Reclaiming the Parthenon Sculptures as a Global Public Good

The question of the return of the Parthenon sculptures was again raised by the Greek Minister of Culture and Sports, Dr Lina Mendoni, during the UNESCO World Congress on Cultural Policies and Sustainable Development (Mondiacult 2022) which s is held in Mexico from September 28 to 30, 2022.

Mondialicult 2022, Mexico

Dr Mendoni reminded delegates that forty years earlier, at the inaugural Mondiacult conference held in 1982 in Mexico City, the legendary Melina Mercouri told the forum that Greece was seeking the return of the Parthenon sculptures to Athens, stating passionately:

“The day may come when this world will create other visions, other conceptions of what is proper, of what constitutes a cultural heritage and of human creativity. And we understand that museums cannot be emptied. But I insist on reminding you that in the case of the marbles of the Acropolis we are not asking for the restitution of a painting or a statue. We ask for the return of part of a unique monument, a privileged symbol of an entire culture.

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Dr Mendoni, reflecting the fiery spirit of his famous predecessor, reiterated that the return of the Sculptures is not just a matter of ethics and justice, but one that affects and touches the very heart of the principles on which the is founded.

The Minister of Culture underlined that the dialogue between nations presupposes a dialogue between cultures, which in turn presupposes respect for the history, heritage and identity of each nation. A constructive and authentic cultural dialogue with the British Museum and the British government on the Parthenon sculptures is therefore essential.

Η Λίνα Μενδώνη στο Mondiacult 2022
Dr. Lina Mendoni at Mondiacult 2022

Dr Mendoni in her presentation at the UNESCO conference stressed the paramount need to restore the integrity of the Parthenon:

“The Parthenon, monument-symbol of UNESCO, is the most emblematic case of a monument, inscribed on the World Heritage List, whose unity and integrity cannot remain fragmented and disturbed to this day. The preservation of the authenticity, unity and integrity of cultural heritage involves its defense against theft, looting, vandalism and illegal trade, not only in times of peace but also in times of armed conflict. “.

She concluded by insisting on the need for “coordinated international action” with the aim of returning cultural property to its rightful owners and places of origin, in particular in the case of monuments of exceptional importance.

During the conference, the Greek Minister of Culture had a fruitful working meeting with the Director General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, to discuss various issues and initiatives developed by Greece within the framework of UNESCO. The Director-General thanked Greece for the excellent level of cooperation it has developed in recent years with all UNESCO bodies.

Η Γενική Διευθύντρια της UNESCO Audrey Azoulay με τη Λίνα Μενδώνη
UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay meets Greek Minister of Culture Lina Mendoni

Special mention was made to the international conference organized by the Ministry of Culture and Sports, in collaboration with the UNESCO Cultural Heritage Center, to celebrate the 50e anniversary of the adoption of the World Cultural Heritage Convention in Delphi on 17 and 18 November 2022, entitled: The Next 50 – The future of World Heritage in challenging times, building resilience and sustainability. The conference will focus on climate change and sustainable tourism.

Dr Mendoni also had a very fruitful meeting with the President of the Executive Board of UNESCO, Tamara Rastovac Siamashvili, to discuss initiatives and projects for the protection of cultural heritage, tangible and intangible, against climate change, in particular in archaeological sites included in the World Cultural Heritage List, such as Delphi, Mystras, Philippi and ancient Olympia. They also mentioned Greece’s strong positions on the protection of cultural property against illicit trafficking.

Lina Mendoni also met with her Argentinian counterpart, Tristan Bauer, and discussed the thriving Greek community in Argentina as well as the joint presence of Greece and Argentina on the UNESCO World Heritage Committee and the continued efforts of countries to restrict the illegal trade in antiquities. and other cultural property. The two ministers agreed to sign a memorandum of cooperation, not only to fight against the illegal trade in antiquities, but also to work for bilateral exchanges in the field of music, arts and cinema. An exhibition of objects from Greece, Peru, Chile and Argentina – countries with rich ancient cultures – is already being prepared at the National Library in Buenos Aires.

Argentinian Culture Minister Tristan Bauer with Lina Mendoni

Significantly, the Argentine Minister of Culture, who is also a well-known filmmaker and screenwriter, reaffirmed his country’s absolute support for Greece’s request for the return and reunification of the Parthenon sculptures in Athens, stating that the sculptures stolen by Lord Elgin and their continued presence in the British Museum violates the ethical principles that countries must uphold.

With the Cypriot Deputy Minister of Culture
Lina Mendoni with UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay and Cypriot Deputy Minister of Culture Yiannis Toumazis at Mondiacult 2022

At the end of the conference, UNESCO Member States issued a Culture Declaration recognizing culture as a “global public good” and a specific sustainable development goal in its own right. The declaration calls for an open and inclusive international dialogue for the return and restitution of cultural property, including illegally exported property, to countries of origin as an ethical imperative to foster the right of peoples and communities to enjoyment of their cultural heritage, and taking into account the growing demands of the countries concerned, with a view to strengthening social cohesion and the intergenerational transmission of cultural heritage.

The declaration also encourages UNESCO to promote the effective implementation of existing legal or policy frameworks for the return of cultural property to its country of origin through the proactive mediation of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of cultural property, a forum at which Greece had significant success in 2021 and again earlier this year to highlight the recalcitrant position of the British authorities in handling the request for the return of the Parthenon sculptures.

Greece continues to advocate for the reunification of the Parthenon sculptures at major international conferences and gatherings. It is a problem that will not go away until a satisfactory resolution is finally found in what is arguably the world’s most notorious case of misappropriation of cultural treasures that are essential to history and the identity of a nation.

George Vardas is an arts and culture editor and also a founding member of the Acropolis Research Group

Key words:
Argentina, Azoulay, cultural heritage, culture, Greece, Mendoni, Mexico, Mondiacult, Mondiacult 2022, Parthenon, Parthenon sculptures, UNESCO

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