Memorandum submitted by Mr William G Stewart
1. While being aware that the main aims of the
Committee are to look at the general issues of return and illicit
trade in cultural property, my evidence concerns the special case
of the Parthenon Marblesknown in Britain as the Elgin Marbles
because the Act of Parliament of 1816, which purchased the Marbles,
included a clause stating that what Lord Elgin sold to the nation
should be "distinguished by the Name or Appellation of The
2. I have been involved in the campaign
for the return of the Marbles for some yearsmy main contribution
being a 60-minute television programme I wrote and presented for
Channel Four in 1996. I have also shown by film and lectured on
the issue at UNESCO in Paris, the European Parliament in Strasbourg
and at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
3. The thrust of the programme (part of
the polemical Without Walls series) was that the Marbles should
be returned to Athens, but I hoped that it would be exhaustive
enough, and objective enough, for future debates on the subject
to include the question "Have you seen the Channel Four programme?"
(a) I made strenuous efforts to include the
British Museum but they declined.
(b) My letter to the Museum contained the
"My argument for the return of the Marbles
to Athens is not one which I would expect the Museum, as an institution,
to support, but I would not like to make it without a distinguished
member being present to listen to my argument, have a chance to
refute any point of fact I might make, and put the Museum's position".
4. With (2) and (3) above in mind, I have
already sent tapes and scripts of the programme for Committee
members, in the hope that, if they were not able to watch it in
1996, they might have time to look at it as part of their deliberations,
ideally together as a Committee, or individually.
5. The Committee will not want to keep going
over old ground, but the truth is that very few people indeed
know the real story of how the Marbles came from Athens to Bloomsburybut
that is covered in some detail in my programme and script; most
interestingly in the letters that went between Lord Elgin and
his agents in Athens.
6. Nor do many people know exactly what
it was that Lord Elgin had sent to Britain and sold to the Government.
7. The two most important points re (6)
above are (a) what The Elgin Collection comprises and (b) what
the people of Greece want back.
8. The Appendix to the Report from the Select
Committee of 1816 lists the collection. It includes the approximately
90 pieces from the Parthenon in the Duveen Gallery, and 18 items
from the Erectheum on the Acropolis. It also lists the hundreds
of other items collected by Lord Elgin, and which form the major
part (in numbers) of what the Government purchased.
(a) They include colossal statues, eight
altars, dozens of pillars and columns, bronze urns and "some
hundreds of urns and vases, discovered in digging in the ancient
Sepulchres round Athens".
(b) The collection was made all over Greece;
from Athens, Olympia, Mycenae, the islands, and the plain of Attica.
9. The point about listing the Elgin Collection,
is that it also indicates the emphasis that the Greeks put on
the Parthenon Sculptures being a special case. From the several
hundreds of pieces listed they are asking for the return of the
90 pieces in the Duveen Gallery, and one caryatid and one column
from the Erectheum. And the President of Greece, Konstantinos
Stephanapolous, is on record as saying so.
10. The arguments, in Parliament, in favour
of returning the Marbles were first heard in the debate of 7th
June 1816, and have gone on ever since and are well known. The
two main points of the argument are (a) that the Marbles were
an integral part of a standing national monument, and (b) that
the method of Lord Elgin's collection of them has always been
disputed, and is certainly not something that we would countenance
(a) Much has been made of the firman (permission)
granted to Lord Elgin by the Turkish authorities, but the British
Museum's own book on the Marbles, written by a former Keeper of
Greek and Roman antiquities at the Museum, contains the illuminating
sentence " . . . it may be questioned whether the firman
actually authorised even the partial dismantling of buildings
in order to remove sculptures".
The Committee will, no doubt, receive much evidence
along these lines.
11. But it is now time to look at the present,
and to the future. We have to find a solution to the issue of
the Marbles that will reflect credit on both the United Kingdom
and Greece, and leave both countries happy that any settlement
is an honourable one.
12. The starting point ought to be recognition
of the fact that public opinion in the UK is overwhelmingly in
favour of returning the Marbles to Athens, and that the campaign
for return enjoys wide, and probably majority support, in Parliament.
(a) In the two hours following my programme
in 1996, a phone-in vote, conducted by the independent BBC Audio-call
registered 99,340 calls of which 91,822 (92.5 per cent) were in
favour of return.
(b) As a result of the programme, an EDM
in Parliament (put down by Eddie O'Hara) attracted 109 signatures,
and a Declaration in the European Parliament (put down by the
Labour MEP Alf Lomas) was signed by 252 MEPs from across the European
(c) A MORI Poll, conducted on behalf of Regent
Productions in September 1998 (as pre-production for a further
television programme) indicated that the public, by a margin of
more than 2:1, would support return. This poll also showed that
"a plurality" of Members of Parliament (47 per cent:44
per cent) were also in favour of return.
(d) Following this result, a second EDM (again
Eddie O'Hara) attracted 111 signatures; and a second Declaration
in the European Parliament was signed by 339 MEPS (a majority
in the Parliament) including 26 Labour MEPS.
(Copy of MORI Press Release attached).
13. HOW COULD
The Position of the British Museum:
(a) Much of the case against return begins
with the argument that the British Museum (with minor exceptions
that do not apply to the Marbles) has no authority to dispose
of any part of its collection.
(b) That, of course, is true, but the Marbles
were entrusted to the British Museum by Act of Parliament, and
an Act of Parliament could authorise their return to Athens.
(c) Any Government, of course, has the power
to alter the conditions of any Act of Parliament made by a previous
Government. In fact, the Act of Parliament of 1816 that authorised
the purchase of the Marbles from Lord Elgin also enacted that
the then Lord Elgin, and all the Earls of Elgin to follow, should
be Trustees of the British Museum. The present Earl of Elgin isn't
a Trustee of the British Museum because the British Museums Act
of 1963 struck out that right.
