Responses to Neil MacGregor’s refusal to see the Parthenon Sculptures returned to Greece

In a recent interview the Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, spoke openly about his views on reunification and why the Parthenon Sculptures will not be returned to Greece as long as he is Director of the museum.

His comments caused quite a stir within the international community and prompted a number of people to respond including the Greek Ministry of Culture and Dr Kwame Opoku.

Response by the Greek Ministry of Culture found on  Elginism

1. UNESCO, which has invited the Greek and the British Governments to take part in a mediation process to resolve the issue, is an intergovernmental organization. However, the Trustees of the British Museum are not part of the British government. It is the Trustees and not the Government that own the great cultural collections of the country.

UNESCO is indeed an intergovernmental organization. It is hard to believe that a Government would discuss an issue it does not have competence on. It is hard to believe that if there were political will from the UK for the return of the Marbles to Greece the BM would resist this will. Negotiations conducted all those years with the good services of UNESCO were between the two States (Greece and the UK). Yet, a BM representative was always there. In any case the links at all levels between the BM and the UK Government are well known. Returns have already been effected in Britain on the basis of changes in the law such as the enactment of the Human Tissue Act 2004. This Act enabled the return of human remains located in UK museum collections (under the same status as the one applying to the Marbles). Those were unethically removed from Australian Aboriginals, New Zealand Maori and Native Americans and were returned to their countries of origin. In this light persistence in formalities can only be used as an evasion of the real issue.

2. The Marbles will give “maximum public benefit” by staying in London rather than going to a new museum in Athens.

“Maximum public benefit” should not be seen in the light of the BM’s interests alone. This patronization of ‘benefit’ makes one think that the BM has still not shaken off the mentality of colonization. It is prime time for the BM to consider its humanistic role, depart from issues of ‘ownership’ and ‘property’ and focus on the actual benefit of the antiquity itself, of the visitors, researchers, archaeologists, historians and all those who have an interest to see and study the Marbles as a whole. The issue is not which Museum is better to accommodate the Marbles. We do not run a beauty contest. It is all about where the Marbles and the values they incorporate can best be exhibited and appreciated respectively.

3. In Athens they could only be part of an Athenian story for the Parthenon is not even a Greek monument. It is an Athenian monument. Many other Greek cities and islands protested bitterly about the money taken from them to build this in Athens.

One should bear in mind that the BM as such is mainly the beneficiary par excellence of British colonization. Therefore when one engages in accusations one also has to look into one’s own injustices of the past.

4. 30% of the sculptures are in Athens and 30% are in London. Quite a lot of them no longer exist. There is no possibility of recovering an artistic entity.

It is indeed true that parts of the Marbles are missing. One should first think of the tremendous damage done to the Marbles when they were removed by Elgin from the Acropolis site and shipped to Britain. Mentor (the ship that carried them) sank and the Marbles remained in the sea and some of them on the beach under stones and seaweed for two whole years. The Marbles also suffered from being transferred by various vessels to ports in England. Also in 1937 for a whole year and a half (while in the BM) the Marbles’ surface was scrapped in order for them to become white and lose their patina.

The fact that parts are missing cannot be used as an argument for not reunifying the existing parts. Is the “either all or nothing argument” a new tendency in archaeology? In this case the BM should eliminate all incomplete artifacts in its collection.

5. The marbles were not illegally removed by Elgin. He had to surrender the document allowing him to take the marbles as he exported them. Everything was done publicly.

One wonders which records the BM refers to. Nothing was done legally, let alone ethically. Elgin was not authorized to remove the Marbles. He acted without official authorization as the Sultan was the only authority (and the sole owner of all important antiquities within his jurisdiction according to the law of his time), which could issue such a document (firman). Elgin had in his hand an amicable letter of a low ranking Turkish official, which gave access to his team for drawing casts and take only a few stones found on the ground. Even this document expressly referred to the fact that no damage should occur to the monument itself. Elgin used bribes in order to complete his mission and jagged the Marbles from the Temple using saws to remove the surface from the rest of the architectural part.

