Letters to the Editor: “The Parthenon marbles will be returned, but when?”

Ex-Secretary General of ICOM weighs on on the marbles' status in Britain with an offer of compromise


The debate about whether the "Parthenon Marbles" should remain at the British Museum or return to Athens has been going on for quite some time now. Ten years ago, I chose to abstain from the discussion, as did the Executive Council of International Council of Museums (ICOM) I served, because the subject was too delicate and it was not considered proper for an international professional organisation to meddle in national affairs. What follows is an individual's opinion.

In the case of the return or non-return of the Parthenon marbles, we are faced with issues that are neither Greek nor English in terms of 18th-century notions of nation. And, please don't dismiss me as a "globalist"! We are obviously living at a different time, one in which we recognise the greatness as well as the necessity to preserve natural or man-made monuments. And many of us travel all over the world to admire them and their history.

Nor is it because institutions, national or intergovernmental declare a place or a monument to be World Heritage (no! I do not represent Unesco nor speak for it) that I would automatically agree with the decision.

No. In the present case, an issue that soars above not only national boundaries but also above deductive analysis confuses us. We are dealing with a symbol of all democracies. We created it. Most of us feel it; some of us know it. The Parthenon is a monument we in the Western world have all come to associate with the "birth of democracy". It is a monument of civic pride, for all Greeks and Athenians. Many Westerners admire it in photographs and eventually undertake a sort of pilgrimage to it. Those marbles in the British Museum do belong to the Parthenon in Greece, unique because of its national and international symbolism. If parts of monuments, such as Westminster Abbey, the Lincoln Memorial, the Eiffel tower, the tower of Pisa , etc., were in nations other than their places of origin, the same claims about the return of symbols of nationhood could be made.

The issue of the restitution of the Parthenon marbles has been caught in a quagmire of details and personal issues, not very noble and mostly political. In most encounters and documents, efforts are spent in preparing arguments based on details that occurred in the past and are now interpreted as suits one party or another. It is time to step back from the problem and cease with the inflammatory language about theft and lack of responsibility that inevitably causes retrenchment. Time has come to be open-minded and creative.

It is only fair to say that the marbles were removed when this sort of practice by Westerners was going on openly all over the ancient world with the approval of local authorities. It is no longer practiced. It is not reasonable, nor acceptable to be reprimanded today for an act that occurred with a measure of support in the past. It is time to stop accusing the British and Lord Elgin of theft.

These marbles were collected, protected, have been stored, saved, preserved, restored and studied. They have been admired freely at the British Museum for years. The alternative is that they would have suffered degradation, could well have perished in lime kilns or been dispersed in fragments. Recognition for all this, without further tangential interpretation, must be given with as much grace as possible.

To conclude, the Parthenon marbles should return home. This can be done equitably, possibly along the following suggestions, which might be implemented in detail by a bilateral or intergovernmental commission:

Access to all the Parthenon marbles and their future safety in Athens has to be guaranteed. Nothing less will do since they have been saved so far, are readily visible and would be protected in the British Museum if they remained there. Thus, a museum with the highest standards of conservation and management has to exist in Athens.

-An exact duplicate (we all know this is possible to achieve nowadays) of the returned marbles should be offered by the Greek people to the British Museum in place of the originals.

-An installation of bronze plaques with texts in English and Greek in each installation would explain the position of the parties. In the British Museum, the text would state that the Greek people are glad to offer an exact duplicate in gratitude to the British for having protected the marbles for so many years and for returning them to Greece. The other plaque, in the Athenian museum for the reinstalled marbles, would thank the British for returning the marbles to Greece after having cared for them all these years, and indicate that an exact duplicate had been sent as a gift to London.

-As a further expression of gratitude, it would be gracious if British subjects could visit the original marbles, in their new installation in Athens, free of charge for a period of 99 years.

The time is here or almost upon us. Without doubt, the marbles will ultimately return to the Parthenon. Just which generation will make that possible is the question.

I do not agree with detractors who declare sophomorically: "if one object is returned then all others will be requested and will have to follow." The case of the Parthenon marbles remains unique because of their association to a well-established symbol of national identity. Most objects in museums all over the world are mute cultural ambassadors representing a general culture of the past. They are not, and never will be, THE national and international symbol that the Parthenon and its marbles are for democracy and its place of birth.

The writer was Secretary General of ICOM, 1985-91

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '"The Parthenon marbles will be returned, but when?"'