Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
ATHENS – Minister of Culture and Sports Lina Mendoni spoke with The National Herald just before her trip to the United States for the repatriation of 47 antiquities, which, among other things, escalates the pressure on the British Museum for the return of the Parthenon Marbles.
Mendoni referred to the repatriation of Greek antiquities which had been illegally seized by the world’s largest ancient art collector Michael Steinhardt with the event set to take place on Wednesday, February 23, at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. She also spoke in general about the purposes and objectives of her visit to U.S. and about the coordinated effort of the Greek government and herself for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures. Mendoni also noted that the project at the iconic Tatoi is proceeding according to schedule, despite the fires of last summer and she concluded with the message that culture is the strongest link between the homeland and Greeks across the globe.
TNH: First of all, what is the reason for your visit to the United States?
Lina Mendoni: As Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in his recent statements, after his meeting with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris in Munich, today Greek-American relations are at the best possible level. And this is reflected in all areas, and, of course, in Culture. We have scheduled meetings with U.S. government officials, in the context of the excellent cooperation we have developed in matters of protection of cultural heritage, but also synergies in the field of modern creativity. For example, the Cultural Heritage School that is co-organized for the fall of 2022, in Athens, by the American Embassy in Athens, the Ministry of Culture and Sports and the Greek Department of ICOM, with the participation of members of the State Department, has two themes, the climate crisis and its effects on cultural heritage and the illicit trafficking of antiquities and works of art. Both of these axes are a political priority of the current government.
I will also attend the event that will take place at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, on the occasion of the repatriation to Greece of 47 ancient objects from the Steinhardt collection. As you know, this collection contained 180 items, products of illegal trafficking and export from their countries of origin, including items from Greece, specifically Central Greece, Crete, Paros, Naxos, Samos, and Rhodes. The Directorate of Documentation and Protection of Cultural Property of the Ministry of Culture and Sports has cooperated exceptionally for the last three years with the U.S. prosecutors to document the origin and illegal export of items from our country.
The issue of repatriation of illegally trafficked cultural property is a high priority and we have developed international initiatives and collaborations. In the Steinhardt case, the contribution of the Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos was decisive, as well as the cooperation of the executives of the competent American authorities with the executives of the Ministry of Culture. We thank them from the bottom of our hearts. Every repatriation of illegally exported cultural goods to Greece means another precious piece of our History and Culture has been returned.
TNH: How have we reached the point that the issue of the return of the Parthenon Marbles from Britain to Greece has gained such momentum lately?
LM: The issue of the return and reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures in Athens is a priority for the government. Since July 2019, at the Ministry of Culture we have been working diligently and systematically on this issue. At the same time, the Prime Minister with his personal initiatives has brought the issue back to the international spotlight. A typical example that presupposes the strategy we have been implementing in recent years is the Decision on Sculptures of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Commission for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin, in September 2021.
For the first time since 1984 – when the issue of the return of the Parthenon Marbles was raised by Melina Mercouri – the Commission has unanimously decided that Athens’ request is fair and legitimate and urges the United Kingdom to reconsider its position and talk to Greece. Also, those of us who deal with the issue internationally know very well that conditions around the world have changed in relation to the treatment of stolen and forcibly exported cultural goods from the countries that created them and to which they belong. We systematically took advantage of this favorable climate for the case of the Sculptures, unobtrusively and with a great deal of work. Today, the majority of the international public opinion, including that of the United Kingdom, is in favor of the Greek request and the return of the Sculptures to Athens. This dynamic is expressed by the media in the UK with the most important example being the conservative Times of London after 50 years changing its opinion and now affirming that the Parthenon Sculptures belong to Greece and must be reunited with the mutilated monument.
TNH: Are you optimistic that the Sculptures will finally return to Greece?
LM: If I was not optimistic, would I work so hard for the reunion of the Sculptures? For the first time in almost five decades, so much pressure is being exerted on the UK. The international climate is extremely positive for Greece, for our legal and moral request that the Parthenon, the symbol of Western Civilization and Democracy, must acquire its integrity.