6. The Trustees have always been ready for discussions with the Greek government but the latter will not recognize the trustees as the legal owners, so conversations are difficult.

References to the matter of ownership are misleading and are used to deflect the discussion from the actual issue. The issue is not about ownership but about where the Marbles can be best exhibited for the sake of humanity. Although the Museum claims that the Marbles belong to everyone, in fact the Museum implies that they belong to it. UNESCO has officially invited in August 2013 the UK Government (including the Museum) to enter into mediation with Greece for the resolution of the matter. The UK can place the issue of ownership on the table of mediation if it so wishes. The UK has still not even replied. One wonders how much goodwill can be found in this indifferent stance. Replying to an invitation of an internationally renowned forum is not only basic good manners but adhering to the principle of peaceful settlement of disputes. This makes anyone think that it is not conversations that are difficult; only parties can be difficult.

7. These sculptures do belong to everyone. Letting them be seen in different places and not only in Athens is important.

That is indeed true. They incorporate the values of classical Athens and Greek identity and as such form part of the world heritage. The issue though is where they can be best exhibited for the sake of humanity. Exhibiting them in different places conveys half of the information (if not the wrong information) of the values they carry. How can an artifact (any artifact) broken in pieces be properly assessed, valued and interpreted, if parts of it are seen separate instead of as a whole? This is especially so if something was conceived, created and exhibited as a whole in its original context. In the case at issue it is not only the antiquity that is split apart but also the fact that it is not found in its original context. This argument defies any logic and is there only to serve the purposes of the BM. It is even more weird that the argument is used by a leading institution in the museum world to serve its own purposes when this argument is unknown in the area of cultural property law and relevant international treaties. It is a long and well-established principle that antiquities should be preserved and exhibited (even in situ where this is possible) as a whole respecting their integrity, whilst when broken this constitutes a crime. How does this act (or any argumentation to its favour) differ from the vandal acts in Afghanistan or Syria?

Response by Dr Kwame Opoku found on Modern Ghana

On reading the recent statements of Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, regarding the restitution of the Parthenon Marbles, I had to remind myself constantly that I was not reading an old article but a fresh report of an interview with Richard Morrison, in the British newspaper, the Times.

The director of the British Museum has not changed, improved or modified his position on the issues. (1) He is singing the same song as James Cuno even though in a different key. (2) We shall spare the reader the time and effort of going through all the untenable British arguments which have been discussed elsewhere. (3)

MacGregor repeats his insulting statement that the Greeks are copying Lord Elgin who removed the Parthenon Marbles and brought them to Britain:

“Indeed, the Greek authorities have continued Lord Elgin’s work of removing sculptures for exactly the same reason: to protect them and to study them.”

What is not said is that the Greeks built the ultra-modern new Acropolis Museum largely in response to the British argument that there was no suitable museum in Athens for them to return the Marbles. Once the new museum was completed MacGregor said the location of the Marbles was never an issue. What mattered now was how the British and the Greek could make it possible for the Africans and Chinese to see the Marbles. This was stated by MacGregor in a discussion at the London School of Economics. (4)

Regarding the question whether the action of Lord Elgin in removing the Marbles from the location in Athens was legal, Neil MacGregor responds:

“I think everybody would have to agree that it was” The ground advanced by MacGregor for this bold statement is that: “Elgin had the permission of the Ottoman authorities who were then ruling Greece’.

On the comment that the written authorization, firmen, alleged to have been obtained from the Ottoman authorities has not been seen by anyone, MacGregor responds confidently that at that time “You had to surrender the document as you exported.”

To strengthen his point of view on the legality of the removal, MacGregor adds that the removal was done slowly in the public view of many. Surely, if it were not legal, somebody would have stopped it.

“That’s the point. Everything was done very publicly, very slowly. In 1800 you couldn’t move great slabs of marble quickly. At any point the Ottoman authorities could have stopped it.”

That the Ottoman authorities then ruling Greece were an occupying force does not seem to bother the director of the British Museum. And how is one to evaluate his statement that Lord Elgin could have been stopped from removing the Marbles and since no one stopped him his action must have been legal?

