ECONOMIZING WITH TRUTH: GREEK REQEUST OF PARTHENON MARBLES LOAN THAT WAS REJECTED BY BRITISH MUSEUM
TO LOAN OR NOT TO LOAN: BRITISH MUSEUM DID DISCUSS WITH GREECE PARTHENON MARBLES LOAN
“You must understand what the Parthenon Marbles mean to us. They are our pride. They are our sacrifices. They are our noblest symbol of excellence. They are a tribute to the democratic philosophy. They are our aspirations and our name. They are the essence of Greekness”
Melina Mercouri, at the Oxford Union.
Parthenon Marbles, Athens, Greece, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
After my recent article on the loan of a Parthenon Marble, Ilissos, to Russia, (2) a friend drew my attention to the existence of a letter from the British Museum to the Greek Ministry of Culture, dated 14 November, 2002, which throws further light on the relations between the two European Union countries as regards the Parthenon Marbles. (3)
Despite the frequent assertions of Neil MacGregor and others that Greece has never asked for a loan of the Parthenon Marbles, the letter shows that Greece has indeed made such a request but that the British Museum, through its chairman of the board of trustees, in 2002 firmly rejected any idea of loan, temporary or permanent.
Nevertheless, this assertion was recently repeated:
“The Greek government has always refused to borrow, to date, but the trustees’ position is very clear that they will consider any request from anyone who is prepared to return the object.” (4)
Melina Mercouri, Minister of Culture of Greece. (1981-89,1993-94).
A transcription of the letter of John Boyd to the Greek Minister of Culture, Evangelos Venizelos is reproduced below
A copy of the original letter is in the annex.
The British Museum
14 November 2002
H.E. Mr Evangelos Venizelos
Minister of Culture
Hellenic Ministry of Culture
The Parthenon Sculptures in the collections of the British Museum
It was a great pleasure to welcome you though this was no, I know, your first visit to the British Museum.
The Director and I are delighted to have held discussions with you and your colleagues on the Parthenon sculptures in the Museum’s collections and other matters. The exchanges suggested to me that there are many areas in which we can and should cooperate.
As I mentioned in our meeting, I am especially pleased to note that Dr Choremi, the Ephor of the Acropolis will speak at the Museum on Friday, 15 November, and that the British Museum is able to make generous loans to two exhibitions in Athens as part of the Cultural Olympiad in 2004. These are important examples of the fruitful cultural and academic relations that exist between us – and which can, I am sure, be developed further.
The Director and I naturally listened very carefully to what you had to say about the Parthenon Sculptures in our collections. I am grateful for the manner in which you approached the topic; grateful too for the understanding shown during the meeting for the Museum’s position. Nevertheless, it remains the opinion of the Board of Trustees that the Parthenon sculptures in the collections of the British Museum cannot be lent to the new museum currently under development in Athens, whether in the manner you proposed or for a temporary period.
Let me rehearse again the basis for our belief that the British Museum is the best possible place for these wonderful sculptures to be on display, as an essential chapter within the worldwide story of human cultural achievement. It is precisely this story which the Museum exists to tell through the rich and multi-faceted character of its worldwide collections. The ideas, aesthetics and skills of 5th century Greek civilisation are regarded here as elsewhere as central to this human experience. I am not sure that contemporary changes in political and economic attitudes, adduced at one point in our discussion, alter the point.
The Museum exists not only to delight but to instruct and provoke reflection. Its great collections, in close proximity, are seen by five million visitors every year entirely free of entry charge. The Parthenon Sculptures are integral to this unique experience.
When considering whether to make a loan the Trustees are required, by Act of Parliament, to have regard to the interest of the Museum’s visitors. While there is no list of objects that can never be lent, we do believe there is a prima facie assumption against the lending of key objects in the Museum’s collections which are normally on display and which the public reasonably expect to see in the Museum. The sculptures are precisely among that group of key objects indispensable to the Museum’s essential, universal purpose, and thus fall into the category of objects that can not be lent.
The Director and I much appreciated the opportunity to discuss these various matters frankly and in such a friendly context, and to establish friendly contact and undertake such an exchange of views between us. This must surely contribute to a relationship which we very much wish to promote and expand.
Again though, as I said in our meeting, I would not wish you to leave with the impression that any negotiation on the issue you raised is underway. This would be misleading. I am bound in all frankness, to repeat that I cannot envisage the circumstances under which the Trustees would regard it as being in the Museum’s interest, or consistent with its duty, to endorse a loan, permanent or temporary, of the Parthenon Sculptures in its collections.
