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


Memorandum submitted by The International Organising Committee—Australia—for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles


1.1  The Australian Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles was formed in 1982 and is representative of a wide cross section of the Australian community. Its members include former Prime Ministers, the Rt Hon Malcolm Fraser and the Hon EG Whitlam, three State Premiers, the Hon Bob Carr (New South Wales) the Hon Steve Bracks (Victoria) and the Hon John Olson (South Australia), two former State Premiers the Hon Neville Wran (NSW) and the Hon Jeff Kennett (Victoria) and former Federal Cabinet Minister the Hon Sir James Killen KCMG.

  1.2  Other prominent members of the Australian Committee include the Chairman of the Australian Museum, Malcolm Long, the Chairman of the Sydney Opera House, Joe Skrzynski and the General Manager of the Australian Council for the Arts, Jenny Bott.

  1.3  The Australian Committee accepts that the question of the Parthenon Marbles and specifically the Elgin Collection is important for both Britain and Greece. However, given the important place of the Acropolis, the Parthenon and the Classic Greek Age in world history, the issue is also of legitimate interest to the wider international community. In short, we believe this is more than an argument about Greek heritage; it is a world heritage issue. We also believe that with some genuine goodwill, a satisfactory solution to the matter might be found.

  1.4  The Australian submission follows widespread consultation with supporters of the restitution of the Parthenon Marbles and with senior museum staff in Australia, New Zealand, USA, Britain and Greece.


  2.1  This House of Commons Committee by its terms of reference will consider, inter alia, claims for the return of items of cultural property which were historically removed and not necessarily acquired as a result of illicit trade as well as the policies and procedures to be adopted by museums relating to such claims.

  2.2  The Elgin Collection of the Parthenon Marbles, removed from the Parthenon on the Acropolis, Athens, Greece from 1801 by Lord Elgin and ultimately reposed in the Trustees of the British Museum, is the most celebrated case of cultural property which requires consideration by this Committee.

  2.3  This House of Commons Committee inquiry provides the British Parliament and the British Government with a valuable opportunity to address the policies and the legislation that have hitherto prevented the proper processing of the claim for the return of the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum to Athens.

  2.4  The British Museum and the British Museums Act, which prevents the museum from returning any significant cultural property, is out of step with the present day practice of many other museums. The British Museum, its policies and its legislation should be brought into line with modern world practice. Museums in Australia, the USA, Britain and elsewhere have in recent years been moving increasingly to return cultural property over which there have been claims.

  2.5  The case for the return to Athens of the Elgin Collection of Parthenon Marbles is overwhelming and there are now no reasonable grounds for the continued retention of the Collection in the British Museum or for the continued rejection of claims for their return.

  2.6  Recently the UK Museums and Galleries Commission published new guidelines relating to the return of cultural property by British museums. Any reasonable application of these guidelines to the case of the Elgin Collection would result in their being returned to Greece.


  We would submit that the Committee make the following Recommendations:

  3.1  That British museums be encouraged to adopt policies and procedures that will allow them to properly and proactively process claims for the return of cultural property.

  3.2  That the British Museum legislation be amended to allow for the proper and proactive processing of claims for the return of cultural property.

  3.3  That as a gesture of goodwill aimed at addressing the long standing dispute over the future of the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum, the British Government agree to the opening of dialogue aimed at reaching agreement on the eventual consolidation of the surviving marbles in Athens, in a new museum to be built close to the Acropolis.

  3.4  That the principles governing agreement on the future custodianship of the Parthenon Marbles should include: ensuring the very best care and conservation, the best management, the widest possible accessibility of the exhibits to the public and the encouragement of the highest levels of international research and scholarship.

  3.5  That discussion on the future of the Marbles examine the possibility of British and other international involvement in the on-going conservation, management, care and scholarship associated with the collection.

  3.6  That the discussion proceed on the understanding that:

    (i)  The Marbles be returned to Athens only after the construction of a suitable new museum close to the Acropolis and that Greece formalise its undertaking to arrange the funding for the new museum.

    (ii)  Greece formalises its undertaking to meet the costs associated with the return of the collection and the cost of a complete set of copies to remain in London.

    (iii)  Greece consider arranging for the placement of other significant exhibits of Greek antiquity with the British Museum.

    (iv)  Greece formalises its undertaking to make no other claims for the return of Greek artefacts in museums or collections in Britain.


  4.1  Increasingly, the international practice is for museums to develop policies and guidelines that allow for the processing of claims for the return of cultural property.

  4.2  In almost every case where significant cultural property has been returned it has been the cultural connection to the material and not the legal ownership that has dictated the repatriation.

