London and Athens

Athens International Conference, 26 June 2014

'PARTHENON. The Integrity of a Synbolic Monument. The Role of the Citizen. An International Campaign' organised by the Marianna Vardinoyannis Foundation in association with the Melina Mercouri Foundation 

ACROPOLIS St Clair 26.06.2014 William St Clair


Author of Lord Elgin and the Marbles revised edition 1998, The Elgin Marbles, Questions of Stewardship and Accountability, 1999, That Greece Might Still Be Free, the Philhellenes in the War of Independence, new edition in open access, 2008, and other works. He is Senior Research Fellow at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and of the Centre for History and Economics, Cambridge and Harvard.His essay on 'Looking at the Acropolis of Athens from Modern Times to Antiquity' will be published later in the summer.


First let me say how much I feel honoured and delighted to have been invited and to have the opportunity of offering some ideas. Many people here know far more than I do and I have to be severely selective, but I hope to pick out points that may be relevant to question of what is best to do now.

With written records on the Acropolis of Athens back to Homer and archaeological evidence even earlier, there is no site in the world in which the long view is so long, the ways of seeing so different, the stories told and the claims to legitimacy so varied, and the evidence available for building an understanding so complete.

This experience, that is retrievable, and therefore transferrable, is, I would say, an inheritance as precious as the marble.

In that long history, the question of return is quite recent, just over two hundred years, but in terms of modern notions of cultural property, with only a few scattered predecessors, it covers the whole age, and provides the paradigm for all the arguments.

I can begin with ideas based on legality

cartoon 2

The cartoon above, that shows the Ottoman governor of the Acropolis remonstrating with Elgin is from 1824, but the complaints began earlier, with doubts being cast on the legitimacy of the firman, the letter from the highest official in the Ottoman government writing in the name of the Sultan.


There has been much writing about the legal force of this document. But there are risks in applying present day law and modern legal concepts to historical situations in which very different laws and customs applied. The reason Elgin needed the Sultan's permission was that the Acropolis was a military fortress. There are other firmans in which the Sultan allowed removals of antiquities from fortresses, that I have seen. And it is worth recalling that international law included right of conquest as well as treaty transfer at least until the late nineteenth century. If you look at the website of the British Royal family you will see that it includes both as the legal foundation for its historical legitimacy. As far as the Acropolis is concerned, we have well documented records of legal transfer back to 1205 and probably earlier. But my main point is this. The whole approach of trying to build a legal case is backward looking. So I would say it would be better to look forward from the historical moment in which we find ourselves

Another set of arguments relate to claims of Hellenic continuity. I was among those lucky enough to be invited to meet Melina Mercouri when she came to London as Minister of Culture in 1986. I was quite seduced, but although I was in favour of return, I could not go along with her nationalist myth-making, such the story she told of the Greeks at the time of the Revolution offering to share their bullets with the Turks if they would spare the Parthenon. And that remains my view. We cannot honour classical Athens by disregarding, setting aside, or compromising with their intellectual achievements, that include separating a search for truth about the past from telling stories about the past to serve the present.

We should, I suggest, be wary of using antiquities for 'nation-building' that can easily slip into myth making. As Plato and Socrates knew, the aspiration to 'make the mute stones speak' is an illusion. The stones can only speak when some human being speaks on their behalf. And questions therefore arise about who deserves to be accorded that privilege, and on what intellectual, including historical, authority do the offered stories rest?

It was on the same trip to London that Ms Mercouri made her famous remark, 'There are no Elgin Marbles!' She was picking up on a point of language that the act of re-naming can be an appropriation, an annexation, and an attempt at legitimation of a new status. Since Mercouri's speech, the phrase 'Elgin Marbles' has become politically incorrect, and is now seldom heard.