I should like to end by thanking you for the kind gift of the coin replicas from the Numismatic Museum in Athens. They are especially appropriate as a symbol of the co-operation that exists between us, in the light of the recent collaborative British Museum / Numismatic Museum Internet project,
Presveis: One Currency for Europe
, which, I was delighted to see, is available on the Ministry of Culture’s website. Yours sincerely
Sir John Boyd
Anybody with some idea about the Parthenon Marbles can guess that when a senior Greek official visits the British Museum, it would be about the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. The letter of 14 November 2002 indicates in its title already that the visit of the Greek Minister of Culture was about this historic subject. It is to be noted that the letter does not indicate the date of the visit or the purpose of the letter. This deflects the attention of the recipient from the fact that the letter is a record of the meeting and avoids any objections, additions or corrections which the recipient might otherwise want to make to a record of the meeting.
The letter of the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, John Boyd thus acknowledges that the Greeks have made efforts on this issue and also that it was not the first time the minister was visiting the museum. Before 2002 there had been visits by various Greek officials and personalities. Such a visit was made by the unforgettable great Melina Mercouri who was met with insults from the then Director of the British Museum, David Wilson. (5)
The Boyd letter, echoing essentially the ideas of Neil MacGregor, makes it clear that the British Museum was not willing to make any loan of the Parthenon Marbles to the new museum the Greeks were constructing:
“The Director and I naturally listened very carefully to what you had to say about the Parthenon Sculptures in our collections. I am grateful for the manner in which you approached the topic; grateful too for the understanding shown during the meeting for the Museum’s position. Nevertheless, it remains the opinion of the Board of Trustees that the Parthenon sculptures in the collections of the British Museum cannot be lent to the new museum currently under development in Athens, whether in the manner you proposed or for a temporary period.”
“Whether in the manner you proposed or for a temporary period”
This leaves out intentionally whatever the Greeks might have proposed that may appear reasonable. The Greeks have made suggestions of transferring to the British Museums valuable Greek artefacts in exchange for the Parthenon Marbles. The idea also is to take away the British fear that the Greeks might not return loans. The British fear is the reflection of bad conscience.
As if to reinforce the message in the preceding paragraph which was clear enough, Boyd emphasises in the very next paragraph the determination not to loan any Parthenon Marble:
“Let me rehearse again the basis for our belief that the British Museum is the best possible place for these wonderful sculptures to be on display, as an essential chapter within the worldwide story of human cultural achievement. It is precisely this story which the Museum exists to tell through the rich and multi-faceted character of its worldwide collections. The ideas, aesthetics and skills of 5th century Greek civilisation are regarded here as elsewhere as central to this human experience. I am not sure that contemporary changes in political and economic attitudes, adduced at one point in our discussion, alter the point”.
Boyd then in a curious argument turns the Parthenon Marbles into objects that are necessary for the museum in order to fulfil its essential functions and and therefore cannot be loaned;
“The sculptures are precisely among that group of key objects indispensable to the Museum’s essential, universal purpose, and thus fall into the category of objects that can not be lent.”
The Chairman of the Board of Trustees is here telling the Greek Culture Minister that the Greek sculptures that had been taken under contested circumstances to Britain are absolutely necessary to fulfil the essential functions of the British Museum as a universal museum. How much more cynical can one be? Body for the fourth time in his short letter repeats again that the Parthenon Marbles cannot leave the British Museum:
“Again though, as I said in our meeting, I would not wish you to leave with the impression that any negotiation on the issue you raised is underway. This would be misleading. I am bound in all frankness, to repeat that I cannot envisage the circumstances under which the Trustees would regard it as being in the Museum’s interest, or consistent with its duty, to endorse a loan, permanent or temporary, of the Parthenon Sculptures in its collections
Ministers of Culture are usually well-educated and intelligent persons but the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the British Museum felt he must repeat several times the unwillingness of the Bloomsbury museum to loan the Parthenon Marbles to Greece. Evangelos Venizelos, former professor of Constitutional Law, educated in Greece and France, held Cabinet positions -Justice, Transport, Culture and Deputy Prime Minister.
We now know that one of Parthenon sculptures has been loaned to Russia and thus the argument that they could not leave the museum has been destroyed by the Board of Trustees and the Director of the British Museum. Indeed, it seems the British Museum is discussing with others the loans of other Parthenon Marbles. A step which would lead to future complications.
But why the strenous denials of any discussions or requests by Greece for a loan of the Pathenon Marbles, in the presence of unquestionable overwhelming evidence that they have asked for a loan as well as restitution? This is a well-calculated strategy by the holders of contested cultural artefacts that has been used in the past and seems to worked in favour of the holders who thereby gain time.
