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


Supplementary memorandum submitted by the International Organising Committee—New Zealand—for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles


1.1  The International Organising Committee—New Zealand—for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles welcomes the proposed enquiry by the British House of Commons Culture Media & Sport Committee into cultural property. We regard the whole issue of cultural property and the illicit trade as being of great importance to the cultural heritage of the world.

  1.2  Cultural property includes property of artistic interest which is both an expression of and testimony to human creativity. Such cultural property embraces works of outstanding monumental sculpture and includes most significantly the Parthenon Marbles now housed in the British Museum.

  1.3  Our organisation has only recently been formalised, although for many years Philhellenes in New Zealand have been very concerned about the continued presence of the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum. The membership of our own organisation is growing rapidly.

  1.4  We have read the submission made by the Australian Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles and we fully endorse that submission and the recommendations contained therein.

  1.5  For our part we wish to make the following submission in the context of this House of Commons Committee's consideration of claims for the return of items of cultural property which were historically removed and not necessarily acquired as a result of illicit trade.


  2.1  The history and circumstances as to how the pedimental sculptures, metopes and a large part of the frieze were physically removed from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin's workers have been widely documented and publicised over the years. It is not our intention to go into detail in this submission.

  2.2  The sculptures were taken at a time when Greece was under Ottoman rule. The Greek people did not and would never have given permission for the sculptures to be removed from what is arguably a unique national masterpiece of art and history.

  2.3  The Parthenon has been described as a marble beacon from the past and the monument of monuments. When you stand in front of the Parthenon and take in the magnificence of its architectural and sculptural detail, you cannot help but be overcome by the inspiration and genius of those who created it. When you view the magnificent sculptures in the British Museum, particularly the incomparable frieze, it is obvious that these brilliant works were designed for a specific place on a particular building. Any appreciation of the Parthenon and its surrounds is limited by the inability to view the sculptures in their entirety, within view of the Parthenon and set out in the harmony and order that was the case where they stood on the temple for over 2000 years.

  2.4  The sculptures were not free-standing artefacts but physically and integrally a part of the Parthenon. The Parthenon Marbles do not merely belong to it, they are the Parthenon.


  3.1  The guidelines published by the British Museum and Galleries Commission ought to be adopted by all museums in Great Britain.

  3.2  The American Association of Museums has recently published a statement on cultural property and the illicit trade in which the following proposition is made:

    "Stewardship of collections entails the highest public trust and carried with it the presumption of rightful ownership, permanence, care, documentation, accessibility and responsible disposal. The public has the right to expect that professional standards and practices inform and guide museum operations".

  3.3  This admirable statement of principle also applies to the Parthenon Marbles and their stewardship and custodianship by the British Museum.

  3.4  As we enter the 21st century, there is a discernible movement towards a properly reasoned and considered approach to requests for restitution or repatriation of items of cultural property, including indigenous remains, objects of significant cultural heritage and so on. Increasingly, museums around the world are adopting specific policies in order to consider requests for return of cultural property. It is time that the British Museum Act is amended to ensure that the Museum adopts proper de-accessioning policies and procedures and that mechanisms are put in place to oversee their implementation in practice.

  3.5  This is even more compelling in the case of the British Museum given that its stewardship of the Marbles has been seriously questioned by the revelations as to the damage caused during the earlier cleaning of the Marbles and the persistent attempts by the Trustees of the British Museum to withhold information from the public regarding that episode. The Trustees of the British Museum have breached that public trust and their duty to act in good faith.


  4.1  The standard defence of the British Museum and the civil service has been that to return the Parthenon Marbles would create a dangerous precedent which would result in the great museums of the world losing their collections.

  4.2  In the Parliamentary debate on 1 June 1998 in the House of Commons the Minister for Culture, Media & Sport, Mr Chris Smith, stated that a "host of other questions about the location of works of art throughout the world would arise" and that no one would want such questions to be reopened if the Marbles were to be returned. On 4 February 1999 during a House of Lords debate on the question, Lord McIntosh of Haringey expressed concern that the return of the Parthenon Sculptures to Greece would "raise the issue of a worldwide return of works of art to their places of origin".

  4.3  The standard response by the British Museum is that the return of the Parthenon Sculptures would involve "disbursing most of the world's great collections" and lead to the "piecemeal dismemberment of the collections which recognise no arbitrary boundaries of time or place".

  4.4  Leaving aside the historic irony of this last comment (for in the case of the Parthenon Marbles there was nothing arbitrary about where they stood for over 2,000 years) there is simply no evidence to support this cultural domino theory. Jeanette Greenfield in her seminal work, Return of Cultural Treasures, has instanced numerous examples of cultural artefacts that have been returned and yet the collections of the world's museums have not been sacked.

  4.5  This Committee should reject the arguments of the British Museum and other perennial retentionists.


  5.1  The time has come for negotiation and dialogue to strive for what one commentator has described as the re-sharing of one of the universal symbols of mankind's excellence which were arrogantly removed and which should now be returned (Thomas Hovig, Newsweek, 28 September 1993).

  5.2   It is significant that during the 1999 House of Lords debate, Lord McIntosh also stated that the Culture Minister had been in correspondence with his Greek counterpart and that, in terms of the United Nations recommendations as to the return of cultural property, the British Government was prepared to accept the resolution regarding the promotion of bilateral negotiations and has "always been willing to take part in such bilateral negotiations".

  5.3  Despite this claim, the British Government continues to refuse to be a signatory to the UNIDROIT Convention which calls for bilateral negotiations between countries over the return of works of art.

  5.4  We therefore submit this Committee should recommend that the British Government commence and pursue meaningful negotiations with the Government of Greece with a view to developing a constructive dialogue as to the return of the Parthenon Marbles upon the conditions specified by the Greek President, namely:

    (a)  That a new Acropolis Museum be constructed to house the Parthenon Sculptures.

    (b)  That all costs for the return of the Marbles and the cost of a complete set of copies to remain in London be met by Greece.

    (c)  That Greece makes no other claims for the return of cultural property in the museums or collection of Great Britain.


  6.1  The New Zealand Committee supports and endorses the recommendations of the Australian Committee.

  6.2  Great Britain has always been a world leader in matters of law and order and more importantly in natural justice. The injustice committed by Lord Elgin and his workers in damaging the Parthenon and in removing the valuable Marbles should be redressed and as a world leader Britain is well placed to make a magnificent gesture for the return of one of the world's most priceless cultural treasures.

March 2000

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2000
Prepared 25 July 2000