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


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 Marbles—known 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 Elgin Collection".

  2.  I have been involved in the campaign for the return of the Marbles for some years—my 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 paragraph:

    "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 Bloomsbury—but 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 today.

    (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 Union.

    (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[36]).


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.


  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 precedent—nor 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.


    (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.


    (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.


  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 solution—one 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 countries—an 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 its vaults.


    (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 to copies.

    (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 other—that 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 seen—at all times of the year, at all times of the day (and floodlit at night) and in all weathers.

    (e)  The MORI Poll mentioned earlier, revealed that only 15 per cent of those questioned could remember having seen the Marbles.


    (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 certain—the 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.


    (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 it.

  After 200 years, Britain would be admired and applauded around the world if we could find what Melina Mercouri called our "moment of grace".

March 2000

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