Parthenon and Democracy Meeting: What Now for the Parthenon Marbles?

On Friday, September 16, a group of distinguished scholars and cultural heritage experts gathered at the Acropolis Museum in Athens for the much-anticipated conference, “Parthenon and Democracy.”

Co-organized by the Acropolis Museum and the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, and with delegates coming from as far afield as Australia and Brazilthe conference was dedicated to the memory of Professor Dimitrios Pandermalis, President of the Board of Directors of the Acropolis Museum and its first Director, who died on September 14.

Over the course of the day, 12 presentations explored aspects of the Parthenon as an enduring symbol of democracy, both in the context of ancient Athens – specifically the “Golden Age” of Pericles in the second half of the 5th century BC – and as a beacon of human rights and democratic values ​​in the modern world. As expected, much of the discussion centerd around the decorative sculptures of the nearly 2,500-year-old monument, their significance to the inhabitants of the world’s first democratic city-stateand the current state of the long-running campaign for their reunification in Athens.

The conference, arranged a day after the annual meeting of the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures (IARPS), comes amid momentum in the campaign. Following the announcement last September by UNESCO’s International Committee for the Return and Restitution of Cultural Property (ICPRCP), urging the UK to enter into intergovernmental talks with Greece over the dispute, a flurry of articles in the UK, most notably in The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian, expressed strong support for the Greek cause.

The Parthenon as a Symbol of European Culture

Conference attendees were greeted with three welcome speeches, including one from Culture Minister Lina Mendoniwho expressed deep sadness at the passing of Professor Pandermalis, praising his central role in the realisation of the Acropolis Museum: “Thanks to his persistent efforts, Greece obtained a museum worthy of the Acropolis and its cultural treasures.”

Live streamed on YouTube and with simultaneous translations in Greek and English, the morning session was devoted to Greek scholars and members of the Ministry of Culture and Sports engaged in research and enhancement projects on the Acropolis. Especially noteworthy was the opening presentation by Professor Nikolaos Stampolidiscurrent Director of the Museum, who reflected on the Parthenon frieze – a contemporary image of the Panathenaic Procession in honor of the goddess Athena – and what it has to say about social inclusion in early democratic Athens.

Dr Elena Kourka, a veteran member of the Greek Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, made a powerful case for the democratic symbolism of the Parthenon today: “Societies may change over time, but democratic institutions and functions remain unshakable witnesses to the evolution of civil society .” As such, the Parthenon monument and its decorative sculptures continue to function as a unique symbol in the modern world – an age old witness to the ideals and values ​​of democratic society through time.

In the afternoon session, the floor was transferred to the attending representatives of the various international committees. Of note was Dr Christiane Tytgat’s presentation “From Salamis to the Parthenon: Improving Democracy,” which gave insight into the constantly changing and evolving civil institutions in Athens following the allied Greek victory over the Persians at the Battle of Salamis (480 BC). “The temples on the Acropolis, destroyed by the Persians prior to the battle, were only rebuilt by decree of the demos (the people) in the second half of the 5th century BC.” Tytgat, the current President of both the Belgian Committee and the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, was keen to emphasize the Parthenon as a symbol the political, cultural and economic supremacy of Athensand the frieze as a celebration of its inhabitants: “The only story these priceless sculptures are telling.”

Paul Cartledge, Professor emeritus of Greek Culture at Cambridge University and President of the British Committee, likewise gave an engaging talk about the ways in which the Parthenon, in its original context, reflected democracy in the ancient city-state. He tacitly reminded the audience that democratic participation in Athens – indeed citizenship – only applied to a small percentage of the actual population, around 10 – 20 percent. Only males who had completed their military service as ephebes had the right to vote, excluding slaves, freed slaves, children, women and metics (foreign born residents). Even then, effective engagement with the institutions themselves required a high degree of knowledge and expertise, as well as the ability to speak in a clear and persuasive manner to the 6,000-strong assembly (Ecclesia) on the Pnyx. It is just as well to remember that the great statesman Pericles, the instigator of so much democratic reform in the city, hailed form an extremely wealthy, aristocratic family.

The final presentation of the conference was given by Professor Celine Lage, a classicist with an interest in art curation and the current Vice-President of the Brazilian Committee. Saving the best for last, Lage’s talk was by far the most engaging and through provoking of the day, moving away from well-worn arguments about the significance of the Parthenon Sculptures and the “uniqueness” of democratic Athens, and instead focussing on the retention of the marbles by the British Museum as a powerful case that strikes at the heart of discussions surrounding decolonization, curatorial narratives, democratic dialogue, and ethics.

Her talk was a welcomed departure from the usual “Brit-bashing” that oftentimes dominates the debate – an earlier speaker made the absurd comment about Britain giving up the right to retain the marbles in London following its departure from the European Union (how was the British Museum entitled to them in the first place, EU or no EU?). Instead, Lage referred to her own country’s legacy of colonialism, its violent treatment of the indigenous population and misappropriation of its cultural heritage. She achieved that the issue of the Parthenon Sculptures is one of ethics and urged all parties – countries, institutions and communities – to engage in democratic dialogue, “seeking common values ​​and objectives.”

So far, so good. What now?

In sum, last week’s conference provided some interesting and thought-provoking insights into the notion of the Parthenon as a “beacon of democracy,” to quote the late historian William St Clair, but there was very little open discussion about how the current campaign can best move forward and fully capitalize on the climate of goodwill in support of the Greek cause, most notably in the United Kingdom. George Vardas, Vice-President of Australians for the Return of the Parthenon Sculptures, voiced legal options in the post-conference discussion, but there was little else by way of concrete ideas. This is why Celine Lage’s presentation was so poignant. It all boils down to ethics.

While the International Committees have undoubtably played a vital role over the past 40 years, augmenting the hard work of the Greek authorities, the groundswell of support throughout much of the UK media could finally break the deadlock. The mood in the United Kingdom has clearly shifted in recent yearsas reflected in the current opinion polls, which show that nearly sixty percent of respondents believe the Sculptures “belong to Greece.”

To that end, the increased pressure on the UK government and the trustees of the British Museum appears to be working, as Jonathan Williams, the Museum’s current director, hinted at searching for a compromise this summer. We wait and see how that plays out, but, in the spirit of representative democracy, UK citizens should be given every encouragement to write to their MPs, urging them to amend the British Museum Act 1963, which outlines the composition and general powers of the Museum’s trustees. Then, and only then, can the UK debate the issue in the House of Commons and further reflect on what responsibilities they wish to give to the trustees, thus opening up the very real possibility of compelling them to return the Sculptures to their rightful home .

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