For those who are hoping that the British Museum may reconsider its position on the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles and adopt a position closer to the views of the United Nations and UNESCO and thereby contribute towards an acceptable solution to this decades-long dispute on the Parthenon Marbles, the statement issued by the British Museum almost a year ago, on 21 April 21 2007, must serve as a warning that such a change is not on the horizon. The recent Athens Conference on the Return of Cultural Objects to their Countries of Origin has not elicited any new statement on the policy of a museum which claims to serve the whole world. We comment briefly on some aspects of the statement.
“The Trustees have for years been looking to see if there is any reasonable ground on which a way forward with Greek colleagues might be constructed. To date, this has sadly not proved possible. Among many problems has been that successive Greek government have publicly disputed the Trustees' unquestionable legal ownership of the sculptures. This has made any meaningful discussions virtually impossible.”
What the British Museum is saying is that since successive Greek governments have disputed the Museum's “unquestionable legal ownership of the sculptures”, there can be no meaningful discussions. This is the reassertion of imperialist arrogance and feelings of superiority and total disregard of the opinion of the United Nations, UNESCO and the rest of the international community. If Greece could acknowledge British ownership of the marbles, then what has been the point of the dispute for all these decades? Who decided that the Trustees of the British Museum have “unquestionable legal ownership of the sculptures”? The Trustees of the museum have declared themselves as having “unquestionable legal ownership”! One of the first things one learns in Law Schools and which can also be absorbed by assiduous television watchers is that you cannot be a judge in your own case. So how can the Trustees of the British Museum, sitting in Bloomsbury, not far from the Law Faculties of the University of London and not very far from the Strand where the Law Courts and many law offices are, decide the issue in their dispute with the Greek government? Did they seek legal advice? Presumably not, for most unbiased lawyers would have told them that given the circumstances of the acquisition of the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles and the absence of any reliable written evidence, there is no certainty about the issue of the dispute. The British Museum has never accepted to have the issue of ownership decided by a court or panel of arbitrators or independent panel of experts.
“The Trustees see the sculptures as an integral part of the Museum's collection in London, part of the unique overview of world civilizations that the British Museum exists to present. In consequence, they have always made clear that they cannot contemplate the removal of all of the Parthenon sculptures to Athens, even for a short period of time.”
The attempt to present the Marbles removed from Athens to London as part of an integral part of a collection that cannot be moved is of course nonsense. How did the Marbles come to London if not through removal from Athens? What can be moved from Athens to London can also be moved from London to Athens. The pretence of having a function to present a unique view of world civilization is simply a repetition of an imperialist viewpoint. Who requested the British to present an overview of world civilizations? The need only grew out of their imperialist control of the countries of other peoples. Besides, most of their displays of the rest of the world were mainly to convince the British tax-payer that the British Empire was a great blessing to the savages in other parts of the world. Much of the racial prejudices have come from the racist shows and other exhibitions by the British Museum.
“They will consider (subject to the usual questions of condition and fitness to travel) any request for any part of the collection to be borrowed and then returned. The simple precondition is that the borrowing institution acknowledges the British Museum's ownership of the object.”
The British Museum here generously declares itself ready to lend objects to other museums, on the “simple precondition” that the Museums' ownership of the object is acknowledged. One thing which is not simple is to acknowledge that the British Museum has ownership in the many stolen objects or illegally acquired items that fill the museum and its depots, including the Rosetta stone, the Ethiopian manuscripts and crosses, the Asante treasures, the Benin bronzes and the many objects removed during the colonial days and brought to London.
Were such an acknowledgement so simple, why has the dispute with Greece lasted so long?
The museum reserves for itself the right to determine what objects can travel and which cannot. Africans have experienced how this condition can be used to avoid sending any object from the museum. The British refused in 1977 to lend to the Nigerian Government the ivory hip mask, representing Idia, the Queen Mother of Benin, which was the official mascot of FESTAC. The mask was among those items which the British soldiers stole in 1897 when they invaded Benin City, looted some 5000 Benin artworks, burnt the city, arrested Oba Owenramwen and sent him into exile and executed his close advisers. Attempts by the Benin Royal Family and the Nigerian Government to recover some of these objects have been in vain. Indeed, the Nigerian government had to buy a few of the Benin bronzes when they were put up for sale. What the British Museum's implies that if the Benin people and the Government of Nigeria would acknowledge the Museum's ownership in the Bronzes, consideration might be given to the request to loan a few objects provided that those objects would be in condition to travel. The Trustees of the British Museum must have a very low impression of our intelligence.