However, the phrase 'The Sculptures of the Parthenon', which has replaced it, is also unsatisfactory. It too tends to legitimate a particular way of seeing, namely, that the sculptural components of the ancient buildings of the Acropolis are of greater value than the architecture of which they formed a part, that the buildings are more important than the site, and that they can be separated from the social and cultural purposes to which they were put. The phrase, 'The Sculptures of the Parthenon', that rides on nineteenth century western romantic notion of autonomous 'works of art', and its conceptual hierarchies, itself concedes much to the opponents of return. The current phrase would therefore be only partially corrected if it were modified to, say, 'The Sculptures from the Parthenon.'

It is well know that in the ancient authors, the Parthenon is seldom mentioned. In ancient times, from Homer to Julian, it is the Acropolis that is appealed to, whether to warn, to shame, to educate, or to celebrate. And it is the whole visible Acropolis rock, slopes and summit, buildings and freestanding statues and dedications, myth and history, the natural as much as the man-made.

The collection of antiquities brought from the Acropolis by Elgin included substantial pieces of all four of the classical buildings on the Acropolis summit, and of the Monument of Thrassylos on the south slope. I took a few photographs in the British Museum in preparation for this occasion.

Here is part of a Parthenon capital with a column drum that comes from elsewhere and does not fit.

capital mock up 2

It has had to be replaced on the building by a replica


And part of the Erechtheion

And of the Nike temple

Nike South Frieze

So what arguments are deployed by upholders of status quo, of whom, incidentally there are vanishingly few in the UK? The old 'rescue and stewardship' that was in standard use from Elgin's day until the late 1990s has been largely withdrawn from, rendered unsustainable by the revelations of the damage done to the Marbles in the 1930s, and by the even more damaging revelations of the extent of the officially sanctioned systematic misleading of the public and scholarly world, and of the long-persisted-in illegalities. It was hurriedly replaced by a newly invented justification, called the 'universal' or 'encyclopedic' museum, and the labels have been altered to fit.

london and athens

The separated parts of the frieze in London and Athens, we are now told in a phrase dreamed up by some PR guru or spin doctor, tell 'different but complementary stories.' And in support of this new narrative we see attempts to downplay classical Hellas. Who would have guessed that the main labels in the Parthenon gallery would now refer to Persia? Including the Cyrus cylinder that is being paraded both on this label and round the world's museums as a 'declaration of human rights'.

label persian

What we are seeing here is a new danger in addition to the others mentioned so far, a kind of cultural relativism allied with a commercial consumerism. Essentially the thought seems to be 'tell the punters what they want to hear', a modern form of myth-making as damaging as the nationalism of Melina Mercouri.

And, since UNESCO are here, this may be the moment to make a wider point. The Venice Charter, now half a century old, has provided a framework for an intergenerational ethics on the conservation of sites and monuments, essentially that it is wrong to alter the built heritage to serve the ideological aims of the present. What we lack, and increasingly need, is a code of ethics that subjects the stories that are officially invented and presented to make the mute stones speak to a similar set of ethical limitations.

So how should the claim now be presented? As it happens we now have the documents for the first claim for return made in 1835 immediately after independence.

It is notable that the claim, for the Nike temple friezes, was presented in terms of what was best for the monument, for an anastelosis.

In my view that is how the claim should now be presented in the re-launch. What is best for the monument, for viewers, and for the scholarly world, and for the visitor experience, categories that coincide and reinforce one another. And by the monument here I mean the whole Acropolis.

In support of the claim I would recommend preparing a clear statement, that is forward looking and drafted to show that the claim is intended to meet the needs and opportunities of today and the future. It should celebrate the achievement of classical Hellas and Athens in particular, emphasising its historical uniqueness. Although Hellas was influenced by its neighbours, and influenced them, as nobody doubts, it is historically misleading, as well as consumerist, to imply that it was just one civilization among many.

