Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles

  1.  The British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles submits evidence in relation to Other Return Issues. It is specifically concerned with the return of the Parthenon Sculptures, now in the British Museum, to Athens and the museum that will be erected there to exhibit all the artefacts belonging to the Parthenon that are not still in the structure. We will make observations in this context under the heads listed.

  2.  The British Committee was formed in 1983. Here follows a list of its current members with brief notes on their areas of expertise:

    Mr Graham Binns MA (Oxon) (Chairman), Fulbright Scholar to USA. One-time Assistant Regional Director Arts Council of Great Britain and Broadcasting and Communications Executive.

    Mr Christopher Price MA (Oxon) (Deputy Chairman), former Chairman of the Select Committee for Culture, Science and the Arts. Chairman of Yorkshire Arts.

    Mrs Eleni Cubitt (Secretary), film and documentary producer. Cultural and historical events organiser.

    Sir Kenneth Alexander, Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh; former Chancellor, University of Aberdeen; Vice-Chancellor, University of Strathclyde; Trustee, Royal Museum of Scotland.

    Professor Anthony Snodgrass, the Laurence Professor of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge University.

    Professor A A M Bryer, Emeritus Professor of Byzantine Studies, University of Birmingham, Former Chairman of the British National Committee of the International Byzantine Association. Member of the Council of the British Institute of Archaeology in Ankara. Vice-President of the National Trust in Greece.

    Professor Judith Herrin, Professor of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies, Kings College, London. Formerly Stanley J Seeger Professor of Byzantine History, Princeton, United States of America.

    Professor Paul Cartledge, Professor of Greek History, Cambridge University. Fellow and Director of Studies, Clare College.

    Professor Oliver Taplin FBA, Professor of Classical Languages and Literature, Oxford University.

    Mr Keith Hunter OBE, formerly British Council Director, Italy. Trustee, British School at Rome.

    Ms Jane Shallice, educationalist and researcher.

  2.1  The Committee proposes that serious discussions should be instituted between the British and Greek Governments. The question of ownership of the Parthenon Sculptures should be set aside while consideration is given to moving the displaced pieces to Athens, to be housed in a specially designed museum which would incorporate all the artefacts from the Parthenon that are not now part of the edifice. The object would be to restore the integrity of the frieze, metopes, and pediments by bringing them together in one place, as near to the Parthenon itself as practicable. An appropriate occasion for announcing the opening of such discussions would be at the Olympic Games in Athens, AD 2004.


  When a Committee of the House of Commons recommended the acquisition of the "Elgin" Marbles in 1816, it accepted Lord Elgin's claim that he had been authorised by a "firman" issued in 1801 to make drawings, casts, and remove pieces of stone and that his more extensive depredations had been cleared, after the event, by two further "firmans".

  No firmans were produced in evidence. What was represented as an Italian translation of the initial "firman" did not authorise Elgin to dismantle the Parthenon. It was not, in fact, a true firman, or authorisation from the only competent power in the matter, the Sultan himself, but a letter from a deputy to the Grand Vizier[5]. The Committee of 1816 made its Report when the Great Powers were in competition for collections of classical sculpture. Its conclusions were contested at the time and do not bear scrutiny today.

  3.1  Nevertheless, the British Museum is in possession of almost half of the sculpted masonry that was once an integral part of a structure that is itself unparalleled in the history of architecture. Whatever arguments were made in 1816 for keeping such significant parts of the monument in Britain, while Greece was a subject province of the Ottoman Empire, no longer apply. If the Parthenon itself and the British Museum's collection of Parthenon Sculptures lay within the same state boundaries, but 2,000 miles apart, there is no question but that they would not be brought together.[6]

  3.2  The British Museum's position in this matter is based on ownership. We urge that it is of greater international importance to consider the unity of the monument itself. The Parthenon cannot be reconstituted. But it is being conserved to the most exacting international standards, and a new museum is to be erected on the site already announced, in the vicinity of the Acropolis. We believe that the British Museum should offer constructive co-operation and collaboration to the Greek authorities and identify itself with the reunification of the artefacts belonging to the Parthenon. All this, of course, is subject to the satisfactory completion of the new museum.[7]

  3.3  To date the British Museum and the British Government have made no gesture toward the conservation of the Parthenon, nor toward the project of the new museum. What observations have been made have generally been of an unsympathetic or hostile nature. We propose a fresh approach in which the British Museum offers itself as part of the project to conserve the site and create a new museum. If the Hermitage Museum of St Petersburg can, for different reasons, reach out to Somerset House in London and to Amsterdam, and the Guggenheim from New York to Bilbao and Venice, the British Museum should be able, in the interests of conservation, to extend itself in a truly international style beyond the confines of Bloomsbury.

  So far, the opposite has been the case. In reassembling and stabilizing the Parthenon, the Greek conservators need a section, or "drum", in order to complete a structural column of the building. That "drum", a block of fluted stone, was removed by Elgin's men. It is in the British Museum. The Greek request was refused. This would seem to indicate neither interest nor concern in the monument of which all these marble blocks are a part. In a further instance of hostility, the British Museum has attempted to malign Greek competence in conservation techniques—an attempt that has rebounded to the discredit of the Museum (see Appendix E).

  3.4  The case of the column "drum" (3.3 above) is itself sufficient to demonstrate that the relationship between the British Museum and the Greek archaeological service has become unproductive—which is why we are proposing a new beginning. If it can be agreed that everyone's first consideration must be what is best for the site and the monument, for the proper understanding of that monument, and for scholarship, then a genuine effort must be made to reconcile all the real interests concerned, while putting aside those that are merely nationalistic, British or Greek.

3.5  Policies and procedures

  This issue concerns not only the practical usefulness of uniting the separated parts of the monument; it is also a matter of ethical concern. In today's world nobody has, or is believed ever to have had, the right or justification to dismantle a historic building of great cultural and national significance and remove large sections of it to a distant country. Neither has any institution or country a right to declare these artefacts a part of their own national culture.

  A consequence of restitution would also be of significance in sending a strong message to illicit dealers and those who buy from them that they cannot rely on length of possession and lapse of time alone to render them immune from prosecution.

3.6  Guidance and advice

  We urge that the British Government should make positive endeavours to bring about the reunification of the sculptures in a spirit of goodwill and in a manner mutually beneficial to Greece and Britain.

3.7  Legislation

  We urge that the British Government should initiate any necessary legislation and that it should in due course open discussions with the Greek Government with the aim of reaching a positive resolution to the issue to coincide with the International Olympics, Athens 2004.

5   See Appendix A: "Was the Removal of the Parthenon Marbles Legal?" by Professor V Demetriades. Back

6   See Appendix B by Professor Anthony Snodgrass. Back

7   See Appendix D: "The New Museum". Back

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