TNH: What about Tatoi? Did the summer fires set the whole project back?
LM: The development plan of the former royal estate in Tatoi, one of the emblematic projects of the government, as already emphasized in the Program Statements of the Prime Minister, is proceeding according to the schedules we have set. The large fires of last summer have greatly damaged the natural environment, but there was no loss of culture, buildings or movable property. The huge damage to the forest is slowly being healed by nature itself and thanks to the systematic work of the Ministry of Environment. Our planning is proceeding as we had planned. We have secured all the necessary resources – several tens of millions of euros – from European programs, mainly the Recovery Fund. The studies are progressing smoothly despite the pandemic, bids are being taken for the work, such as the restoration and promotion of the Palace, while others are in progress, such as the restoration of the kitchens, the documentation and recording of the relics and other movable objects.
TNH: When will the first works be completed at Tatoi?
LM: The feasibility study of the Estate has been completed and approved by the competent Interministerial Committee and based on this, last week, the uses of each of the buildings of the designated monuments were approved by the ministry. The first projects, such as the museum infrastructure, will be completed in 2025. Our goal is for the former royal estate of Tatoi to be a cultural and development pole of exceptional importance for Attica, but also for the whole country.
TNH: What are the other challenges you are currently facing in your ministry?
LM: The main priority issues for the Ministry of Culture and Sports are the plan for the restoration and renovation of Tatoi, which we have already mentioned, but also the expansion of the National Archaeological Museum, with its parallel connection with the Acropolis and the possibility of cooperation with the National Technical University of Athens, a project that will make a decisive contribution to the rebirth of the historic center of Athens. We are absolutely interested in the enhancement of the services provided in the archeological sites and museums to the Greeks, but also to our foreign visitors. A typical example is the Acropolis, which has now become accessible to all people.
TNH: Can the operating model of the Acropolis Museum be a guide for the other major museums in the country?
LM: Indeed, we are currently undergoing a major reform in the institutional framework of the five major museums, so that they cease to be services of the Ministry of Culture with administrative and financial rigidities and function as Legal Entities under Public Law always supervised by the Ministry of Culture with greater administrative autonomy and flexibility, following the practice of the Acropolis Museum.
TNH: You place special emphasis on dealing with the effects of the climate crisis on our cultural heritage. Tell us about the policies of the Ministry of Culture on this issue.
LM: As we said before, the climate crisis and the political prevention of its consequences on our cultural stock, but also the fight against the illegal trafficking of cultural goods are political priorities. Cultural diplomacy and the extroversion of Greek culture as a whole, including contemporary creation, is also an area in which we work systematically and is already bearing fruit. Many of these policies are implemented and promoted in projects that the Ministry of Culture and Sports has included in the Recovery and Resilience Fund. The management and absorption of the approximately 600 million euros that have been secured through the National Recovery and Sustainability Plan “Greece 2.0” is for us an extremely important challenge. These are reforms in the cultural and creative sector, actions to deal with the consequences of the climate crisis, initiatives such as “cultural prescribing” and strengthening the “silver economy.”
The government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis has included the Ministry of Culture and Sports among the productive ministries. The Culture sector for Greece is a strategic development resource, which can significantly contribute to GDP growth. The Recovery Fund is a huge opportunity for Greece and we are working with all our might to bring the expected results.
TNH: What is your message to the Greek diaspora?
LM: Greece is everywhere. All over the world, all over the planet, thanks to the Greeks abroad. The Greek community in the United States is one of the most active in the world. Greeks who either traveled in search of a better future or grew up in the United States, joined, created, and in many cases did great things. It is touching that they have not been cut off from their homeland, even in the second or third generation. They love Greece. In the DNA of all of us is our thousand-year history and culture, our language and our tradition. Culture is the strongest bond between us. It is the heritage, the identity, the homeland.
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