Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 547 - 559)



  Chairman: Minister, welcome to you, to Dr Mendoni and to Mr Dassin here this morning at this sitting of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. We had the very great pleasure of meeting you when our Select Committee visited Athens. We are highly obliged to you for offering to come and give evidence. I am sure your understanding of British constitutional matters is, at least, as great as ours. We do not have the right to summon Ministers of the British Government to meetings of Select Committees, however, for a distinguished Minister in the Government of a friendly country to come to us voluntary we regard as an exceptional courtesy. We are deeply graced by the presence of Mr Dassin, certainly one of the great film directors—I will not say the greatest film director. This is a very special day for us and that, no doubt, is why we have standing room only. Also present here, however, not as members of the Committee, are Mr Andrew Dismore and the High Commissioner of Cyprus. As I say, this is a very special day. Our practice, Minister, is for colleagues to put questions to you. Anything you have to say in addition to the memorandum you provided us with I am sure with your politician's ingenuity you will be able to weave into your answers. Mr Fearn.

Mr Fearn

  547. Good morning, may I say how much we enjoyed the visit to your country, we did get a lot of information out of that. We are very grateful to you for being here today. Could I ask straight out, is the claim by the Greek Government to the Elgin Marbles based on the contention that they were wrongfully taken by Lord Elgin in the first place?
  (Mr Papandreou) Let me in answering your question also thank you, Mr Chairman, for this invitation. Mr Kaufman, this is not only a welcome invitation but it is also a privilege to be here at your Select Committee on the issue of culture and the return of illicit artefacts. It is an honour to be here in this fashion of democracy. With me is Dr Lina Mendoni, who is the General Secretary of the Ministry of Culture, and she also speaks for the Government in that capacity. It is, indeed, also my honour to have on my side in this hearing Mr Jules Dassin, who is not only a person of great stature in the arts but has become very much a Greek over his lifetime. We welcome this decision, particularly the decision to open-up this discussion. The issue is a very sensitive one and a very important one. We are talking about the Parthenon. We are talking about the greatest national symbol of Greece through our time. We are talking about a monument whose significance is not exclusively Greek, because it symbolises the Greek contribution to the cultural heritage of humankind. This symbol requires preservation. It is of great importance, therefore, to all humanity. While this case is of universal importance it is also a unique case. Greece is not calling for the return of the Marbles and at the same time calling for the return of all our cultural objects, we make this absolutely clear. What we are saying is something that we believe is very self-evident. This masterpiece must be reunified, its integrity restored and done so within its original historical and cultural environment in Athens. We recognise that there is great sensitivity on behalf of the British public also, which we see as a sign of friendship between our two countries. To come exactly to your question, I am not here to rake over the events of the past 200 years. Britain was then a vast empire, we were then subjected. Today we are both members of the same Union, the same family of values, if you like. What happened in the British Museum in the 1930s is also of enormous interest to scholars but that is not central to the case I am making today. I would like to quote our Minister for Culture who recently said while he was in London, "Who owns the Sculptures is unimportant, indeed, irrelevant". I would agree what matters is the integrity of the unique monument known the world-over as the Parthenon. The Marbles were not just decorations, they were an integral part of the monument, a symbol of nationhood. What I am here for is to propose a new partnership between Greece and Britain, to the one we already have and one we want to deepen and further, based on the return of the Marbles. An example would be to examine the rotating exhibitions of ancient Greek art in London and the British Museum. Let me simply say, indeed, it is a unique opportunity to forge a much deeper, unique, cultural relationship between Greece and Britain at a period when the Olympic Games are also making their homecoming in 2004 in Athens, a time when all of the world will be watching. If today the Greeks have a place in their heart for Britain I would say that is for many reasons, either we have fought together for the values of democracy or freedom, that so many Greeks study in London or Britain or so many live here, or so many tourists come and visit our country from your country then certainly the return of the Marbles will create a permanent spot of warmth and gratitude of the Greek people throughout the world.

