Saving/Losing* our/their* Pathenon/Elgin* Marbles


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Detail from “the Parthenon from the East” by Themistocles von Eckenbrecher 1890.
[Lead Image: public domain via the National Museum of Art]

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On 13 March, as his flight headed for California, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak felt compelled to break into the narrative around the new AUKUS submarine pact between the UK, the United States and Australia to tell UK journalists that the Parthenon [Elgin] Marbles would be staying in London. thePipeline looks at the background to the Prime Minister’s pronouncement and asks is it just another performative statement as part of the Conservative Government’s ongoing culture war, or can Mr Sunak actually deliver against the growing tide of opinion in the heritage world?

“The UK has cared for the Elgin marbles for generations,” Mr Sunak told journalists travelling aboard the prime ministerial jet, explaining,

“Our galleries and museums are funded by taxpayers because they are a huge asset to this country.

Then, in a form of words which dismayed many members of the museum and heritage community, Mr Sunak seemed to endorse outdated paternalistic and colonialist attitudes towards museum collections by adding,

“We share their treasures with the world, and the world comes to the UK to see them. The collection of the British Museum is protected by law, and we have no plans to change it.”

However, such a stance will have pleased the lobby which sees the “Elgin Marbles” as part of the UK’s cultural patrimony by dint of possession being nine tenths of the law [which it isn’t of course].

In March [2023] the right of centre think tank Policy Exchange published a report to this effect, about what it insists on calling the Elgin Marbles, written by historian Sir Noel Malcolm.

It must be stressed that while Malcolm is a distinguished historian, being a Senior Research Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, a Fellow of the British Academy, and a specialist in Early Modern History and the history of the Balkans, he was not independent. In fact, as his biography in the report notes, he is a senior advisor to Policy Exchange itself.

In what might be seen as the core of the traditional view of the ownership of the marbles taken by the UK, Sir Noel’s report stated the view that, among other things,

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“…over more than 200 years they [the marbles from the Parthenon] have become part of Britain’s cultural heritage;
• their removal would harm the status of the British Museum as a
universal or encyclopaedic museum of world cultures;
• their removal would be treated as a precedent for many future
returns of objects”

The report concluded by recommending that the British Government should restate its support for retaining the Marbles in Bloomsbury and make no changes to the British Museum Act which might permit the museum trustees to give the marbles away to Athens.

This was a recommendation which Prime Minister Sunak duly put into effect on that flight to California.

In what would be an attempt to close down the argument for the foreseeable future the report recommended also that the Museum should revise its loans policy, to explicitly
exclude loans to countries [countries, not parties such as a museum] which do not recognise the Museum’s ownership of the objects to be loaned.

Overall Prime Minister Sunak’s comments regarding the Elgin/Parthenon Marbles seem to align almost exactly with the Malcolm report, but that is perhaps hardly a surprise.

Not only is Policy Exchange known to have been influential within successive Conservative Governments, promoting policies taken up by Government including so called “Free Schools” independent of local accountability, and elected regional Police and Crime Commissioners, Rishi Sunak himself is a former head of the think tank’s Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) Research Unit.

However, authoritative as the report might appear to be, and powerful as Prime Minister Sunak’s endorsement of its central conclusions undoubtedly are, the fact that successive culture ministers, the “pre-eminent think tank in the Westminster village” and even the prime minister himself have been forced to adopt such apparently defensive position regarding the elements of the marble frieze removed by Lord Elgin, is testament to the fact that attitudes towards the repatriation of stolen cultural items in the museum world and the specific argument regarding the marbles removed from the Parthenon, seems to be increasingly running faster and more strongly against their being retained in London.

In early 2023 Greek and UK media reported a story apparently floated in both Athens and London, that intensive low profile negotiations had led to an apparent work around of the obstacle of the British Museum Act 1963. The Act prevents the trustees disposing of any part of the collection, except in very specific circumstances.

Senior members of the Greek Government also appeared to confirm the reports.

The idea being floated was an extended loan of the Parthenon Marbles to the Acropolis Museum in Athens, with both sides “agreeing to disagree” about the ultimate ownership of the sculptures.

