The British Committee was set up in 1983. This was in response to Melina Mercouri's initiative in calling for the return of the Parthenon sculptures to Greece at an international conference of Ministers of Culture in 1982. The Committee's objective is to bring together all the separated parts of the fabric of the Parthenon, so restoring the integrity of the monument.
At that time most Britons believed that the marbles had been purchased in order to preserve them from destruction, and that they were now housed where the civilised world could see them best.
As a consequence, there has been a radical change in public opinion. More and more people accept the evidence that the sculptures were taken without the sanction of the Greek people and that their treatment in the care of the British Museum is open to question.
The British also realise that the best place in which to see the monuments is where they belong. They now begin to understand the importance to Greece -- and to the rest of the world -- of maintaining the integrity of a monument that is both a unique masterpiece and a symbol of Greek nationhood.
Among its many activities the committee has arranged debates and radio, television and newspaper polls. All have been conducted by recognised research institutes. All have heavily favoured restitution.
There yet remains one more campaign -- against establishment opinion. This does not countenance argument but employs every device of prejudice. But its weakness is that it no longer has any case to make. So long as we persevere, we shall win.
On this page we will keep visitors informed of the activities of the British Committee. Below we publish extracts from the January 1999 newsletter. Campaign news from the British Committee appears on the Campaign Update page.
If you wish to contact the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, you can email the secretary, Eleni Cubitt, at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website at www.parthenonuk.com
Who owns what? The parts belong to the wholeby Graham Binns, chairperson, British Committee for the Reunificiation of the Parthenon Marbles
The Parthenon, a building significant to European civilisation, happens to be in Athens. It is best understood in the context of the monuments that surround it. A part of the building has, through the course of history, been detached from its structure. It would be sensible to exhibit these detached parts close to the building itself so that it can be studied as a whole. This is not so much a question of who owns these parts as a matter of recognising the best way of allowing us all to see and to understand the Parthenon.
As, with minor exceptions, all the detached parts that are not in Greece are in Britain, and as both countries respect the values that the building represents, it would be shameful if trivial prejudices were to obstruct the restitution of the "Elgin" Marbles --not to Greece, but to the Parthenon. This issue is not just a tussle between Greece and Britain. It is a matter of how best we can all enjoy our inheritance.
In an interview with Jeremy Paxman on 19 November 1998, Dr Anderson, the director of the British Museum, spoke of the museum's "legal title", at the same time acknowledging the historical circumstances that prevailed when the sculpted parts of the Parthenon's structure were acquired. The "legal title" is yet to be tested, but for Dr Anderson to rest his case upon it indicates a shockingly blinkered view. We are not stuck in a time warp. In 1770 Captain Cook hoisted English colours over New South Wales, but Dr Anderson would acknowledge that this historical circumstance has been overtaken. So it is with the Marbles. Times have changed. Questions of ownership can, with goodwill, be resolved. Professor Venizelos, the Greek Minister of Culture, has shown this goodwill in his approaches to our Mr Smith, but Mr Smith continues, like the late Mr Molotov, to say Niet! Niet! Niet! all the time, while refusing to take part in any really constructive discussion of the issue. It is not beyond the wit and wisdom of governments to sort out some procedure, some quid pro quo that will satisfy British Elginian amour propre. That is the sort of thing politicians are for. So dear Mr Smith, the Greeks are waiting to talk, UNESCO is asking you to talk, and a great number of British people want you to talk --with an open mind and a willingness to seek agreement with friends. Why not?
When this campaign was renewed in the 1980s, the Parthenon sculptures were not a popular issue in Britain. Now, not only is there a wide awareness of the circumstances of the case but on every test the people and their elected representatives tend to favour restitution. That's progress! Now we want to urge a final surge forward so that by 2004, when the Olympic Games go to Athens, when the world is watching and the new museum at the foot of the Acropolis is opened, the Marbles will be there to grace it.
Clean, honest and truthful?
This cover-up has, if anything, extended the gravity of the original offence from 1939 up to the present day. The museum continues to be shifty. It has announced that it intends to hold an international conference in November 1999 (17 months after Mr St Clair's revelations) to report on its own findings and also to widen the discussion to include the condition and treatment of similar monuments elsewhere since the 1930s. The clear intention is to obfuscate the issue by attempting to identify scandalous mistreatment of artefacts elsewhere and so spread the odium over a wider area. It is a well known defensive tactic, deceives no one, and is surely unworthy of a great institution. The scandal that has at last been fully uncovered relates to the British Museum alone.
