenon and its sculptures are the “keys to our ancient                          history”.  And they are the cornerstone of European cultural heritage. 

26.    The Parthenon is a national cultural symbol which is important to Greece’s self-identity and                deserving of protection under international law which is evolving and which recognises the                  sovereign right to claim unique cultural property of great historical significance taken in the                past. This is no less true of the challenge posed to Europe’s universal cultural legacy.

27.    The EU, in particular, recognises the importance value of “national treasures” as objects which            constitute elements essential and integral to a nation’s heritage and history by reason of their                artistic, historic or archaeological value. The Parthenon Sculptures are a national treasure par              excellence which transcend Greek borders and relate directly to the European cultural identity              and experience.

28.    Despite requests, the British Government will not engage with Greece over its requests for the            reunification of the marbles.  For more than thirty years the issue of the Parthenon Sculptures              has been discussed by the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of          Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation                (ICPRCP), without any movement whatsoever from the British side.  In 2015 attempts by                    UNESCO to facilitate mediation between the UK and Greece were rejected by the British side. 

29.     The British Museum Act has effectively locked up all legal remedies by the strict prohibition on           deaccessioning and successive UK governments have stated that the issue of return is a matter             for the British Museum which in turn claims that the sculptures in London now tell a different             narrative and are separated both physically and historically from their Athenian birthplace.

30.   The proposed withdrawal by the UK from the European Union - Brexit - offers the opportunity           for the negotiating parties to honour the spirit and letter of the declaration by the European                   Parliament made more than a quarter of century ago that returning the Parthenon Sculptures                 would be a key move in promoting Europe’s common cultural heritage.

 IV. Recommendations

 31.   Article 167 of the TFEU reflects the “formal recognition by the European Union of the                        significance of culture as a basic concern of the Union”.[12]

 32.      The Parthenon and its sculptures constitute the genesis of Europe’s cultural identity and                       memory and must be reunited on European soil.

 33.   As Europe prepares to celebrate the European Year of Cultural Heritage in 2018 the                              reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures is a matter that can and should be raised in the EU -              UK negotiations as a legitimate expression of the EU’s genuine commitment to safeguard and              enhance its cultural legacy.

 34.     As Rodi Kratsa MEP has written:

             “The issue of the return of the Parthenon Marbles constitutes … a moral issue of European                   nature. It is a demand associated with the respect and integrity of the Parthenon, this                           landmark monument of European culture of universal significance.  For this reason, the                       return of its Marbles is a moral obligation for the whole of Europe in the framework of the                   protection of our common cultural heritage.”[13]

 35.   The EU is strongly encouraged to enter into negotiations under Article 50 with a view to                      achieving an agreement on the withdrawal of the UK from the Union and ideally a suitable                  framework of co-operation in the future that includes a satisfactory resolution of the issue of the          Parthenon Sculptures as an integral component of the EU’s pledge to conserve and safeguard all          cultural heritage of European significance.


George Vardas

[1] Merryman, J H “Thinking about the Elgin Marbles” (1985) 83 Michigan Law Review, p. 1985
[2] "Athens ceremony for EEC/Greek Association” Bulletin from the European community, July 1961, number 48
[3] European Parliament, OJ C 135, 14/05/1999 (p. 118)
[5] Irini Stamatoudi, Cultural Property Law and Restitution: A Commentary to International Conventions and European Union Law (Edward Elgar 2011), pp. 127 & 128
[7] European Parliament Resolution on 12 May 2011 OJ C 377E , 7.12.2012, p. 135.
[12] Irini Stamatoudi, Cultural Property Law and Restitution: A Commentary to International Conventions and European Union Law (Edward Elgar 2011), p.129
[13] Rodi Kratsa, MEP “Europe and the Parthenon Marbles: A Common Cause” in P. Van Gene-Saillet (ed.) The reunification of the Parthenon Marbles: A European Concern (Editions Bruylant, 2014) at p. 20