THE LABOUR PARTY REFUSES TO RETURN THE MARBLES
June 2009 update
Just days before the New Acropolis Museum opened in Athens, a spokesperson for the Labour government's
Department for Culture, Media and Sport made it clear that the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum
would not be moving back to Athens.
"Neither the trustees nor the British government believe they should be returned. The main arguments are
that they are available free of charge in a museum that has more visitors than any other in the world;
they are looked after in perfect environmental conditions; and above all they are presented in a world context."
Asked if the Parthenon sculptures would ever be returned, the spokesperson replied "Never say never,
but I can't imagine the circumstances will ever change."
When the Labour Party came to power in 1997, the Labour government, from
its first days in office, declared its opposition to the return of the
Parthenon Marbles to Greece. The Labour Heritage spokesperson, Mark Fisher,
was sympathetic to the idea that the Parthenon Marbles should be returned
to Athens. The Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the House of Commons
even conducted an inquiry into the return of cultural property. But nothing
was to come of this. Fisher was soon to lose his position in government
and although there was some support among Labour Members of Parliament
for the return of the Parthenon Marbles, the government refused to listen.
When Labour left power in 2010 they had not moved one inch closer to supporting
the return of the Parthenon Marbles, even though during their period in
office the Greeks had built a state of the art museum with enough space
reserved for the Parthenon Marbles still held in the British Museum in
Text of the Press release from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee
of the House of Commons.
20 October 1999
At its meeting today the Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the House
of Commons decided in principle to conduct an inquiry into The Return
of Cultural Property. The Committee is likely to begin taking oral evidence
in February or early March 2000.
The terms of reference will be announced by the Committee in due course,
probably early in the New Year. The inquiry will be concerned in part
with measures to control the illicit trade in cultural property, but
will also consider public policy towards the return of cultural property
in other circumstances . Among the issues the Committee are likely
to consider are:
The Committee reports to Parliament and makes recommendations for the Departure
for Culture, Media and Sport and its associated public bodies. The Committee
will decide in due course the extent to which the inquiry will examine the
application of policies on return in relation to particular objects or items
- The operational effect of European legislation relating to the return
of cultural objects;
- the advantages, disadvantages, requirements and consequences of UK
ratification of the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on the International Return
of Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects and the 1970 UNESCO
Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import,
Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property; and
- the policies of the Government and of publicly funded museums
towards the accession, retention and de-accession of cultural property
subject to claims for return .
The Committee will issue a general invitation for written evidence in the
New Year. Those who wish to receive further information about the inquiry
when it is available or wish to draw the Committee's attention to matters
which may be relevant to the inquiry should write to Colin Lee, Clerk of
the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Committee Office, House of Commons,
7 Millbank, London SW1P 3JA.
The current position of the Labour government
One of the first statements by the new Labour government was the
announcement by the new Minister for Culture, Media and Sport Chris Smith
that the Parthenon Marbles would not be returned to Greece. It has been
obvious for some time that the policy of a previous Labour leader, Neil
Kinnock, that the Marbles should be returned, was no longer supported by
the Union Jack waving patriot Tony Blair.
However, an encouraging interview was given to the Daily Telegraph 12
months before the election by the then Labour Heritage spokesperson, Mark
Fisher. He is now the Arts Minister. He was reported as saying then that
a Labour government would reopen talks with Greece to discuss the return
of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens.
According to Fisher, Greece had now met many of the British objections
to their return. Standards in Greek museums had improved and atmospheric
pollution in Athens had been reduced. Also, a museum was now planned for
the Acropolis which would provide a suitable home for the Marbles. Mr Fisher
is quoted by the Daily Telegraph as saying that "it would be foolish and
internationally churlish not to hold proper talks with the Greek government."
Not so encouraging were his next comments. He claimed that the Labour
Party was open minded about the outcome of the negotiations and that the
British Museum had "a very good case as well as the Greeks". All this
has now been superseded by the decision of ... who exactly? ....... that
the Marbles will remain in the British Museum.
When we were preparing this site at the beginning of 1997 we sent an email
to the Policy Unit at Labour Party headquarters, asking for the Labour Party's
position on the Parthenon Marbles. Their brief reply by email said:
"The Labour Party has no plans at present to return the Elgin (sic)
Marbles, however this policy is currently under review and a statement
is due out sometime in 1997."
Unfortunately, the Labour Party has never adopted a policy
on the Parthenon Marbles. This leaves it up to the Labour Party leader
to decide on policy. Two former leaders of the Labour Party, Michael Foot
and Neil Kinnock, both supported the return of the Parthenon Marbles to
Greece. Unfortunately, neither of them became Prime Minister.