In Athens for the relaunch I would recommend a studied attempt to avoid condescending to visitors, as is already well under way in the excellent labels here. The public deserve the best. And they are interested in the ideas not just the stones, and in the most up to date knowledge. They would, in my view, prefer to be told that Athens was one of - at the last count - forty four Hellenic cities that had forms of democratic institutions and was not the first- than that it was 'the cradle of democracy.' And the Acropolis Museum can develop further its modern information technology to present alternatives and imagined reconstructions as is already happening

Acropolis Museum digital display

These are not guidance of the 'some say this, some say that' type that, as we see elsewhere, open the way both to old myth-making and to modern cultural relativism and consumerism. They are dynamic attempts to enable visitors to comprehend alternatives where there is room for genuine debate within the traditions of science and evidence-based humanities that our predecessors revived from ancient Hellas. One of the main roles of the ancient Acropolis was to serve as an education in stone, a paideia, for citizens and visitors. You have the opportunity to set out an updated vision of that ideal in the relaunch documents and, as the pieces are returned, to make it ever more real.

william st clair and pandermalis


Acropolis Museum and celebrating National Independence Day

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On Tuesday, 25th March 2014, to celebrate Greek National Independence Day, the Acropolis Museum opened free of charge from 9 am to 5 pm and offered visitors a host of exciting and informative presentations on the Parthenon.  

As a unique world cultural heritage site, the Parthenon has fascinated visitors for countless centuries and for this year's celebrations of Greece's National Independence Day, provided a great opportunity for visitors  to find out about the monument's decoration and architecture, its symbolism and rich history.

The presentations took place in Greek, English and French respectively  with up to 30 visitors per thematic presentation. 

 restaurant terrace copyright acropolis museum 0-240x160

On the same day the restaurant on the second floor of the Museum also welcomed its visitors with ' Greek traditional dishes'.


'Ochi Day' 28 October was celebrated at the Acropolis Museum with free admission plus lots more

Monday October 28, 2013

The Acropolis Museum today, 28 October celebrated ‘Ochi Day’ with free admission and special events

October 28 is a Greek national holiday which commemorates the rejection by Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas of the ultimatum made by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini on October 28, 1940.

Today to commemorate this annual national holiday, the Acropolis Museum was open free of charge from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The museum also presented a talk for adults entitled “The Other Gods of the Acropolis” and an interactive workshop for children, entitled “Myths in Images.”

Although Athena was the patron goddess of their city, the Athenians also worshipped a host of other deities, among them Zeus, Asclepius, Dionysus and Aphrodite. “The Other Gods of the Acropolis” addresses the cult practices and monuments associated with these other gods.

“Myths in Images” gave children the opportunity to create their own artistic impressions of ancient Greek myths. Participants drew and painted the mythological heroes of Greek antiquity.

Letter from British Ambassador to Constantinople (Istanbul), Robert Adair to Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin

Theodore Theodorou's web site is dedicated to a letter from R. Adair to Lord Elgin concerning the legality of his removal of the Parthenon marbles.

The letter was written in 1811 by the British Ambassador to Constantinople (Istanbul), Robert Adair, and addressed to Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin. 

It suggested the earl had no right to buy the 5th Century marbles.

The handwritten note was sold at Dominic Winter Auctions in Wiltshire on 6 November, 2002 for £7,000. 

Thank you Theodore for also pointing out that when I posted this item on the BCRPM's web site at lunchtime today, the 23 September 2013, I wrongly quoted £50 as the amount paid for Adair's letter.

In fact lot 370 was another letter sold on the same day at Dominic Winter Auctions, also by Adair regarding the poor policing in Brussels. This letter sold for £50.

The letter by Adair to Lord Elgin regarding the Parthenon marbles, lot 408, sold for £7,000! 

Clearly lot 370 not as important as lot 408 or indeed centuries after the events that spurred the Adair letters, the most valuable document was that regarding the 'removal' of the Parthenon sculptures. 