  4.3  Museums Australia, the umbrella organisation covering all of the museums and galleries in Australia and has developed policies and guidelines covering the return of culturally significant materials and many museums have returned items under these guidelines.

  4.4  The Australian Museum, as a good example, has policies for processing claims and has returned a considerable number of items. They include artefacts to Papua New Guinea in 1977 and 1988, the Solomon Islands in 1988, Vanuatu in 1981 and 1988 and India in 1999.

  4.5  Cases involving the return of significant cultural property from museums in the United States include artefacts from the Brooklyn Museum to Guatemala in 1973, from Newark Museum to Syria in 1974, From Harvard's Peabody Museum to Mexico in 1976, to Panama in 1977 and to Honduras in 1981, from the New York Museum of Natural History to Greenland in 1993 and from the Metropolitan Museum of New York to Turkey in 1993.

  4.6  Cases involving the return of significant cultural property from museums in Britain include the return of artefacts from the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology to Uganda in 1962, from the Victoria and Albert Museum to Burma in 1964, from the Liverpool Museum to Australia in 1998, from the Wellcome Institute (London) to Yemen in 1981, from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum to Tasmania in 1994 and from the Edinburgh University Museum to Australia in 1991 and New Zealand in 1998.

  4.7  Cases involving the return of significant cultural property from European museums include the return of artefacts from France to Laos in 1950 and from France to Algeria in 1968, from Copenhagen University to Iceland in 1971 and from Holland to Indonesia in 1977.

  4.8  By way of contrast, the British Museum appears to have no guidelines or policies addressing these issues and its legislation prevents it from returning any significant cultural property.

  4.9  The failure or the inability of the British Museum to address claims for the return of cultural property is increasingly diminishing its reputation and overshadowing its excellent record of scholarship and its other fine collections.


  5.1  The Parthenon is widely regarded as one of the most significant monuments in western civilisation and arguably the purest expression of classical form ever created.

  5.2  The Marbles are a series of statues and friezes that are artistically and structurally part of the Parthenon. As Ian Jenkins, the Senior Curator, Greek and Roman Antiquities of the British Museum acknowledges, the Marbles, which are "the finest ancient artworks known to man", are also "component parts of an original architectural complex". In other words, the Marbles are not separate, detached objects but a vital and integral part of the Parthenon.

  5.3  The Parthenon and its statues are perhaps the most emblematic representation of Greek history, culture, identity and heritage: they belong in Athens.

  5.4  It is undeniably preferable, from every point of view, be it artistic, architectural, archaeological, historic or for the sake of conservation, research and scholarship, or for the benefit of the general public, to unite the surviving Parthenon statues and statue fragments together and as close to their original settings on the Acropolis as possible. It is tragic, for example, that parts of the torso of the important statue of Poseidon are divided between the Acropolis Museum and the British Museum and that parts of the head and other surviving parts of the central figure of Athena are in Athens while the torso is in London.

  5.5  The consolidation of the Collection in the proposed new museum close to the Acropolis will also allow the Marbles to be displayed in their original configuration, which is not possible in the Duveen Gallery of the British Museum.


  6.1  The UK Museum and Galleries Commission recently (January 2000) published a document "Restitution and Repatriation: Guidelines for Good Practice". The Guidelines are designed to assist British museums "on how to prepare for and respond to requests for the return of objects in their collection". The document also states that policies and procedures will make requests for return "easier to address, and both the requesting party and the museum staff will be more confident in working towards a constructive outcome".

  6.2  Under the heading "Arguments that Favour Return" the guidelines provide 10 general arguments that might justify the return of cultural property. All ten arguments support the case for the return of the Elgin Collection. The arguments include, for example:

    (i)  New approaches to professional practice in scientific research, archaeological excavation and museum activities, which recognise others' rights to control cultural material and knowledge;

    (ii)  Acknowledgment of past wrongful taking and/or misunderstandings of complex customary ownership concepts, and attempts to redress; and

    (iii)  Opportunity to build new relationships important to the museum and potential to add new more accurate information, and even new accessions, to museum collections.

  6.3  The Guidelines also contain general arguments in favour of the retention of cultural property. Many of these general arguments, if applied in the case of the Parthenon Marbles, would support the case for their return—and not their retention in Britain. Examples include:

    (i)  Integrity of collections;

    (ii)  Opportunities for comparative research at one central point; and

    (iii)  Need to move forward while acknowledging past history.

  6.4  Only two of the 22 general arguments for the retention of property in the Museum and Galleries Commission Guidelines could possibly be used to support the retention of the Elgin Collection in the British Museum. They are:

    (i)  Extended history of the material's presence in the Museum makes it now part of the scientific or cultural heritage of the United Kingdom; and

    (ii)  Local landmark status and sense of community ownership gained through its presence in the museum.