  548. Following on from that, I take what you say about partnership, however, so far there has never been any kind of court case or advice on a court case which you could bring here? Am I right in thinking that would never happen, you would not have a court case re the Elgin Marbles or any other artefacts?
  (Mr Papandreou) You are right in thinking this is not our purpose. Our purpose is to see the reunification of this very great monument in Athens, that is the basic proposal we are making.

  549. You would think on moral grounds alone and the partnership that you propose that those Marbles should be returned to the Parthenon or to the museum. When we went there we did not see a tip-top museum which could house the Marbles, however we believe that is under way.
  (Mr Papandreou) Obviously there are all kinds of legal arguments. What I am saying is that for us now we are making a proposal for the future of our relationship and for the future of this particular monument. We are not here to wrangle over legal decisions. There are cases to be made on legal issues. As I said, this is not the central element of my proposal here today. As regards the museum, you are very right, the museum is not there now but in our recent discussions and decisions at governmental level, at cabinet level, indeed, at the level of a committee which was recently created by the Prime Minister himself we have decided upon and looked into all our resources and the museum will be ready by 2004, the Olympic Games. I can tell you that the museum will be on the Makriyianni site, which I think you visited while in Athens. Before the end of this month there will be an international architectural call for proposals, according to the European Commission Directive No. 9250, as I have been told. This Directive specifies very stringent time limits for the completion of the project. The building of this museum will commence, according to this timetable, in January 2002. We feel there is ample time for the completion of this museum by 2004.

  550. Do you think that the British Government should, shall we say, overrule the British Museum, who are presently the owners of the Marbles? Should it be our Government who makes the decision to return the Marbles?
  (Mr Papandreou) I do not want to get into the internal issues of your relationships here in Britain, obviously they are very much linked to some of the legal issues, if we go back and see how they were acquired and who owns them, and so on. I again say that I think—this is what our Minister of Culture has implied—that the actual legal issue of ownership may be an issue which we can avoid actually dealing with in the reintegration of the Marbles into the site of the ancient Parthenon. We may not necessarily have to get into that issue if we see that this is a plausible solution that we do see the return and the integration of these Marbles into the site. I think this would be something which I hope you could work out with your respective bodies, governmental or the British Museum.

  551. Finally, we are not the only ones, we have a major part, if you pardon the phrase, when I say "we have", the British Museum has. There are other countries with other parts, are you negotiating with them under this partnership which you would hope would come about?
  (Mr Papandreou) Yes, there are other parts, however it is only two per cent of all other parts that are outside Greece, that is 98 per cent of the Marbles that are outside Greece are now in the British Museum. Therefore if we are really talking about the reintegration of this monument it is with Britain we must deal, it is with you we must discuss. We believe, also, that this is an opportunity for Britain to take the lead on this.

  Mr Fearn: Thank you very much.

  Chairman: Thank you, Minister, before I call the next member of the Committee could I make it clear that either or both of your colleagues are welcome to respond to questions if they feel inclined to do so. They are decorative but they are not here solely for that reason. Mr Wyatt.

Derek Wyatt

  552. Good morning, let me echo what Mr Fearn said about our great visit to your country, some months ago now. Can you tell me what the estimate of stolen Greek artefacts is in British museums per se?
  (Mr Papandreou) The total of all—

  553. Your estimate of what we hold that you feel is stolen or acquired illegally or immorally?
  (Mr Papandreou) Dr Mendoni may be able to answer that. Let me just make it clear here, what you are asking is what we are expecting back, what we are expecting back is only—

  554. I understand that. You are going to set a principle and the principle has to be judged. How much do we have in British museums that is stolen from the Greeks?
  (Mr Papandreou) Let me just answer that and then let Dr Mendoni talk about the possible numbers, if she knows. We are not setting a precedent. What we are saying is, this is unique, and it is unique. We are saying, let us reintegrate this masterpiece, which is a world wonder, it has parts which are missing and are separated. What we are talking about is a concept of reintegration of one of the world's masterpieces into an integral part, not for the return of other artefacts. We are not asking for that.