14. THE ARGUMENT
The argument that returning the Marbles would
set a precedent that would open the floodgates and empty the great
museums of the world no longer holds good.
(a) Greece itself has stated that, apart
from the contents of the Duveen Gallery and the caryatid and column
from the Erectheum, it has no claim on any property presently
in any museum or other collection in the United Kingdom.
(b) There are, of course, claims in place
for the return of property stolen or traded illicitly, but since
1978, the UNESCO Committee that deals with the return of cultural
property with "historical" claims, has received less
than a dozen.
(c) On at least two occasions British Governments
have said that in the case of the Parthenon Marbles, precedence
need not necessarily be a problem. And there have been examples
of artifacts or works of art being returned to the countries of
their origin without dozens of other claims coming in.
(d) In any case, though, it may sometimes
take courage to do so, if it is right that something should be
done, it should not be left undone for fear that others would
use it as a precedent.
(e) It is also quite simple for those in
authority to dismiss the argument of precedence. For example,
when Elton John's Princess of Wales version of Candle in the Wind
went on sale the amount of the VAT received was not retained by
the Treasury, but paid into the Memorial Fund in her name. This
has not set a precedentnor should it. It was a special
event that had the support of the public, and the Treasury has
not allowed it to be used as a precedent.
15. WHEN SHOULD
(a) The Greeks have accepted that the Marbles
would not be returned until the New Acropolis Museum is built
and ready to receive them.
(b) There have been delays in the plans for
a new museum, chiefly because almost everywhere excavations begin
in Athens, new archaeological sites are exposed and work is delayed,
or has to begin again. But the plans for a new museum are ongoing.
(c) In my programme of 1996, I suggested
2001, because it was the 200th anniversary of the first Marbles
leaving Athens. That date is now not practicable, but the Olympic
Games of 2004 is now the favourite imaginative suggestion.
16. THE COST
(a) I questioned the President on this point
and he stated, categorically, that Greece would willingly meet
all costs for return, plus all costs for the best copies of all
the pieces returned.
(b) Although I did not ask the President
this, I have no doubt that Greece would be willing to pay for
copies of the pieces still in Athens, so that the British Museum
could have a "full set" of the Parthenon pieces.
17. WHAT ABOUT
The British Museum, understandably, would not
want to replace the Marbles presently in the Gallery with copies,
but there are two other alternatives:
(a) Of the more than six and a half million
items in the collection of the British Museum, there are enough
in store, never seen by visitors to the Museum, to fill the Duveen
Gallery several times over. In fact, there is probably enough
of the original Elgin Collection, purchased in 1816, still in
store, to fill it.
(b) But there is another, and more imaginative
solutionone that has been offered by Greece.
(c) Collaboration between the two countries
for Greece to offer visiting exhibitions to be housed in the Duveen
Gallery, for periods of six months up to two years. The Committee
will know of this proposal and, will, no doubt, receive more detailed
evidence as to how it could work.
(d) Such a scheme could even involve other
countriesan exhibition from Greece, leaving the British
Museum after a year, might move on to Italy and be replaced by
an exhibition of Ancient Rome.
(e) And if there were periods between visiting
exhibitions, then the British Museum could fill the Gallery from
18. WHAT ABOUT
(a) The laser technology now available produces
copies so good that, quite honestly, from a few feet it is very
difficult to tell the difference between copies and the real thing.
(b) The ideal place for the Parthenon Marbles
is back up on the Parthenon itself, but it is now agreed that
they need to be kept in a more protected environment, as they
will if/when they are returned to Athens. But that does not apply
(c) My suggestion for the copies is that
they should be erected in a London Park (or in some other city),
at the same height as they are in the British Museum, but in their
correct positions relative to each otherthat is, with the
pieces from the East and West pediments facing outwards, and the
metopes and friezes viewed from the outside and inside respectively,
as they were on the Parthenon itself.
(d) With an imaginative large-scale model
outlining the history of the Parthenon, such a display would enable
many more people than ever visit the Duveen Gallery to enjoy the
Marbles as they were meant to be seenat all times of the
year, at all times of the day (and floodlit at night) and in all
(e) The MORI Poll mentioned earlier, revealed
that only 15 per cent of those questioned could remember having
seen the Marbles.
19. THE POSITION
(a) It has to be accepted that what is past
is past, but I think the Committee should enquire into how the
present Government got to its present position on the Marbles.
(b) I have extensive correspondence with the
Dept of Heritage (as it was until 1997) and the Dept for Culture,
Media and Sport, and think it throws some light on the change
of policy, of the then Labour Opposition, from support for return
of the Marbles in February 1996 to opposition to return, two months
later, in April 1996.
(c ) It might help in deciding how to move
on, because one thing is certainthe issue of the Marbles
has been on the British conscience since the first three shiploads
of Lord Elgin's collection left Athens 200 years ago (before Lord
Elgin had ever set foot in Greece, or clapped eyes on the Parthenon)
and is never going to go away.
20. HOW DO
(a) I would hope that overwhelming public
support, and majority support in Parliament, for return, might
be enough for the Committee to suggest in its Report that the
Government should put the past away and start bi-lateral talks
with the Greek Government, with the aim of trying to reach an
agreement that would enable a short Bill to go before Parliament.
(b) Government Bills, of course, require Government
support, but although the majority of MPs who support return are
Labour (and among Labour MPs there is a much larger majority)
the issue of the Marbles ought not to be made a Party issue, but
a free decision of Parliament as a whole, without the Whips behind
After 200 years, Britain would be admired and
applauded around the world if we could find what Melina Mercouri
called our "moment of grace".
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