With all the crises going on in Greece, it’s probably not surprising we haven’t heard much about the campaign to get the Elgin/Parthenon Marbles back for quite a while, but interestingly, over the past few weeks there’s doings afoot in Australia, of all places. First I read of an impending legal challenge in an article in the Australian Greek Reporter:
For years political and populist attempts to induce the British Museum and the British government to return the Parthenon marbles to Greece have been rebuffed and rudely ignored. The British may rely on a threadbare claim of legality because of a supposed sale or contractual transaction but with whom? The Ottoman bey of Athens at the time? Certainly there was no Greek national representative as there was no Greek nation to protest the ravishment of porticos and frescoes from the outer decorations of this, the most revered building in Western civilization. For too long, supporters of the return of the Parthenon marbles have seen a legal challenge in the English High Court to be too daunting and unlikely to achieve the desired result. But a new initiative coming from the AHEPA organization in Sydney Australia may be able to construct a respectable argument to put before the English courts in such a claim – to release the marbles to the representatives of the Greek government for a return to their home and origin Athens. The two Decisions one legal the other administrative are of Interest Mabo Mabo v Queensland (No 2) (commonly known a Mabo) was a landmark Australian court case which was decided by the High Court of Australia on June 3, 1992. The effective result of the judgement was to make irrelevant the declaration of terra nullius, or “land belonging to no-one” which had been taken to occur from the commencement British colonisation in 1788, and to recognise a form of native title. It is argued by some historians[who?] that the Royal Proclamation of 1763 was seen to apply to Australia at the time of settlement, and therefore governed unceded territories. Although Mabo was litigated within the legal context of property law, the decisions clearly had much wider implications which have still to be determined.
Thus in 1992 the Australian High Court made a historical determination to release land back to the “original owners” Aborigines of the northern Australian islands, As with all Australia the first English colonists had claimed land in the name of the King of England by ignoring the fact that people were already living there by declaring it as “terra nullius” – i.e. nobody’s land. Eddie Mabo took on the state of Queensland and with help from support groups won the day overturning what had been established custom and law. The result was that the Australian government was forced to admit that his island and large swags of the Northern Territory and Queensland came under the same heading and should be returned to their original owners. It was conditional that the original owners had never left which in most cases it applied to was true. Land that had passed into private hands as settled property affecting the lives of white Australians and in the cities was excluded from the court’s ruling. The historical decision is simply known as “Mabo” Mabo dealt with land rights but a later development has occurred which sets a precedent which could be even more relevant. Bringing Them Home Then some years ago indigenous people of Australia again made a claim this time supported by the Australian government for the return of human remains such as bones, skulls and teeth. Tasmanian aborigines who demanded the return of bones, skulls and body remains of their ancestors which had been taken away to England during the 19th. and early 20th century for anthropological investigation. The claims were based on religious and cultural grounds and that the taking was unauthorised by the descendants of the deceased whose body parts were scattered in universities and museums in England. In 1996 and again 1999 the British government conceded the claim and the desired items were returned to the lineal descendants of the long dead aborigines. These two significant circumstances could well give rise to the thread of an argument for a claim to be brought in an English court of law by applying Mabo as a persuasive precedent from the highest Australian court and the human remains ruling of the British government. The Parthenon Marbles The marbles were extracted crudely and wantonly between 1801 to 1812 from the Parthenon and sustained significant damage in the process. Whatever claim to some purchase or contract that could be relied on by supporters of Elgin, the fact remains that the Greek peoples were a conquered race, there was no nation, the Ottomans ruled as part of their empire then but in the way of history and other empires only held sway in Athens for a few years after the looting. The marbles were not removed either to protect them or to glorify them in England. Elgin simply had them installed in his private gardens along with the garden gnomes. The British Museum later acquired them by purchase from Elgin or his representatives to meet his debts. Were they “stolen” in the sense of English law or not is one question that would rise in any claim. If found to be stolen no title passes to a third party and that what would be part of the claim. No Greek Representative or authority or even lay person sanctioned the original looting of the marbles. They were certainly not Ottoman Turkish property other than being part of the captured territory. That they have deep cultural significance and meaning to the Greek peoples cannot be denied. They are integral to the linings of the most famous building in Europe when Greek learning and art laid the basis for western civilization and set standards of beauty and grace apparent to this day in the great museums of Europe and America. Other magnificent remnants of that time, Niki of Samothrace and Venus de Milo in the Louvre are stand alone statues. But the Parthenon marbles are integral adornments to an existing building and belong if not in position at least in the dignity of the new Athens Acropolis Museum in the hands of the people who are the lineal descendants of the age of Pericles, Phideas, Iktinos and Kallikratis and like the ruling in re Mabo as to continuity of residence, never left the site of Athens. Contacts have been made with other concerned people such as George Bizos a senior counsel in South Africa and other organizations and it is important that the best brains get together to coalesce money and intellectual input and to bring the arguments to a sharp point using the best legal people for the actual hearing. The Australian branch of the world wide Ahepa organization though its Marbles representative Manuel Comino OA and legal advisor Victor Bizannes believe that the time has come for an international fund to be set up to finance an action in the English High Court using these two significant cases as part of the argument for the return of Hellenic property to its original owners- the Hellenic peoples. (Victor Bizannes Sydney – June 2010)
Interesting argument; I’m really not sure it applies … if one were to use DNA to prove ‘lineal descendants’, I’m sure most of Western Europe and a good chunk of North America might qualify. I also don’t think there are religious and/or anthropological reasons that can be seriously attached to the marbles at this point in their history; any repatriation would clearly be for financial reasons. We’ll see if this goes anywhere. In any event, a few weeks later we read (in the same source) of a parliamentarian getting in on the action:
The State Minister for Culture Mrs. Virginia Jung (photo) supported to the state parliament of New South Wales that “according to the Code of ethics for museums by the International Council of Museums, the possession of cultural objects because of agreements with occupational forces is illegal and immoral”.
