Greece and UK agree to formal talks

The reunification of the Parthenon sculptures could be a step closer with the revelation by UNESCO that Greece and the UK have agreed to hold formal talks.

The news came on the eve of International Museum Day, celebrated on May 18, 2022, as UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in the event of misappropriation (ICPRCP) opens its 23rd session in Paris.

The Committee, UNESCO’s independent advisory body on cultural heritage, will once again examine and discuss the perennial issue of the sculptures which were controversially removed by Lord Elgin over 200 years ago and currently kept in the British Museum.

This has been on the agenda of the ICPRCP since 1984 with countless unfulfilled recommendations made for the resolution of the dispute.

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A section of the Parthenon pediment sculptures

During the 2021 session, the UNESCO Committee, after receiving an impressive submission from Greece in support of its case, recognized Greece’s legitimate and legitimate claim and recognized that the case had a intergovernmental nature and therefore the obligation to return the Parthenon sculptures falls squarely at the feet of the UK government. The Committee then issued a decision expressing both its concern that the matter remains unresolved and its deep disappointment that the respective UNESCO recommendations, including mediation, have not been complied with by the UK. The Intergovernmental Committee called on the UK to reconsider its position and enter into a good faith dialogue with Greece.

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The presentation of the Greek case in 2021

The agenda for the next 23rd session has just been published, as well as the report of the Secretariat of the UNESCO Committee.

The UNESCO Secretariat reports that it wrote to the UK and Greece in March 2022 requesting further information and offering to facilitate dialogue, particularly in light of the meeting between UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and his Greek counterpart, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, in London in November 2021 when the fate of the Parthenon sculptures was discussed at Prime Minister level.

But more importantly, the UNESCO report reveals that on April 29, 2020, the UK wrote to Greece’s Minister of Culture, Dr Lina Mendoni, suggesting that a meeting be held with her British counterpart, Lord Parkinson, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. According to UNESCO, Greece has accepted and a meeting between the parties is “about to be organized in due course”.

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Lord Parkinson, UK Undersecretary for Culture

Will this be a decisive moment? Or is it just a cynical ploy by the British to belatedly try to deflect criticism for their failure so far to properly engage with the Greeks? After all, in 2015 the British Museum and the UK government declined an offer from UNESCO to help mediate the dispute.

Only time will tell if a dialogue in good faith will take place.

On the one hand, Lord Parkinson, as recently as February 2022, was questioned in the House of Lords on recent discussions the UK government has had, if any, with the Greek government about the return of the Parthenon sculptures to Athens. He resorted to what can be called the “Bloomsbury defence”:

“The UK’s long-standing position that this is up to the trustees of the British Museum, who are the legal owners of the sculptures. The British Museum operates independently of government, which means that decisions about the care and management of its collections rest with its trustees. The government fully supports the position taken by the directors.

According to Lord Parkinson, the Parthenon sculptures had been legally acquired by Lord Elgin “with the consent of the then Ottoman Empire”, a proposition which many commentators believe is historically dubious and legally untenable.

His Lordship also said the British Museum is prepared to consider loans to museums that recognize its legal ownership of the objects, but acknowledged this was a ‘stumbling block’ in the matter.

On the other hand, during the recent opening of the British pavilion at 59and Venice Biennale, Lord Parkinson said confidently that the Venice Biennale will be a great showcase for British arts, demonstrating that the UK is an “international cultural powerhouse”.

Will this cultural awakening translate into a more enlightened and sophisticated response on the marbles?

Greece has recently intensified its efforts for the return of the sculptures which are undoubtedly the essential keys to its ancient history. During his recent visit to Australia, Dr Mendoni reaffirmed that Greece is constitutionally obliged and morally justified to demand and fight for the final, permanent and irrevocable return of the sculptures by all legal and available means, in order to achieve the cultural justice and to restore the integrity of the Parthenon monument atop the Acropolis.

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Doctor Lina Mendoni

The Greek Minister of Culture, supported by her Prime Minister, returned to this theme at an international conference convened by Professor David Rudenstine at Cardozo Law School in New York at the end of April 2022. In a message to speakers and the public , Dr Mendoni said the British Museum’s policy to date is both counterproductive and conducive to a long-term stalemate as it clings to an “anachronistic attitude of complete denial, recycling myths, fallacies and even lies,” in an attempt to preserve some semblance of legitimacy around his contested possession and management of the Parthenon sculptures.

Significantly, Dr Mendoni renewed Greece’s offer to enter into a creative collaboration with the British Museum that the return of the Parthenon sculptures will not leave a void in the Duveen Gallery but rather usher in a new era. enlightened by temporary exhibitions and loans of Greek sculptures and Hellenistic Antiquities of rare artistic and historical importance.

The Intergovernmental Committee of UNESCO has clearly indicated that the time has come to engage in a real and genuine dialogue. But an indication of what might happen can be drawn from another cultural misappropriation case currently before the ICPRCP.

At the last session of the Intergovernmental Committee, the other major item on the agenda was a request from Zambia for the return of the skull of the Broken Hill man, an important human fossil discovered in a mine in 1921 and then “donated” by the Rhodesia Broken Hill Mine Company to the British Museum before ending up in the Natural History Museum in London.

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Skull of the Broken Hill Man (image by Mark Blower)

In 2018, the ICPRPC had in fact recommended that Zambia and the UK pursue bilateral discussions after the British side claimed that the Museum was “committed to constructively engaging in this dialogue”. At 22n/a session three years later, the British idea of ​​a constructive dialogue was to retreat to its long-standing position that the Natural History Museum, like the British Museum, is a public institution that operates independently of government and that its collection belongs to the Museum Trustees and not the UK government. And in a line recalling arguments made against the return of the sculptures, the UK side pointed out that the administrators are prevented by the British Museum Act (which also governs the Natural History Museum), to give, transfer or exchange objects. Despite this, the British representative said Britain “would like to engage in meaningful bilateral discussions”.

The ICPRCP then invited the Director-General of UNESCO “to facilitate the convening of the necessary meetings between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Zambia, in which the UNESCO Secretariat could also participate “.

We now learn that the UNESCO Secretariat sent a letter on March 4, 2022 to Zambia and the United Kingdom expressing its availability for a constructive exchange of information to facilitate dialogue. As of April 2022, no response had been received. A case of deja vu?

I would like to believe that the deliberations in Paris in the coming days, followed by the proposed meeting between the Culture Ministers of Greece and the United Kingdom, will be a new dawn in the campaign for the reunification of the Parthenon sculptures and the restitution other important looted cultural property.

If I am wrong, then as I have written elsewhere, the UK will continue to hold the spoils of imperial plunder in the dubious name of English heritage, whether it be the sculptures of the Parthenon, the Beninese bronzes of the Nigeria, treasures from Maqdala in Ethiopia, or a Palaeolithic human skull from Zambia.

It is time for Britain to do the right thing.

George Vardas is the co-vice-president of the Australian Parthenon Association and co-founder of the Acropolis Research Group

Benin Bronzes, British Museum, Broken Hill Man Skull, Cultural Property, Elgin Marbles, Greece, Lina Mendoni, Lord Parkinson, Treasures of Maqdala, Parthenon Sculptures, restitution, UNESCO, Zambia

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