As Christopher Hitchens wrote in July 2009, still stands true today, July 2013

July 2009

Acropolis Now

The Lovely Stones

Among the first to visit Greece’s new Acropolis Museum, devoted to the Parthenon and other temples, the author reviews the origins of a gloriously “right” structure (part of a fifth-century-b.c. stimulus plan) and the continuing outrage that half its façade is still in London.

The British may continue in their constipated fashion to cling to what they have so crudely amputated, but the other museums and galleries of Europe have seen the artistic point of re-unification and restored to Athens what was looted in the years when Greece was defenseless. Professor Pandermalis proudly showed me an exquisite marble head, of a youth shouldering a tray, that fits beautifully into panel No. 5 of the north frieze. It comes courtesy of the collection of the Vatican. Then there is the sculpted foot of the goddess Artemis, from the frieze that depicts the assembly of Olympian gods, by courtesy of the Salinas Museum, in Palermo. From Heidelberg comes another foot, this time of a young man playing a lyre, and it fits in nicely with the missing part on panel No. 8. Perhaps these acts of cultural generosity, and tributes to artistic wholeness, could “set a precedent,” too?

The Acropolis Museum has hit on the happy idea of exhibiting, for as long as following that precedent is too much to hope for, its own original sculptures with the London-held pieces represented by beautifully copied casts. This has two effects: It allows the visitor to follow the frieze round the four walls of a core “cella” and see the sculpted tale unfold (there, you suddenly notice, is the “lowing heifer” from Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn). And it creates a natural thirst to see the actual re-assembly completed. So, far from emptying or weakening a museum, this controversy has instead created another one, which is destined to be among Europe’s finest galleries. And one day, surely, there will be an agreement to do the right thing by the world’s most “right” structure.


Does the New Acropolis Museum in Athens encompass successfully the archaelogical and ancient past?

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The New Acropolis Museum in Athens

I visited the new Acropolis Museum in August 2010 on two occasions when I was involved in an Archaeological Study Tour of Greece. I was so impressed by the magnitude and force of the structure and what it housed that I returned again to spend a day there in mid September, before returning to Ireland.

Three years earlier in October 2007 I had sat in the theatre of Dionysos and watched the tower cranes slowly hoist the historic artefacts from the old museum on the Acropolis rock to the new museum. It took four months and required the use of three tower cranes to move the artefacts a distance of two hundred and eighty metres without mishap.

It was certainly a moving and a historical moment and I pondered on the fact that these profoundly ancient artefacts, imbued with the history of the ancient past, were being moved with a modern crane to be carefully situated within a modern space. This experience inspired me to write about the museum, its artefacts and displays, and the fact the ancient past was being incorporated into the present day, through the symbolism of a new modern museum. Because I witnessed the artefacts being transported to the new museum, and then visited it years later, I felt a link with the whole process.

Read the full article HERE.



Giving back by Cavafy

'Give back the Elgin Marbles'

Please use the link to read the full article.

Extract: is not dignified in a great nation to reap profit from half-truths and half-rights; honesty is the best policy, and honesty in the case of the Elgin Marbles means restitution. If the latter, and he wrote merely in order to outrival the eloquent, clever and sensible article of Mr. Harrison, it is much to be regretted that he did not consider the great French author’s wise warning: «Qui court après l’esprit attrape la sottise».


On the duty to repatriate “exiles”?

The author argues that, beyond the archaeological and aesthetic evidence, the return of the Elgin Marbles is a fundamentally ethical issue.


The European crisis, financial in appearance, is in reality profoundly social, even societal. The problems that Greece has faced and those she is made to face are only the tip of the European iceberg. The number, types and levels of dishonourable shameless attacks on the birthplace of our civilisation should remind the thinking public = you, that Aesop’s lesson (the dogs and the fox) “it is easy to kick a man that is down”,13 is sadly relevant to the situation, in particular to the support from Britons, who pay or don’t pay income tax but advise Greece that if they want to stay in the Eurozone, they should accept the consequences and get on with it! Therefore we Europeans need to reflect on the meaning of the word ‘community’ and start building the group that calls itself the “European Community”. This research report on the Parthenon, a perennial issue since the 1816 parliamentary debate, now needs to be made accessible to a wider audience in the hope that the claims which attempt to justify the retention by Britain of goods received from an occupying power are, at last, seen to be what they really are...