Among others, the Ministry underlined also the following:
«I have known the case of Parthenon Marbles for a lot of years and I was obliged to meet not only my political and cultural beliefs but also the cultural worries and sensitivities of the whole Greek-Australian community. A lot of members of this community told me to mention this issue as they felt that there is little mobility in a political level for the marbles return.” she said.
Among the audience of the parliament was also Mr. David Hill, President of the International Committee for the Parthenon Marbles return who stated that was impressed by the speech of the Minister.
“The speech of the Minister was impressive and completely different from other speeches as apart from the usual arguments, she asked the British Museum to remember “what a museum is” and which the responsibilities of a museum towards the people are”.
When the Minister ended her speech, Mr. Hill congratulated her and asked her permission in order to use her speech.
The Australian Minister also added: “Parthenon, one of the most important pieces of architecture, was built in order for the Goddess Athena to be honoured by the people of a city that even 2500 years later still retains her name. This is a historical continuity that few people in the world can evoke. Lord Elgin sold the sculptures to the British museum when he lost his money. The sale was illegal and invalid as he never took permission from the Greek people to remove them. The only permission he took was from the Turkish that were the occupational power! So, if we agree with the Code of Ethics for museums by the International Council of museums, then the possession of cultural objects because of agreements with occupational forces is illegal and immoral!
So, I am asking the British Museum to act as a museum and return back to Greece half of the Parthenon to complete the other half. Otherwise, it is something like having Mona Lisa in the Louvre of Paris and her smile to the National Portrait Gallery of London”.
The Minister also recited a poem of Lord Byron which reflects the cruelty of Elgin.
Finally, we read of the same sort of thing in the Australian Daily Telegraph, which includes some name variations (and gives you an indication why I’ve never cited the Greek Reporter before):
Arts Minister Virginia Judge and Local Government Minister Barbara Perry have decided to dabble in foreign affairs by demanding the return of the Elgin Marbles.
The marbles are sculptures and panels that were removed from the ancient Parthenon, in Athens, by Thomas Bruce, the seventh earl of Elgin, in 1801.
Bruce sold them to the British government and Greece has long demanded that the “Parthenon Marbles” – as it prefers to call them – be returned from the British Museum in London, where they now reside.
Ms Judge accused the museum of acting like “some colonial power” and called on Britain to return the sculptures.
Ms Perry also waded in and said: “I hope the message from this Parliament will be heard in Britain.”
But in the two weeks since they spoke in Parliament, Britain appears not to have heard their plea.
An international campaign to have Britain return the marbles has been waged for years and both ministers said they had raised the issue on behalf of their thousands of Greek constituents.
“I do not ask the British Museum to return a vase or some statue with a missing limb. I ask it to return half the Parthenon, return it to Greece so it may be reunited with the rest of itself,” Ms Judge told parliament.
“It would be like having the Mona Lisa displayed in the Louvre, in Paris, while her smile is displayed in the National Portrait Gallery in London.”
Ms Judge’s office said support for the return of the sculptures had also been raised in Federal Parliament by a Liberal MP.
A spokeswoman said 3000 Greeks lived in Ms Judge’s electorate of Strathfield and many had asked her to raise their plight in parliament.
“The president of the International Committee for the Parthenon Marbles, David Hills, also asked the Minister to raise the issue and was in Parliament when she made her speech,” she said.
Ms Perry added: “NSW has a very large Greek-Australian population, a lot of whom live in my electorate of Auburn. Many in the local Greek population are rightly concerned about this ongoing international issue. I simply put forward their views.”
So something seems to be going on down under/up over (depending on where you live) … we’ll see if it goes beyond Australia’s shores …