The "New" Labour Party is even more reluctant to consult its members
on policy than the "Old" Labour Party was. So there is little chance that
Labour Party members will get the chance to express an opinion and form
Labour Party policy. That means the decision will remain in the hands
of the Labour leader.
Mark Fisher refuses to come clean
Parthenon Marbles activist Malcolm Wright wrote to the then Arts
Minister Mark Fisher in an attempt to clarify the government's position.
Below we print his letter and the Government's reply, probably written by
a civil servant.
| Dear Mr Fisher,
I write regarding a subject that is very close to my heart -- and
indeed it is a subject that I believe has been of considerable interest
to you. That subject is the Elgin Collection in the British Museum.
In October 1996 you held an interview with William Stewart from
Channel 4 for a Without Walls documentary on the return of the
marbles. In that interview, you clearly stated that the opening
of negotiations with Greece for the return of the marbles would
be on the Labour Party agenda. In May of last year, supporters'
hopes were dashed by Chris Smith's rash statement that the marbles
were "now an integral part of the British Museum". However, if
the sculptures are integral to anything, it is to the Parthenon
-- and literally so, for many of the reliefs were carved into
the building itself rather than attached as decoration.
So, clearly there appears to be a change in policy, but where
did this come from? I urge the Labour Party to reconsider this
rash decision. The issue is about to resurface with a new edition
of a book that argues the justified return of the sculptures.
Therefore, this subject will really not go away.
The Labour Party is looking to provide a world stage for the
Millennium with the dome at Greenwich. Whilst 2000 is now too
close to return the marbles, what if negotiations were opened
in time for 2004 when Athens will hold the Olympics? Would it
not be seen as a great gesture of forward thinking by the British
Government to offer the return of such a disputed treasure? Imagine,
the Olympics as a central stage to the world and Athens' most
prized and known symbol (in fact a symbol of all democracy) --
the Parthenon once again whole with the sculptures being returned
to the new, imminent museum at the base of the Acropolis.
Mr Fisher, I realise that there are many, many issues that the
Labour Party must tackle in its first term, but this is a key
to so many people -- and not just in Greece. If you have access
to the Internet I urge you to take a look at http://www.uk.digiserve.com/mentor/marbles/
and gain an insight in to how the global population feels about
Finally, please can you spare me five minutes to let me know
exactly where the Labour Party now stands on the issue. I would
love to take the opportunity to meet you in person and discuss
this matter. However, if this is too difficult I would be more
than happy with a written response.
Thanks for your time in reading this letter and I hope to receive
a response from you in the near future.
The Ministry of Culture's reply
| 18 March 1998
Dear Mr Wright,
Thank you for your letter of 1 March addressed to the Arts Minister,
Mr Fisher, about the Parthenon Sculptures. I have been asked to
The Government recognises the importance of the history of Greek
culture and thinking to all modern Europeans, and values the exchange
of ideas and information. However, the Government has considered
all the evidence, including the historical background to the acquisition
of the Sculptures and the implications for the return of other
objects to their countries of origin, and has concluded that the
Sculptures should remain in the British Museum. The Sculptures
were legally acquired and are vested in the Trustees of the British
Museum, who are prevented under the Museum's governing statute
from disposing of objects in the Museum's collections unless they
are duplicates or worthless. The British Museum is a universal
museum, transcending national boundaries, in the same genre as
those in Paris and Berlin and the Sculptures are an integral part
of the museum's whole collection. The Government believes that
any general attempt to return legally acquired objects to their
countries of origin could involve dispersing most of the world's
Mr Fisher did not say in 1996 that the Sculptures should be
returned. He was pointing to a number of factors which are relevant
to the decision and have to be taken into account. The Government
has considered those factors but has nevertheless decided against
the return of the Sculptures, given the British Museum's legal
ownership of them and the very wide implications of returning
legally acquired objects.
Protest at the Labour decision
This government reply says nothing new of course.
Even if we accept that the Turks had the right to dispose of the Parthenon
Marbles, the question of whether Elgin legally acquired them is still
open to dispute. We do not accept that they were legally acquired and
we soon hope to make available an academic paper which proves they were
not legally acquired.
2) Change the law.
While it is true that the British Museum is not permitted to dispose of
its treasures, a change in the law would make it possible for the Marbles
to be returned to Greece.
3) Only the Parthenon Marbles
Greece is not demanding any of its other treasures back and there is no
evidence that the return of the Parthenon Marbles would lead to demands
from all over the world for the return of other artefacts.
4) Replicas for the empty hall
Whether or not the Parthenon Marbles are an "integral part" of the British
Museum's display, they could quite easily be replaced by a replica once
the originals have been returned to Greece.
So all the government's objections are paper thin as usual.
What we want to know is:
1) When was the new policy adopted?
2) Who exactly took the decision?
3) What consultations took place before the decision was taken and who