When John Major restored the Stone of Scone to Edinburgh nobody said that if it went on like this there wouldn't be one stone to pile upon another in Westminster Abbey. When the British Museum returned a portion of the beard of the Sphinx to Egypt so that the fabulous couchant beast could be properly restored, nobody howled about the emptying of the world's galleries. When the Lane Collection was returned to Dublin, the sky remained in place.
But just you try mentioning the British Museum's Elgin collection on a radio show or in a pub or simply in conversation, and some saloon-bar philosopher is absolutely certain to strike up. Give them back and where will it all end, the museum's of Europe the denuded, Bloomsbury a place of banging shutters and tumbleweed...
There are two reasons for this endless incantation, which is nearly as durable as the simple pun on "losing our marbles" which every saloon-bar savant believes he has coined for the first time. The first reason is the pricking of a poor conscience. Even people who claim that Lord Elgin rescued the Marbles from a worse fate -- an argument which does have some truth to it -- are dimly aware that by saving the property of a neighbour you do not become the sole owner of that property.
It's also quite well understood that Elgin negotiated the removal with the then Turkish occupiers, and that the Greeks were helpless to prevent their colonial bosses from disposing of treasures they did not especially rever. No great cause for British pride there.
The second reason has to do with a simple misunderstanding. No international law governs the allocation of sculptures, paintings, bronzes or any other artefact. And there is no international body, let alone an international authority, to which application can be made. The European Parliament can express an opinion, if it so desires, and so may UNESCO for all the good that may do. But what any nation "has", by way of museum objects, it is free to hold or to return.
The whole question of precedent, then, is a huge waste of breath. There are no precedents, only individual instances like the ones I mentioned above.
In the case of the Parthenon sculptures, to give them their proper name, the precedent argument is unusually silly. For one thing, the Greeks do not want anything else "back". They are rather pleased that samples of the heroic age are on display everywhere. But the sculpture that was cast under the direction of Phidias himself, to adorn the Temple of Athena, is as close as you can come to a unique case. In 500 or so feet of almost breathing stone, it tells a story. It was cast as a unity. It is an integral part of perhaps the most beautiful building that still survives from antiquity.
If the Marbles were a canvas, and that canvass had been arbitrarily cut or torn in two, and the two halves were in separate galleries they would have been reunited by now on aesthetic grounds alone. Short of moving the rest of the Parthenon to Great Russell Street, there is only one way that an intelligent visitor will ever be able to see the whole design, and that is by an act of generous restitution. To hear some people talk, you would think that such a restitution would cause the Marbles to disappear from view. But during the past few years the Greek authorities have been taking the matter very seriously. A new museum is in preparation, on the slopes of the Acropolis, in which it will be possible to house all the sculpture in one place, in controlled conditions which will prevent damage from pollution. This one place will be right next to the temple, so that a student can view the building and its decoration in the exact historical geographic and architectural context, all in one day. It is partly the fault of the Greeks that this was not possible before, so that the long-running argument over the sculpture, which began when Byron first lampooned Lord Elgin in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage in 1817, has always been a case of either/or. Should we give them back, or have we acquired nine points of the law by careful possession? Deadlock and constipation and amour-propre.
Now, a completely different proposition can be made. Would the British people, through their parliament, care to become co-sponsors of a restored Acropolis, complete with its Parthenon centrepiece? I do not think the handsomeness of this offer has begun to be appreciated. Picture the scene. The museum is opened in the shadow of the Acropolis. The Speaker of the House of Commons, and the Prime Minister, perhaps, are honoured guests of the Greek parliament. They jointly announce that, for the first time in almost two hundred years, the caryatids, Lapiths, Centaurs, horses and chariots can be seen as they were intended to be seen, as an aesthetic unity. At least one of the ravages of time, war and chaos has been, as far as is humanely possible, undone.
In Greek and Cypriot tavernas all over the world, it is announced that on this day British guests eat and drink for nothing. A stone on the site records that, like Gladstone's return of the Ionian Islands, a great act of magnanimity and symmetry has been performed by the islanders of the North Sea.
Something like this was actually proposed by the Tory MP Thelma Cazalet in the Commons in 1944. The gesture then was intended to commemorate the moment when Britain and Greece had been sole partners in the fight against Nazi imperialism. That chance was missed, thanks to pettifogging in the Foreign Office, and the old, grudging repetitions were resumed.
