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Letter from Athens: Lessons in Greek from the Late, Great Melina Mercouri

Here’s what the late smoldering actress and Culture Minister Melina Mercouri, who was Greek to the core, would have said about the feeble idea that Greece should accept a loan of the stolen Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum: “Na!”

Her look alone could make a man’s knees and will buckle, and too bad she wasn’t around today to do that to the museum Chairman, George Osborne, and any Greek politician who would accept a loan of what Greece owns.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has been dancing around the idea trying to avoid the word to negotiate a deal for reunification – not return – of the 2,500-year treasures stolen 200 years ago by Scottish diplomat Lord Elgin.

“We will never recognize that these sculptures are owned, legally owned by the British Museum,” Mitsotakis told The Associated Press, but the talks he had with Osborne were secret, of course, because the public has no right to know.

“I wouldn’t like to comment publicly on the discussions that we’ve had,” Mitsotakis said. “I would just say that we are, without changing … our fundamental position about the ownership of the sculptures, we’re trying to explore a possible win-win proposition that would work for both sides.”

That means lose-lose for Greece if anything other than outright return is accepted, no matter how a loan by any other name would be sugarcoated and sold to Greeks, because otherwise it’s cultural treason.

The British newspaper The Telegraph reported Osborne drafted a deal with Greece to possibly return the treasures in a “cultural exchange” that would effectively be a “loan agreement” – but that it wouldn’t be called that to save face. It would be the art of loaning art without loaning, apparently.

Newly-declassified documents in the United Kingdom show how scared British museum officials and politicians were of Mercouri, who brought the crusade for return of the treasures she branded the Parthenon Marbles. “There are no such things as the Elgin Marbles,” she said.

Government papers record that her “colourful personality and romantic cause attracted considerable interest and media coverage,” The Art newspaper said, the British not knowing what to make of her uncompromising passion.

Mercouri went to the museum in 1983 and wept at the sight of the Greek artifacts on display in a gloomy room, but there was no report whether Mitsotakis went there while he was in London meeting with Osborne.

This the kind of fight that should be down and dirty and not diplomatic because that hasn’t worked and never will and Greece lost a marble opportunity to get them back when the government didn’t threaten a veto during the UK’s European Union exit.

Mercouri expla‌ined the case simply in a 1983 interview with The New York Times, that’s brilliant and irrefutable, which is why the British keep strangling on their own tongues trying to explain why she’s wrong and keep failing.

Why should they be returned to Greece, where they were created? She had the answer. “Because they are the symbol and the blood and the soul of the Greek people. Because we have fought and died for the Parthenon and the Acropolis. Because when we are born, they talk to us about all this great history that makes Greekness. Because this is the most beautiful, the most impressive, the most monumental building in all Europe and one of the seven miracles of the world.”

The British say they rightfully own the stolen goods because Elgin had permission from the ruling Ottoman Empire – which didn’t own them – to take them, Mercouri saying they “were taken by an aristocrat like Lord Elgin for his own pleasure. Because this is our cultural history and it belongs not to the British Museum but to this country and this temple.” Any rebuttals?

Almost exactly 40 years ago Mercouri emasculated the then British Museum Director David Wilson, who was left looking like a fish out of water gasping for air after she skewered him, and that’s the approach needed now, not kid gloves.

His feeble attempts to spar with her were seen as a public relations disaster that put return of the marbles in the international spotlight – even if they will never be returned – although they may be loaned in batches, and only if the Greeks put up other treasures as hostage.

If that’s the deal then in some years distant who’d want to be the Prime Minister telling the Acropolis Museum, where the loaned marbles would be on display courtesy of the British, to box them up and ship them back?

Mercouri reminded the world of the kind of Greek spirit that was shown in World War II and made Winston Churchill say that heroes fight like Greeks. And they don’t capitulate. This is over marbles, not garbles.

“It is said that we Greeks are a fervent and warm blooded breed. Well, let me tell you something, it is true,” she said. So how did we get from that to cold-blooded willingness to even discuss anything other than return?

She summarized the meaning just perfectly: “They are a tribute to democratic philosophy. They are our aspiration and our name. They are the essence of Greekness.” Any other argument of a loan by any other name would be the essence of weakness. Sign that? Na!




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