This argument could be advanced to defend any crime or act committed where the offender was not stopped. Many persons saw colonial officials and Apartheid South African officials commit acts or offences but did not or could not stop them. Does that make those acts legal? Making the legal or illegality of an act depend on the reaction of persons who saw the act is surely not a scientific way of determining legality.

MacGregor resorts to the usual argument that the ownership of the Marbles, like all property in the British Museum, is invested in the Board of Trustees of the museum and only they can deal with ownership questions. Not even Parliament could dispose of ownership of museum items. The trustees have a duty to preserve the objects entrusted to them and no trustee, in the legal system MacGregor describes as “Anglo-Saxon law” could or would want to dispose of the property entrusted to them.(5)

A demand for restitution sent to the British government or Parliament would be referred to the British Museum which in turn would declare it is bound by a law of the British Parliament to preserve the objects and so they cannot be returned. This favourite game has been played so often and long enough for all to understand that its purpose is to shield objects in the museum, however acquired, from restitution. The motto seems to be: Once in the British Museum, always in the British Museum.

The director of the British Museums states in the interview that the trustees have always been willing to discuss the Marbles with Greece but the later refuses to recognize British ownership in the Marbles:

“The trustees have always been ready for any discussions. The complication is that the Greek government will not recognise the trustees as the legal owners, so conversations are difficult.”

How can the British expect Greece to recognize their ownership in the very object that is at the heart of their differences? What then is the debate about if not about ownership?

Having stated sometime earlier that the location of the Marbles was never an issue, with the recent renewed call for the return of the Parthenon Marbles, location appears to be important to MacGregor and he advances again the self-serving theory of the advantage of having different objects located in the same museum. The Marbles gained great value when they came to London. Athens is demoted to a provincial town and London promoted to the universal city:

“When the Parthenon Sculptures came to London it was the first time that they could be seen at eye-level. They stopped being architectural details in the Parthenon and became sculptures in their own right. They became part of a different story — of what the human body has meant in world culture. In Athens they would be part of an exclusively Athenian story.”

The Director of the British Museum restates again the pretension that the museum has the duty to tell the history, or the story as he prefers, of the objects in the museum:

“From its beginning 250 years ago, the point of the BM was gathering together objects in one place to tell narratives about the world”

But who in the world authorized the British to tell the histories of others? There does not yet seem to be a realization that many peoples would like to have their own objects back in order to tell their own history. The seizure of the narratives of the history of others is clearly a bare-faced imperialism which cannot be accepted in this 21st century. Are the other peoples, the Greeks, the Turks and the Edo (Benin) congenitally incapable of telling their own histories? To advance the telling of their histories as argument for the non-return of their artefacts acquired under dubious circumstances is more than an insult.

The United Nations, UNESCO, uncountable conferences and meetings and the British people have expressed the view that the British Museum should return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece. (6) The British Museum and the British government have played deaf ears. Whom does the museum serve? The British people? The world?

The interview given by Neil MacGregor indicates an unwillingness to find a solution to this long-standing dispute. If the legality of British ownership is as clear as presented by the director why does Britain not agree to a settlement by an international arbitration board or some other body?

One should perhaps remind all concerned that as far as International Law is concerned the obligation to return cultural artefacts lies squarely on the government and not on a museum. One cannot advance internal legal arrangements or system as a defence for not fulfilling an international obligation.

Is it by sheer coincidence that MacGregor and Cuno are singing, at about the same time, the praises of the so-called “Universal Museum” which they have championed over the years, one on this side of the Atlantic and the other on the opposite side of the Ocean? Is it also by sheer coincidence that the one is British and the other U.S. American? Is it by coincidence that one is president of the most powerful cultural institution in the world, situated in the USA and the other the director of a most prestigious museum situated in London?

After reading MacGregor’s latest statements, I could not help feeling that the cause of those wishing to hold onto the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles would be better helped by avoiding such statements as discussed above.

Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch’d thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.