  6.5  The argument that the collection has been in Britain for long enough to be part of the British Museum's heritage, or a local landmark is no justification for retention of the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum or for denying the claim for their return. The nature, history and prominence of the Parthenon and its statues far outweigh any claim that they are part of the heritage of the British Museum.


  7.1  The British Museum points out that they are prevented by the British Museums Act from returning the Parthenon Marbles.

  7.2  The British Museums Act, which prevents the return of any significant cultural property, is increasingly out of step with other museums in Britain and around the world. The legislation should be amended and guidelines adopted so as to allow the processing of claims for the return of material.

  7.3  Ever since Elgin took the Marbles it has been argued that better care would be taken of them by the British Museum than if they were left in Athens. In 1816, the House of Commons Committee, which recommended the Collection be purchased from Elgin reported " . . . no country can be better adapted than our own to afford an honourable asylum to these monuments . . . secure from further injury and degradation".

  7.4  Whilst this argument might have applied in the past it no longer holds true now. The safe keeping of the Collection can be assured in Athens and this should be guaranteed as a condition of their return. Also, the reputation of superior care in the British Museum has now been severely damaged with revelations of the damage caused to a significant part of the Collection in 1937 and 1938.

  7.5  The British Museum has also expressed concern that the return of the Parthenon Marbles would set a precedent that would lead to many more claims for the return of material held by the museum.

  7.6  In an attempt to allay some of these fears, the Greek President Stephanopolous in 1996 stated that if the Parthenon Marbles were returned Greece would formally waive all other claims for the return of their ancient artefacts in British museums and collections.

  7.7  It has been the Australian experience that the return of property has not resulted in demands for the return of other property. In many cases the return has resulted in the gift of other material from the recipient and the forging of closer relations between the peoples.

  7.8  This has not only been the Australian experience. We are unaware of any circumstances where the act of return of significant cultural property has stimulated a further demand for material from the museum.

  7.9  In any event, fear of other claims is not a reasonable or justifiable basis for rejecting the legitimate claim for the return of the Elgin Collection.

  7.10  In 1998, the Senior Curator of Greek and Roman Antiquities of the British Museum, Ian Jenkins introduced the novel argument that the Marbles are "the pictorial representation of England as a free society and the liberator of other peoples". (Daily Telegraph 29.6.98). Such claims cannot seriously be maintained and is further evidence that the British Museum is out of step with modern museum practice in relation to cultural property.

  7.11  The British Museum has argued the Elgin Collection was legally acquired and that the Museum rightfully owns the collection.

  7.12  This point is largely immaterial to the merit of the current claim. Even if it could be demonstrated that Elgin had the appropriate legal authority to take the collection, it would not diminish the legitimacy of the claim for their return.

  7.13  In any event, it has never been satisfactorily established that Elgin acted properly or with the appropriate legal authority when he had the Marbles removed. Specifically:

    (i)  As an international authority on cultural property Jeanette Greenfield has pointed out there is "grave doubt" that Elgin had proper legal title to the Marbles.

    (ii)  The authorisation for Elgin to proceed exists only in a copy of a translation of an original letter that has never been produced. The House of Commons Committee that examined the matter in 1816 reported "your Committee had no opportunity of learning from Lord Elgin . . . in what terms they . . . Allowed the displacing, or carrying away of these Marbles . . . ".

    (iii)  It may be questioned whether Elgin ever had authority for any dismantling of the buildings in order to remove the sculptures.

    (iv)  It is clear from all the evidence that the intent of the original project and the original authorisations was to allow Elgin to draw and sketch and make casts of the statues of the Parthenon and not to take them away to Britain. As early as 1816, the House of Commons Committee reported that Elgin had placed an "extensive interpretation" on such permission as he was given.

    (v)  The removal of the Marbles (particularly the metopes) necessarily caused severe structural damage to the Parthenon, which was in no way authorised.

    (vi)  Elgin used his public office for private gain. The Marbles were always intended for Elgin's private collection yet his authority to work the site was only obtained because he was British Ambassador. As the House of Common Committee reported in 1816 "he was Ambassador from our Court: they granted the same permission to no other individual".

    (vii)  The taking of the Marbles have never been approved or sanctioned by any Greek authority.


  8.1  The Australian Committee believes it is possible, consistent with British aspirations for the long term care of the Marbles and having regard to Britain's role in Europe and as leader of the international community and seizing the occasion of the new Millennium and the opportunity presented by this House of Commons Committee, for the claims for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to be met.

March 2000

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