  555. Nonetheless, as you look at these issues in Europe they get bigger and bigger, not smaller and smaller. We are looking at the whole issue, not just this particular issue, as you know. What is your estimate of what we have in British museums that belongs to the Greeks?
  (Mr Dassin) I do not know. May I ask, is your question associated with the concept that we want to empty museums?

  556. I just want to know, I do not know.
  (Mr Dassin) I do not know, I do not have the facts or figures. As you know, a former Cultural Minister, Melina Mercouri was asked similar questions about other museums and she said, "Look, we are very proud that some of our major works are seen in museums everywhere". She called them, "very box office", and she was very pleased about that but always making the point that this question of the Marbles of the Parthenon are very unique. There is no thought, and this was restated by the current President, Mr Stephanopoulos, that we are not asking for anything else.

  Chairman: Can I intervene a moment on a technical matter. I sense that some of the people in the public section are not hearing your replies as well as they would like to. The microphones in front of you are not amplification, because we are being broadcast. If you could speak a little louder it would be helpful to the large number of people who have come to listen to you.

Derek Wyatt

  557. You talk about reintegration, actually the Marbles would not go back to the Parthenon, they would go back to the museum. Tell me how you think that is reintegration?
  (Mr Dassin) About half being here and half being there, about that. We are building a museum with what we call Parthenon space. We will never fully be able to reintegrate it all but the greatest part of it. Is that your question?

  558. When we were there we were told you spent one million dollars actually restoring the Parthenon a year. It seemed to me that that might take another fifty years before it is properly restored. I have been going to Greece for sixteen to twenty years and there has always been scaffolding—not always—in the times I have been there, that is not to say there has been continuous scaffolding. If it is to be returned ought it to be returned when the Parthenon is finished?
  (Mr Papandreou) First of all, obviously it was a sad fact that these were, in the first place, removed. I understand the experts' point of view that there has been structural damage during the removal to the particular supporting bases of the frieze. Therefore, the repositioning of this seems to be technically impossible to put it on the Parthenon, that is one reason for not being able to reposition it exactly on the Parthenon where it was. A second issue which I think is important is that by putting them in this museum at the same time what we were able to do simultaneously is to have them in the cultural environment, the historical environment, in fact the tourist, the visitor or the researcher will be to juxtapose both the Marbles in the museum with the Parthenon, as they will be situated there. There will be a true sense of the aesthetics and the historical and cultural context which they were in but at the same time they will also be able to see them close up, right there in front of them. I think what we are doing is something very unique, being able to, if you like, reintegrate them but also allow for a very close inspection by researchers and visitors.

  559. You proposed something, I read something in the weekend's papers, and you re-proposed it this morning, about this new co-ownership. Where are you proposing that in terms of the United Kingdom, to the Government or the Secretary of State for Culture, where is that proposal going to go?
  (Mr Papandreou) I think the Greek Government and I would personally be very glad, certainly the Ministry of Culture would be very glad to discuss it with whoever would be interested to discuss it, whether it is this Select Committee, the Minister of Culture, the British Government or the British Museum. I think it is up to you to guide us to whom we should in the end be discussing this with. There are many ideas that could be on the table and once we get into this discussion I think that even more ideas may come up. I just want to mention that this partnership would be an opportunity for not only deepening relationships between Greece and Britain and, if you like, the very emotional bond which would be created, but it would also have a very practical input, such as the rotating exhibition. This is one of the ideas that have come up in the British Museum, which would give a unique position to the British Museum and a very privileged position to Britain. No other country in the world would have this position. Secondly, there would be a whole range of possible programmes of exchanges, students, researchers, and so on. We can build on this partnership if we get into that.

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