Athens Colloquy 2015: the state of the campaign: Review and Prospects

ATHENS 27 July 2015

The tumultuous events of the past twelve months have had mixed implications for our campaign. On the one hand they have brought unprecedented press coverage drawing our case to the attention of a vast cross section of the public including areas normally far beyond our reach. Such publicity is the oxygen of the campaign and, sure enough, a pair of opinion polls demonstrated an increase in support. On the other hand it has shown up tensions within the campaign which need be resolved, it has produced reactions from the British Museum which need to be addressed, and it has distracted us from priorities which we ought to have been addressing almost a year ago.I shall address each of these in turn.

TENSIONS WITHIN THE CAMPAIGN: These properly should be addressed elsewhere than in this paper or in this colloquy. There is however one issue which I must address, litigation. First and last, whether or not to have recourse to litigation is for the Greek Government alone to decide. The responsibility of supporters is to support them in whatever course of action they choose. Personally, I wish to see the Parthenon marbles reunited on cultural and ethical grounds. Nevertheless, pragmatically, if the Greek Government were able to secure a favourable adjudication through litigation I would welcome it. However the position of the BCRPM on litigation is encapsulated in the excellent paper delivered by Andrew Dismore at our colloquy in 2012 and available on our website. The factual, practical and legal impediments after 200 years to securing a safe adjudication on the legality of Lord Elgin’s acquisition of his collection are insuperably immense. Resolution is however possible through legislation, through the reform of the British Museum Museum Act 1963.

There is another matter. The widely held perception of something dubious about Lord Elgin’s actions lends strength to our campaign. A suicidal act of litigation initiated by the Greek Government would throw this away and indeed bolster the BM’s position . The other possible ground for litigation is human rights. At time of writing the case remains to be made for this.

REACTIONS FROM THE BRITISH MUSEUM: At first it looked as if the BM was uncertain how to react to the tidal wave of publicity. It had sat tight on the invitation to submit to the UNESCO mediation process. Then a tightly coordinated set of initiatives emerged. First the loan of Ilissos to the Hermitage, then the formal announcement of the Defining Beauty exhibition in which selected pieces from the Elgin collection are used, simultaneously with synchronised announcements by both the BM and the British Government of the rejection of the UNESCO mediation initiative. In all this the BM appears to be using the Parthenon Marbles to underpin, revamp and relaunch the concepts of cultural diplomacy and the universal museum in their justification for retaining them. I am not sure that we have yet articulated a clear and adequate response to this. We may however be encouraged by the recent poll by the Museums Journal of its readers in which 81% voted that the response to the UNESCO mediation initiative should have been more positive.          

DISTRACTION FROM PRIORITIES: In the summer of 2014 my mind was turning to the enhanced campaigning required in the lead up to the 200th anniversary in 2016 of the British Government’s purchase of Elgin’s collection. I was thinking initially of identifying as many prominent supporters from as many professions as possible, journalism, literature, broadcast media, music, theatre, the arts, sport, academia, with a view to deploying them serially or en masse. Instead I found myself swept along by all that was happening around us. However this colloquy gives us the perfect opportunity to address these preparations with renewed vigour. It is the launch pad for Campaign2016. We have a colloquy in London planned for 2016. It should be commensurate with the occasion. For this it needs to be fully supported and properly resourced in terms of administration and funding. It need not be seen in isolation. It could be the focal point or climax of a continuous stream of diverse initiatives in the intervening period. I invite a brainstorming of ideas to this end.

But ideas need to be turned into reality. If ever there was a need for a campaigns officer this is it. 200th anniversaries are too rare to waste. Let us not waste this one.

I end on another encouraging note: as I write these words the most recent opinion poll has just closed. It was run by the Daily Telegraph, a newspaper noted for its extreme reactionary views and readership. It was placed online not at the end but in the middle of a hostile article (“Greece knows that it has no legal right…”) full of misrepresentations, opinions and errors presented as facts. For the unwary it even reversed the normal order of questions so that NO indicated that the marbles should be returned to Greece. Despite all this 58% voted that indeed they should!