This official statement of the British Museum shows, that the Museum has not changed its position on the question of restitution of the Parthenon Marbles despite any hopeful statements that may have been made by the Greeks. The Museum restates it long-standing negative position.
The statement from the British Museum is a very sad commentary on our world of culture when venerable institutions appear to disrespect the most elementary rules of justice and fairness. Cultural institutions appear to be supporting wrongdoing instead of showing good examples of honest administration. We have these days directors of some of the most prestigious museums praising robbers of archaeological artefacts for their bravery whilst at the same time condemning States for attempting to regulate illegal excavations and illicit trade.
It is also sad for the British people when their leading high institution of culture does not convey the British sense of fair play and a sense of justice.
When was it ever accepted that one can be a player and an umpire at the same time in a cricket match or that one team in a football match can provide the referee? So why will the British Museum not accept that in its dispute with Greece over the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles an impartial arbitrator or a judge might be in a better position to settle the issue of ownership rather than for the Board of Trustees of the British Museum to declare pompously that the Trustees have an “unquestionable legal ownership of the sculptures”?
The majority of British academics and intellectuals are in favour of the Marbles returning to Athens. The majority of the British public is also in favour of returning the Marbles to Athens. So who is really preventing the settling of this dispute? One can only speculate that the British Museum itself is the main obstacle. The Museum and its supporters have managed to turn a dispute over cultural objects into a national dispute between Great Britain and Greece, two members of the European Union, and do not seem to be concerned to have the issue settled so soon.
The recent UNESCO International Conference on the Return of Cultural Objects to their Countries of Origin, Athens, 17-18 March, 2008 emphasized the importance of cultural heritage property for the self-definition of a people and a community and urged museums to initiate dialogue on the return of cultural property to the countries or communities of origin. Judging by this statement of 2007 it is doubtful that the British Museum would in future react in any favourable way.
It is clear from the attitude and position of the British Museum and the British Government towards the Greeks and their government whom they have always considered as civilised, that the claims of those peoples and their governments whom the British Government and the British Museum have until recently considered as primitive, will not be easily and quickly settled. It looks almost as if the British Museum and the other so-called universal museums are determined to remove every piece of evidence in our countries which suggests a prospering civilization in order to confirm their conviction that civilization is only possible in their countries or in countries under their control. The struggle for the recovery of cultural property will be a very long and difficult one, if the experience of the last hundred years is anything to go by. We should not entertain any illusory hopes that lions can change overnight.
In the light of recent statements from the Greek Embassy in London and in order to avoid misunderstanding, the Trustees of the British Museum wish to restate their position on the Parthenon Sculptures in the Museum's collection.
The Trustees have for years been looking to see if there is any reasonable ground on which a way forward with Greek colleagues might be constructed. To date, this has sadly not proved possible. Among many problems has been that successive Greek government have publicly disputed the Trustees' unquestionable legal ownership of the Sculptures. This has made any meaningful discussions virtually impossible.
The Trustees see the sculptures as an integral part of the Museum's collection in London, part of the unique overview of world civilizations that the British Museum exists to present. In consequence, they have always made clear that they cannot contemplate the removal of all of the Parthenon sculptures to Athens, even for a short period of time. This remains their position. The idea, first floated by the previous Greek administration in 2000, of a British Museum outpost in Athens, is therefore neither new nor a viable way forward, as was made clear then and on a number of occasions since.
The Trustees frequently lend objects from the collection to museums all round the world. In the last year alone they have lent 4,400 objects to hundreds of museums worldwide. They will consider (subject to the usual questions of condition and fitness to travel) any request for any part of the collection to be borrowed and then returned. The simple precondition is that the borrowing institution acknowledges the British Museum's ownership of the object.
The Trustees have lent often to Greece, especially in the recent Athens Olympic year of 2004, but they have never received a normal loan request for any of the Parthenon sculptures. What successive Greek governments have always sought is the permanent removal of all of the sculptures to Athens. The Trustees do not foresee a situation where they could possibly accede to such a request.
The debate is of long standing, and necessarily involves complex issues. The UK government has always made clear that this is a matter to be addressed by the Museum's Trustees. The Trustees similarly believe that the best way of finding any way forward is through discussion with Greek museum colleagues, with whom the British Museum has always had friendly relations.
The British Museum
21 April 2007
Reprinted from Elginism: http://www.elginism.com
British Museum press office: http://www.britishmuseum.org/
For more information and analysis on this issue, see http://www.elginism.com/ http://www.damon.gr/marbles/bm.htm