Copyright . Michelle Pépratx-Evans

June -2012

The Parthenon, before its destruction in part by fire during the Venetian siege, had been a temple, a church and a mosque. In each point of view it is an object of regard; it changed its worshippers; but still it was a place of worship thrice sacred to devotion: its violation is a triple sacrilege.4 (G G Byron, 1812)

Download the full article (PDF)

Museum's Journal poll June 2012, 73% for returning the Parthenon sculptures to Greece and 24% against

Ahead of the London Colloquy 19 & 20 June, the Museums Journal poll, join the bebate

Final poll result 73% for returning the Parthenon sculptures to Greece and 24% against.

The Parthenon sculptures: a legal perspective


The Parthenon sculptures: a legal perspective By Andrew Dismore

1 Ownership: who do the sculptures belong to, in law?


The issue of ownership of the Parthenon Sculptures (PS) has vexed politicians, museum curators, campaigners and the public for decades: but does it matter? The way the PS came into the possession of the British  Museum (BM). is a matter of relatively settled historical record. Lord Elgin removed them from the Parthenon under an Ottoman firman, the legal effect of which has been hotly disputed ever since. The first argument is that the firman did not extend to the wholesale removal effected by Lord Elgin; and secondly, the Ottoman firman could not and did not lawfully allow the removal of the sculptures anyway. Be that as it may, Lord Elgin shipped the sculptures to his London home. His expenses were substantial, and his subsequent financial difficulties led him to negotiate for the sale of his collections to the BM In 1816, a House of Commons Select Committee considered the authority by which Lord Elgin's collection was acquired, the circumstances under which that authority was granted, the merit of the sculptures and the importance of making them public property and their value as objects of sale. It adjudged the sculptures to have been properly acquired,  both fit for and worthy of public purchase, and recommended a purchase price of £35,000, less than half the expenditure claimed by Lord Elgin.

Read more: The Parthenon sculptures: a legal perspective



Adv George Bizos SC (A member of Johannesburg Bar and The British Committee for the Reunification Of the Parthenon Marbles) 16th Floor, Bram Fischer Towers 20 Albert Street JOHANNESBURG

E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


The Modern Greek state is the successor in title to the territory of Greece that was under control of the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 19th Century and where the marbles were located prior to their removal by Lord Elgin.  Greece believes that it is legally entitled to the return of the Parthenon Marbles.  Furthermore, it has a clear interest in its cultural heritage, as is reflected in Law 30228 on the Protection of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage in General.  In particular that law makes clear that Greece has a duty, to itself and to its citizens, “to care, within the context of international law, for the protection of cultural objects, which are connected historically with Greece wherever they are located.”  


To sue or not to sue? Parthenon Marbles activists debate

Parthenon pediment figures in the British Museum
The British Museum says it can display the sculptures "in the context of world history"

Activists from around the world seeking the return of the Parthenon sculptures to Athens have met in London to discuss their strategy as Greece faces troubled times.

"The Olympics are a four-yearly reminder to the world of all we owe to Greece," said former MP Eddie O'Hara - who chairs the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles.

The meeting, he added, "ought to remind people in London and throughout the world that there's one debt to Greece that will never be repaid until those sculptures in the British Museum are returned."

Read more: To sue or not to sue? Parthenon Marbles activists debate

Lord Elgin - Saviour or Vandal?

By Mary Beard Last updated 2011-02-17

Much of the sculpture that once enhanced the Parthenon in Athens was brought to London by Lord Elgin 200 years ago. Was this the act of a saviour or a vandal? Mary Beard looks at both sides of a fierce argument.


Read more: Lord Elgin - Saviour or Vandal?