Previously the Greek Government has always insisted that the British Museum must surrender title as a precondition of any deal.

There is no confirmation that precondition has been dropped, but that may not be a surprise as Greece faces a General Election on 21 May [2023] and with that prospect no Greek politician would wish to appear to be going soft on the nation’s principle cultural battle.

Nonetheless, on 12 March [2023] the Sunday Times in London carried a story with the headline,

“Artefact ‘swap’ could bring an end to Elgin Marbles saga”

The article went on to suggest that an influential Anglo-Greek campaigning group, the Parthenon Project, believed that the loan of famous artefacts which had never previously left Greece, including the so-called Kritios boy and the golden “Mask of Agamemnon” excavated at Mycenae, might fill the space, and attract the visitors who might previously have visited London to see the Parthenon Marbles.

Launched by Greek businessman John Lefas, and with influential supporters drawn from both countries, the Parthenon Project describes such a deal as a “win win” for London and Athens.

Critically the plan addresses concerns that in returning the marbles the British Museum might be diminished as an international cultural destination, suggesting,

“The display of such artefacts [the Critias boy and the Mask of Agamemnon] would attract footfall to the British Museum and would offer visitors a window into a fascinating and influential period in global history.”

It looked suspiciously as if the pitch was being rolled for a formal announcement of a deal.

However, the next day, 13 March, opposition to any deal was escalated to include that inflight statement from Prime Minister Sunak, pouring cold water on the the Sunday Times story and the proposal from the Parthenon Project.

However, even that may not be all that it seems.

The current stance of the British Museum trustees includes the statement that,

“Lord Elgin’s activities were thoroughly investigated by a Parliamentary Select Committee in 1816 and found to be entirely legal.”

However, as legal commentators, including most recently David Alan Green on his Law and Policy Blog have observed, this is a legal nonsense.

As ministers find regularly when they lose cases in a Judicial Review, Parliament and its committees are not the arbiter of what is lawful.

The Judges and the courts are.

Green adds that US academic lawyer David Rudenstine argued in a paper in 2001 that there is no evidence that the Parliamentary Committee in 1816 ever saw original documentation from the Ottoman government relating to the supposed transfer of title regarding the Parthenon marbles to Elgin, and that such Ottoman documentation may not even have existed, with Elgin allegedly relaying on translations of documents with opaque origins and no legal standing.

Crucially there seems to be no official Firmin from the Sultan in Constantinople relating to a Parthenon deal in the Ottoman archives.

It follows that the whole legal edifice of ownership lying with the British Museum in London may be based on a “fraudulent instrument”.

Of course, even if Elgin did effectively exceed any authority he had to remove the marbles from the Acropolis and then commit fraud to offload the collection to the British Government to pay off his debts, any chance of a court case based on that fraud is long past.

However, there would be no need for one as the legal case would be about ownership, not a fraud perpetrated on the British Government by Elgin and by that reading any legal justification for the British Museum retaining the marbles would fall.

The museum can never have owned the collection in the first place.

[Some might see that as Karma given the then Government drove a hard bargain, only offering Elgin less than half of the seventy four thousand pounds he had asked for.]

Given this opinion is openly available from a number of sources, the British Government and the Governors of the British Museum must have received advice that this may be the case, even if they have chosen to ignore it, at least in public.

It is also the case that both sides seem to have backed away from the kind of legal challenge which appeared to be in the offing in 2011 when the Greek Government engaged leading human rights lawyer Amal Clooney and two colleagues from the Doughty Street Chambers to advise on a legal challenge to the British Museum.

The team advised taking the UK to court.

However, in December 2015 it was the Greek Government which seemed to have blinked first, discontinuing any legal proceedings and standing down Ms Clooney and the Doughty Street team. It was probably just too risky for either side to embark on a lengthy and expensive legal process where a victory by either party could close down the discussions for generations, leaving no room for a creative win-win fudge, such as that proposed by the Parthenon Project and its supporters.

Perhaps the best clue as to what may happen next lies in the final comment ascribed to Downing Street in media coverage of Rishi Sunak’s comments on the way to California.