The British Museum is past master in such tactics but others have followed its strategy and tactics. The British deny that there has ever been a demand for the restitution of Benin Bronzes even though a brother of the Benin Monarch has been before a British Parliamentary Committee to present Benin’s case for the return of the artefacts that were looted by the British in 1897 during a brutal invasion of Benin. The demand known as Appendix 21 has been recorded in Parliamentary records but there are academics who deny there was ever a formal demand. (6)
The Germans deny that there has ever been any demand by the Nigerian Commission on Museums and Monuments or the Oba of Benin for the return of the 500 Benin Bronzes they allegedly bought from the British invaders even though a Nigerian Minister of Culture has been to Berlin specifically to make such a request in what was appropriately designated, Berlin Plea for the Return of Benin Bronzes. (7)
James Cuno, then Director of the Chicago Art Institute, stated at the opening of a Benin exhibition in his institute that if a demand for the return of the Benin Bronzes in his institute were submitted to him he would consider A Benin princess hand-carried a letter of demand to Chicago. Up to today, there has not even been an acknowledgement of receipt of the Royal letter.(8)
Sometimes, the holders of cultural artefacts of others hide behind formalities such as that there has been no formal request or that the demand did not come from the appropriate high official. The Germans did this with regard to Egypt’s request for the return of the bust of Nefertiti which they have been holding in the Neues Museum, Berlin. When the then Secretary-General of the Egyptian Supreme Council, Zahi Hawass made a request for Nefertiti he was told to make a formal request. When the formal request was made, he was informed that the request should come from a Minister. Hawass became a minister and made a request but the Germans said the request should come from a Prime Minister or a President. (9)
The psychology here seems to be that of arrogant holders who are conscious of their power or strong position that no one can force them to deal with the matter. By their denials, the holders want to send a message to the claimants that they have more important matters to deal with and would not allow the likes of claimants to set their agenda. They can convince their supporters that since they have not recived a request to deal with the issue, they are not obliged to take any position.
This practice which the Germans call “Verweigerung der Realität”, denial of reality, can result in the end in convincing the holders and their supporters that no one has asked for the return of the artefacts since there is no one powerful enough to confront them with the reality of demand. Future generations may find no records of such demands. The claimants or their descendants would in time have no exact memory of the facts or the circusmstances. Claimants may become tired and discouraged and finally give up the fight or for reasons of their inability to secure their rights, gradually appear to forget which is a form of denial of reality. The risk of such a situations exists with many African peoples that have not demanded the return of their cultural artefacts from the imperialists States since Independence. Cultural officials recognizing their evident powerlessness as regards the holders, gradually accommodate themselves to the situation, helped by whatever personal benefits they can derive from the situation of persistent powerless demands. They and the former colonialists become friends and do not seriously talk about restitution. But cultural artefacts are not quickly forgotten especially among peoples with long traditions of recording their history and culture. This is precisely the lesson of the Parthenon Marbles.
It has bee said that “The British Museum is the most generous lending collection in the world.”
This may be so but it is also obvious that it is easy to be very generous in lending if the objects are not yours. It is less difficult to distribute the money of others than our own money. MacGregor may be generous in lending objects of others that have been looted, robbed, confiscated, stolen or otherwise acquired under dubious circumstances that are still contested.
Generosity born out of the lending of the property of others does not increase the prestige or fame of the lender as the recent loan to Russia has demonstrated. What the recent handlng of the property of others does, is to revive memories that are better left unmentioned – oppression, murder, denigration, arson, looting, destruction, assasination and all the evils of colonialism and imperialism are awakened among all those who themselves or their ancestors have lost property and suffered during the colonial and imperialist period. The association of such deeds with cultural artefacts becomes alive. MacGregor and his supporters are not sensitive to such suffering and may not appreciate what that means to us, former colonial subjects. The world could do without such revivals and the alleged generosity that disturbs us all.
The loan of contested artefacts must be stopped before it becomes a custom with museums harrassed by requests for restitution of artefacts. Soon we will hear the Humboldt Forum, Berlin, lending some of the 500 Benin Bronzes it will soon control to many States except Nigeria and it would be claimed the institution can better represent Benin culture than the Oba of Benin and the Queen Idia statute in Berlin will be sent by the Humboldt Forum to another place as ambassador of Benin culture in bronze..
The Neues Museum will soon claim to present Egyptian culture better than the Egyptian Government and therefore entitled to keep Nefertiti in Berlin to be seen by thousands rather than in Cairo where few will want to travel. The museum will ocassionaly lend the bust of the Egyptian Queen even though it has been often said the Queen is too fragile to travel.
