Everything you wanted to know about the Parthenon sculptures.. and weren’t afraid to ask
This was the theme of a briefing seminar held on May 1 at the University of NSW on the perennial subject of the Parthenon Marbles and why they should be returned to Greece.
Under the auspices of the Sydney Greek FestivalDavid Hill and George Vardas of the new Australian Parthenon Association (formerly known as Australians for the Return of the Parthenon Sculptures), gave separate but linked presentations on the history and significance of the Parthenon and its sculptures and recent developments in the ongoing campaign for their repatriation.
So what’s so alluring about the Parthenon and its sculptures?
As David Hill explained, the Parthenon is unique as a building and the purest expression of the Golden Age of Classical Greece in the 5th century BC. The monument of all monuments. And the sculptures that once adorned the Parthenon are “the most important ancient artifacts in the world”.
Hill, the chairman of the Australian committee, praised the naturalized idealism of movement and grace personified by these sculptural forms. Or as the Romantic poet Shelley put it, their “marbled immortality.”
The image of the temple built by Pericles at the height of the greatness of classical Greece is in fact the logo of UNESCO, which itself has recognized the Parthenon as an emblematic building of outstanding universal value inscribed on the List of World Heritage. Its forms and refined architectural lines have inspired architects of the classical Greek Revival style. The Parthenon’s rich sculptural ornamentation, overseen by master sculptor Phidias, has also inspired writers and poets over generations.
And then came Lord Elgin in 1801.
Abusing his diplomatic and political status as British Ambassador to the Sublime Porte in Constantinople, Elgin and his men bribed and cajoled local Ottoman officials and began to wreak havoc on the structure of the Parthenon by cutting off substantial parts sculptures of the pediment, the metopes and a large part of the incomparable Panathenaic frieze. Elgin later produced an English translation of a Turkish translation of an Ottoman document (never found) claiming to have given him permission to remove the carvings. The legality of Elgin’s actions has always been disputed.
Elgin, out of financial desperation and the breakdown of his marriage (and the consequent loss of an inheritance), was forced to “sell” the collection of looted “Elgin Marbles” to the British government who transferred them by legislative decision in the British Museum in 1816. They remained imprisoned in Bloomsbury for over 200 years. As David postulated, if you set out to decontextualize the Parthenon sculptures, you couldn’t do better than the soulless and drab Duveen Gallery.
The insult to the sculptural integrity of the Parthenon and its sculptures is evidenced by the split torso of the god Poseidon between the British Museum and the Acropolis Museum. There are also many other examples of sculptural pieces torn between museums.
David Hill is buoyed by recent developments and told the engaged and informed public that he remains optimistic that the Parthenon sculptures will return as soon as possible, especially as the current Greek government has now addressed the issue more candidly than his predecessors.
Recalling the immortal words of Melina Mercouri, Hill reminded the public that the sculptures are “the essence of our Greekness” and we look forward to the day of reckoning for their reunification at the Acropolis Museum in their natural and online context. crosshairs with the Parthenon they once adorned.
Committee Co-Vice-Chairman George Vardas reviewed recent developments in the international campaign and pointed out that the recent momentum in calls for the reunification of the sculptures looted by Lord Elgin at the turn of the 19th century dates back to the visit to Athens by a formidable legal team assembled by David Hill at the request of the Greek Prime Minister at the time, Antonis Samaras. The team of Geoffrey Robertson QC, Professor Norman Palmer and Amal Clooney visited Athens in 2014 and met with senior Greek government ministers and advisers.
The legal team eventually put together a lengthy legal advice for the Greek government, parts of which are summarized in Robertson’s book “Who Owns History?” and includes, in particular, an interesting discussion on how Greece, through the United Nations or UNESCO, can request that a legal question on the return of important looted cultural property – the “keys ancient history of a nation” – be referred to the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion.
It is reassuring that the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and the Minister of Culture, Dr Lina Mendoni, have expressly declared in recent months that Greece reserves all its rights, diplomatic, cultural and legal, in the pursuit of the return request.
At the end of September 2021, the 22n/a Session of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee on the Return of Cultural Property convened in Paris (both in person and via audio-visual link) and after hearing a detailed submission from the Greek side and a predictable but worn response from the representative of the UK Ministry of Culture, the UNESCO committee decided unanimously that the question of the return of the Parthenon sculptures remained strictly speaking an intergovernmental dispute (and not simply a problem between museums, as the United Kingdom maintains) and urged the British government to enter into a genuine understanding of good faith dialogue with the Greeks over what UNESCO called a “legitimate and legitimate demand of ‘Greece'”.
the 23rd session of the Intergovernmental Committee of UNESCO will take place in Paris later this month and it will indeed be interesting to see how the British react this time around.
Fees on success at UNESCO. the Greek Prime Minister visited 10 Downing Street and met his British counterpart and raised the issue of return directly with Boris Johnson with a view to drawing up a roadmap to find an acceptable solution. Johnson, for his part, resorted to the tired old argument that the trustees of the British Museum are solely responsible for the conservation of the sculptures and that governments cannot intervene. In turn, the trustees of the British Museum traditionally hide by claiming that they are bound by the British Museum Act 1963 which effectively prevents them from removing any item from their collection. As Clooney writes in the legal opinion, this is just another example of eternal redistribution.
According to Vardas, this is a case of “Cultural Catch-22”.
But the whole conservative establishment in London no longer buys it. January 11, 2022 The Times of London finally said in an editorial that for more than 50 years the British government, supported by this newspaper, had resisted calls for the return of these artefacts so fundamental to Greece’s cultural identity, but could no longer do so. To do. For times and circumstances change, according to The temperature and the sculptures belong to Athens and they should now return.
The return of the so-called Palermo Fragment from Sicily in early 2022 is also a positive step in the campaign. The fragment of the Panathenaic Frieze was acquired around 1816 by Robert Fagan, a contemporary of Elgin, and at the time British Consul in Sicily, and eventually found in the Antonino Salinas Archaeological Museum in Palermo. In an example of enlightened cultural diplomacy and museological practice, the Greek and Sicilian authorities agreed to have the fragment returned and deposited in the Acropolis Museum, effectively in perpetuity, with the Greeks initially having to send Palermo two rare Classical Greek artifacts per way of short-term loans.
There are examples of other Parthenon fragments in museums across Europe, including the Louvre, the Vatican, Vienna and Copenhagen, and George Vardas insisted that the Greek gaze should also turn to these pieces, as the Greece is using its considerable cultural diplomatic cache to apply more pressure on the recalcitrant British Museum.
During an informative question-and-answer session at the end of the presentations, the discussion turned to the growing movement to repatriate cultural objects looted during the colonial era and examples were given of bronzes from Benin, treasures from Ethiopia’s Maqdala and even, closer to home, the case of the Gweagal shield taken by Captain Cook’s landing party after their first encounters with native warriors at Botany Bay and now locked away in a wooden cabinet. glass in the “Hall of Lights” of the British Museum.
There is indeed a growing awareness and a rising tide of feeling that important cultural artefacts taken in questionable circumstances should now be returned to their country of origin.
It’s time for the Parthenon sculptures to finally go home.
Co-Vice President, Australian Parthenon Association