That is that his Government believes that a long term loan of the marbles to Greece would not be “in the spirit” of the Government’s stated position.

Reading between the lines that is not a veto on a future loan or swop arrangement with Athens of a kind which Mr Sunak is prepared to defend the barricades over. Particularly as there would seem to be little potential for a successful legal action to stop such a loan if the British Museum trustees chose to make it.

In calling for a change in the law to prevent the British Museum making loans to countries which don’t acknowledge the Museum’s ownership of loan objects the Policy Exchange Report seems to admit that.

There would also seem to be few votes in the issue.

The most recent opinion poll, conducted by polling organisation You Gov in 2021, suggested that 56% of the British public favoured returning the Marbles to Athens. It is perhaps significant that a poll conducted by People Polling and issued alongside the Policy Exchange report did not ask that question, instead asking if respondents felt that the marbles would be returned if loaned to Athens. The implication being that in that event the Greeks would be somehow seizing British property.

Another reason for Mr Sunak to avoid converting words into a full on public confrontation over the Parthenon Marbles is that he would be up against an influential cadre within his own ruling Conservative Party, which includes not just former Chancellor George Osborne, but two of the leading lights of the same Parthenon Project which had apparently placed the kite flying story about a loan/swop deal in the Sunday Times, namely former culture minister Lord Vaizey and another veteran Conservative Peer, Lord Dobbs.

These are the, so called, men in grey suits who any Conservative Prime Minister needs to keep onside. Especially so one like Sunak who has no electoral mandate of his own and only a shaky grip on power following the disasters of the Johnson and Truss administrations.

A change of Government at Westminster might also bring a solution to one of cultural restitution’s oldest and most intractable cases significantly closer.

Current polling gives Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party a lead of at least fifteen points over the Conservatives. This is a figure which, if repeated at the next General Election which must come before 28 January 2025, would give the Labour Party a substantial majority.

While the issue appears not to be a priority for Starmer, the most recent comment from a senior Labour figure supported returning the marbles to Athens.

The elected mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, himself a former culture secretary under Gordon Brown and a former Labour leadership candidate, told an audience at the re-opening of Manchester Museum on 16 February [2023],

“Yes George (Osborne) you should give the Elgin Marbles back”

Mr Burnham added later on Twitter,

“Send them back, no strings. And let’s use culture to change how Britain is seen around the world.”

Labour MP Shami Chakrabarti has also supported the return of the marbles, appearing at a demonstration at the British Museum in support of reunification in June 2022 as did Dave Doogan MP of the Scottish Nationalist Party and four other Westminster politicians.

In the end, there is no question that those marbles belong in a museum, and the museum world at least world seems increasingly sure which one.

And it is the Acropolis museum in Athens, not the British Museum in London.

After all, as former Prime Minister, and self styled classicist and philhellene, Boris Johnson wrote in 1986 when President of the Oxford Union,

“…the reasons for taking the Marbles were good. The reasons for handing them back are better still. The Elgin Marbles should leave this northern whisky-drinking guilt culture, and be displayed where they belong: in a country of bright sunlight and the landscape of Achilles’?”

Although, to be fair, as with many things in Johnson’s political career, he has since stated completely the opposite position.

Which does not mean he was not right the first time and the change of mind was mere opportunism.

Meanwhile, adding to the pressure of the British Museum governors and Mr Sunak, Pope Francis instructed the Vatican Museum to return three pieces from the Parthenon Friezes which it held to Greece.

Keen to avoid any appearance of politicalising the gesture and overtly pressurising London the Pope stated the return was,

“a concrete sign of his sincere desire to follow in the ecumenical path of truth”

At one level then, in true Father Ted style, the return of the Parthenon Marbles would be an ecumenical matter.

Others would say, almost certainly correctly, that the solution to the Parthenon Marbles conundrum is profoundly political, but the political issues may not necessarily be resolved by initiatives emanating from Downing Street and the Palace of Westminster, much as some politicians, possibly possessing a relatively short shelf life, and their associated think tanks, might like to pretend that they are.

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