The position of the British Government and the British Museum on restitution is now abundantly clear and it is left to those who believe in the restitution of the Parthenon Marbles to reconsider the ways and means of recovering the sculptures which were removed from Greece under dubious circumstances.`
The notion that foreign cultural institutions can represent a culture better than the government and people of the country that produced them must be rejected. The idea that the British Museum is entitled to keep the Parthenon Marbles because the museum is better qualified than the Greek people and government to represent the glory and grandeur of Ancient Greek culture and history is surely perverse and must be rejected without hesitation.
Verses by Roger Casement
Give back the Elgin marbles, let them lie
Unsullied, pure beneath the Attic sky
The smoky fingers of our northern clime
More ruin work than all ancient time.
How oft’ the roar of the Piraean Sea
Through column’d hall and dusky temple stealing
Hath struck these marble ears, that now must flee
The whirling hum of London, noonward reeling.
Ah! let them hear again the sounds that float
Around Athene’s shrine on morning’s breeze —
The lowing ox, the bell of climbing goat
And drowsy drone of far Hymettus’ breeze.
Give back the marbles; let them vigil keep
Where art still lies, over Pheidias’ tomb, asleep.
More ruin work than all ancient time.
Roger Casement. (10)
Parthenon Marbles, Athens, Greece, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom
Kwame Opoku, 12 December, 2014
2. K. Opoku, “
Arrogance, Duplicity and Defiance with no end: British Museum Loans Parthenon Marble to Russia”,http://www.modernghana.com/news/584950/1/arrogance-duplicity-and-defiance-with-no-end-briti.html
5. Christopher Hitchens, The Parthenon Marbles, Verso, London, 2008, pp. 97-99 I found in this useful book, a report on an interview said to have been given by David Wilson, then Director of the British Museum who threw the accusation of “nationalism” and “fascism” at the supporters of restitution. His statements are so remarkable in their violence and lack of logic that I feel everyone should read them. Note also the lack of respect displayed towards the Greek minister of Culture, Melina Mercouri who is likened to a burglar when she expressed the wish to see the Parthenon Marbles.:
“In a BBC television discussion on 15 June 1985, Sir David Wilson, Director of the British Museum, was invited to contrast his opinions with those of Melina Mersouri. Sir David had already exhibited a certain lack of gallantry when, on an earlier visit to London, Mrs. Mercouri had expressed a wish to visit the Museum and view the marbles. On that occasion he had said publicly that it was not usual to allow burglars ‘to case the joint’ in advance. But once before the cameras he easily improved on this ill-mannered exaggeration. ‘To rip the Elgin Marbles from the walls of the British Museum’ he said, ‘is a much greater disaster than the threat of blowing up the Parthenon’. This might have been thought hyperbolic, if Sir David had not gone on to say, in response to a mild question about the feasibility of restitution:
Oh, anything can be done. That’s what Hitler said, that’s what Mussolinisaid when he got Italian trains to run on time
The interviewer, David Lomax, broke in to say:
You are not seriously suggesting there’s a parallel between…
Sir David was unrepentant:
Yes, I am. I think this is cultural fascism. It’s nationalism and it’s cultural danger. Enormous cultural danger. If you start to destroy great intellectual institutions, you are culturally fascist.
LOMAX: What do you mean by cultural fascist?
WILSON: You are destroying the whole fabric of intellectual achievement. You are starting to erode it. I can’t say you are destroying, you are starting to erode. I think it’s a very, very serious, thing to do. It’s a thing you ought to think of very careful, it’s like burning books. That’s what Hitler did; I think you’ve to be very careful about that.
LOMAX: But are you seriously suggesting that the people who want the Elgin Marbles to go back to Greece, who feel there’s an overwhelming moral case that they should go back, are guilty of cultural fascism?
WILSON: I think not the people who are wanting the Elgin Marbles to go back to Greece if they are Greek. But I think that the world opinion and the people in this country who want the Elgin Marbles to go back to Greece are actually guilty of something very much approaching it, it is censoring the British Museum. And I think that this is a bad thing to do. It is as bad as burning books”.
This is an extraordinary performance by a Director of the British Museum. One can sympathize with his desperation in face of the mounting pressure to return the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles to Athens and the great presence of the unforgettable Melina Mercouri in London. But can anyone excuse his shameful performance?
K. Opoku,” Did Germans Never Hear Directly or Indirectly Nigeria’s Demand for Return of Looted Artefacts?”
8. K. Opoku, “
Cuno reiterates his views on Ownership and Location of Antiquities”,
Copy of letter from Chairman,Board of Trustees,British Museum to Minister of Culture of Greece