The Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum: UNESCO mediation proposal

Response of the Trustees of the British Museum to the request put forward by the Greek Government that they should enter into a process of mediation, facilitated by UNESCO, on the subject of the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum.

The Chairman of the British Museum Board of Trustees, Sir Richard Lambert, has formally responded to UNESCO on behalf of the Trustees. The letter is published below and a courtesy translation of the letter into Greek is available here.

The UK Government has informed the British Museum of its formal response to UNESCO following the offer of mediation. The letter to UNESCO from the Department for Culture Media and Sport and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office is available here.

Further information on the Parthenon sculptures and the Trustees position is available here.

Alfredo Pérez de Armiñán
Assistant Director-General for Culture
United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation
1 Rue Miollis
75732 Paris Cedex 15

26 March 2015

The Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum: UNESCO mediation proposal

I write on behalf of the Trustees of the British Museum, who at their meeting of 19th March 2015 considered the request put forward by the Greek Government that they should enter into a process of mediation, facilitated by UNESCO, on the subject of the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum. After full and careful consideration, we have decided respectfully to decline this request. We believe that the more constructive way forward, on which we have already embarked, is to collaborate directly with other museums and cultural institutions, not just in Greece but across the world.

The British Museum admires and supports the work of UNESCO, fully acknowledging the importance of its unique ability, as an intergovernmental agency, to address the serious issue of the threats to, and the destruction of, cultural heritage around the world. The Museum has a long history of collaboration with UNESCO, notably in Iraq in 2003-5, and is currently engaged with UNESCO in formulating responses to the crisis in Syria, including the illicit trafficking of antiquities. The Museum would wish always to align itself with UNESCO’s purposes in the preservation and safeguarding of the world’s endangered cultural heritage. However, the surviving Parthenon Sculptures, carefully preserved in a number of European museums, clearly do not fall into this category.

The British Museum, as you know, is not a government body, and the collections do not belong to the British Government. The Trustees of the British Museum hold them not only for the British people, but for the benefit of the world public, present and future. The Trustees have a legal and moral responsibility to preserve and maintain all the collections in their care, to treat them as inalienable and to make them accessible to world audiences.

In pursuit of this aim, the Trustees would want to develop existing good relations with colleagues and institutions in Greece, and to explore collaborative ventures, not on a government-to-government basis but directly between institutions. This is why we believe that UNESCO involvement is not the best way forward. Museums holding Greek works, whether in Greece, the UK or elsewhere in the world, are naturally united in a shared endeavour to show the importance of the legacy of ancient Greece. The British Museum is committed to playing its full part in sharing the value of that legacy for all humanity.

The potential of this approach can be seen in the British Museum’s current special exhibition Defining Beauty, the Body in Ancient Greek Art, which opened to the public today. Here some of the Parthenon Sculptures are displayed with other works that similarly show the intense humanism of ancient Greek civilisation, including masterpieces generously lent by museums around the world. Nowhere else in the world is it now, or has it ever been, possible to see these objects together. The aesthetic impact is considerable, and the intellectual content compelling. This seems to us to point the way forward, as an example of the great public benefit that arises from museums internationally using and sharing their collections in this way.

Defining Beauty, 26 March – 5 July 2015 ‘Dionysos’ from the Parthenon and the Belvedere Torso (Vatican Museums, Vatican City)

Parts of the Parthenon frieze and the Telephos frieze from the Pergamon Altar (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Antikensammlung)

In this same spirit, the Trustees recently lent one of the Parthenon Sculptures to the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, and were pleased to learn that in only six weeks some 140,000 Russian visitors had the chance to see it there. This was a new audience for this extraordinary work of ancient Greek art, most of whom could not have visited either Athens or London. Visitor surveys revealed that the display of the sculpture was received with great interest and warm enthusiasm. After two and a half thousand years, this was Russia’s first glimpse of the splendours of fifth-century Athens that have played such a central part in shaping Russian consciousness and culture.

The ‘Ilissos’ from the Parthenon on display in the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 6 December 2014 – 18 January 2015

Such initiatives, arranged directly between the participating institutions, seem to the Trustees a natural way of building from the fact that the surviving Parthenon Sculptures are shared among a number of European collections. This means that the sculptures can already be seen in a different historical context in each museum, and the Trustees believe this to be to the great benefit of world audiences. The sculptures in London are already seen by more than six million visitors each year, free of charge.

Views on the historic distribution of the surviving Parthenon Sculptures naturally differ, though there is unanimous recognition that the original totality of the sculptural decoration cannot now be reassembled as so much has been lost, and that the surviving sculptures can never again take their place on the building. The scholars of the British Museum and of other institutions that hold Parthenon Sculptures enjoy excellent collaborative relationships with Greek museums and universities, in Athens and elsewhere. These have included collaboration on research projects, publications and exhibitions. The British Museum has routinely lent to Greece, and indeed British Museum objects are currently on loan to the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens. This demonstrates the warm relationships of mutual trust and respect that have been built up between scholars in Athens and London. The Acropolis Museum and the British Museum are both centres for Parthenon studies, and curators and colleagues from each institution have together discussed their common efforts to seek new audiences and to find new ways of interpretation.

As Trustees we attach great importance to these joint ventures, and believe that both the study of the Parthenon Sculptures and their display to the widest possible audiences illuminates not only the Classical Greek achievement but also its impact on the world. In conclusion, therefore, we would invite our colleagues in Greek museums to continue to work with us and to explore new ways of enabling the whole world to see, study and enjoy the sculptures of the Parthenon.

We are sending this letter both in English and in Greek, and are copying it to the Ministers for Culture and Europe, who are replying separately to Mr Bandarin's letter of 9 August 2013.

Sir Richard Lambert
Chairman of the British Museum Board of Trustees