But now there's no excuse. Nobody needs to give anything up. Everybody can be a winner. It would be a shame, I think, churlishly to decline such an offer. But no doubt there will be those who want to go to the last ditch, grumbling in their warm beer that the next thing you know we'll be appeasing the Babylonians.
This article is reproduced with kind permission of Christopher Hitchens and the Evening Standard, in which it appeared on 4 March 1998.
Back in the bright new dawn of the Labour government, when the nation was still creeping across the stage like the prisoners' chorus in Fidelio, blinking in the unaccustomed brightness of the day, a sudden, discordant note was struck. It wasn't very loud, but loud enough to jolt the harmony. It came from the freshly minted Minister of Culture: in Mr Smith's first policy disclosure, the Minister declared that, contrary to widespread expectation and in defiance of what appears to be the majority opinion of the British public, the so-called Elgin Marbles would not be returning to Athens. They were, he said, an integral part of the British museum's collection and it was not a "feasible or a sensible option" to send them back. It was a bit like saying that Hong Kong was an integral part of Britain's collection of colonies: true enough, in its way, but not, at this stage in history, quite the view you expect a Labour government to embrace.
The pronouncement caused consternation in Athens, but some dismay in this country, too. The rejoicing in Greece at the news of the Labour government's landslide was founded on a promise made by the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, 12 years ago. The Parthenon without its marble frieze, Mr Kinnock had said, was like a smile without a tooth. The Marbles, he pledged, would be returned as soon as the Labour Party gained power.
What changed their minds? It can hardly have been the fear of a backlash. Last June, in the wake of a channel 4 poll which showed an overwhelming majority of the British people in favour of the return of the Marbles, more than 100 MPs signed an early day motion calling on the Conservative government to enter into immediate negotiations. In the European Parliament 250 MEPs, including more than 40 Labour members, supported a similar motion. If the polls are to be believed, they could even have achieved that rare thing in politics -- doing well by doing good. No wonder the Greek Minister of Culture, Evangelos Venizelos, whose slightly precipitate enthusiasm had provoked Mr Smith's response, was stunned.
The arguments against return have grown steadily more threadbare over the years, though a number of myths have lodged themselves in the darker corners of the British consciousness. One is that the seventh Earl of Elgin somehow rescued the Marbles from the Parthenon, where passing Barbarians would undoubtedly have destroyed them. In fact, Lord Elgin, who at the time was British ambassador to Constantinople, was on a personal shopping expedition looking for useful bits of antiquity with which to decorate the country seat he was having built back home. His original intention was to copy them, but when that proved difficult and the opportunity arose to remove the originals he seized it.
The poor Greeks, who were part of the Ottoman empire at time, had no say in the matter and the Turks cared less about the fact that a frieze the Greeks placed at the centre of their identity and culture was being hacked off and carted away than they did about securing British support against Napoleon.
It was only later --in 1816 -- when his marriage had collapsed and he had lost both his diplomatic position and his seat in the Lords, that Lord Elgin sold them to the nation to recover some of his costs. Even at the time, some thought the whole episode a disgrace to a nation that prided itself on its lofty cultural values -- the most famous of them being Lord Byron.
The Marbles have now been demanded many times by successive, democratically elected governments of Greece, which is a fellow member of Nato, the European Union and the Council of Europe. The notion that they are safer in London no longer stands; the Barbarians are no more of a threat in Athens than in London and the Greek government, which has spent millions of pounds on the restoration and conservation of cultural objects, is currently building a special Museum at the foot of the Acropolis to house the models. There they would be protected from the air pollution that serves as another part of the British case for retention.
It's an old argument, but surely one that we should now settle. British museums are, course, stuffed with other nations' treasures, many acquired in circumstances that do not bear examination in the light of today's moral and cultural values. But the Elgin Marbles are unique not only in their ranking as one of the world's greatest cultural artefacts: they are at the heart of Greek cultural identity. As Professor John Boardman put it: 'the story of the Parthenon...embraces the beginnings of organised religious life in Greece...the physical, political, economic, social and military history of Athens itself."
For generations, cultured Britons have studied ancient Greece as a prime source of the cultural mix we define as British. Such studies were thought to enrich both the cultural and the moral understanding. Now that we have a proper Minister of Culture in a government that proclaims itself intent on joining the modern world, surely we can abandon the fustian pretence that the Parthenon Marbles play a more important cultural role in Bloomsbury than they did -- and would again -- in Greece.
A substantial part of the article "Time to make Greeks a gift of the Marbles" has been reproduced here with kind permission of Isabel Hilton and the Guardian.