Parthenon Marbles conference: Highlights and people

An issue of major importance was discussed this week, as weighty as its subject, the Parthenon sculptures, which the Greek government is asking the British Museum to return to Greece in the name of world cultural heritage. «The Parthenon Marbles in view of the 2004 Olympiad: the international perspective on the future of all antiquities» was the subject, the Aigli Hall at Zappeion was the venue, and Wednesday, March 12 was the time for the conference organized by The Economist, coordinated by British journalist Bruce Clark, who is on a sabbatical from the magazine to write a book on the Treaty of Lausanne and its consequences. He had a difficult task, as the speakers who in the main were in favor – to a greater or lesser degree – of returning the Marbles to Greece, focused on all aspects of the reasons why the Marbles should come back to Greece in time for next year’s Olympic Games in Athens. They left it up to Michael Daley, sculptor and editor of ArtWatch UK, to support the view as to why Athens does not need the Elgin Collection, with the not so well-founded argument that Greece often destroys its ancient monuments out of ignorance or for profit. He gave as an example a hotel on the island of Paros build on the ruins of an ancient monument. During the discussion that followed, Daley said that the reason the mood was in favor of returning the Marbles was due to various interests, lobbies and companies. Film director Jules Dassin countered that there were no ignoble motives or interests, only noble efforts by people who had dedicated their lives to the return of the Marbles, whether still among us or among the departed, such as the late Melina Mercouri, who had said, «I will come back to the Acropolis every full moon, when the Marbles are back.» Of particular interest was the presence of Lord David Owen, former British foreign secretary and Bosnia mediator, who diplomatically suggested that the Marbles be sent to Athens for the 2004 Olympics, and then be returned when and if Britain hosts the 2012 Olympics. His speech was delivered at the official dinner that closed the conference, and was followed by that of Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos, who reiterated proposals to exhibit the Marbles in the new Acropolis Museum, which could function as a branch of the British Museum. He also suggested regular exhibits at the British Museum of ancient Greek works of art. Neil McGregor, the British Museum’s director, has said Greece will never get the Marbles back. A warm welcome was given to the British archaeologist and Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Sheffield Richard Allan, who initiated the campaign for the return of the Marbles in time for the Games, recruited Vanessa Redgrave, Fiona Shaw and Judi Dench for the cause, and who is gathering signatures for a petition in the House of Commons. As Venizelos said, «Let us not forget that the question is not a legal one, as to who has what and why, but a political one.» The best argument for the reunification of the sculptures as Pheidias created them is given in the book «The Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles» that contains pictures worth a thousand words. As English poet John Keats said in his «Ode to a Grecian Urn» – «Beauty is Truth, and Truth is Beauty.»