ATHENS – Greece may be discussing the concept of a loan – without explicitly calling it that – for the stolen Parthenon Marbles, which have been housed in the British Museum for 200 years. However, it was the late actress and former Culture Minister, Melina Mercouri, who reclaimed their name and spearheaded the fight for their return.
Melina Mercouri, a passionate and uncompromising advocate for the marbles, unsettled museum officials and the British government itself in 1983 when Greece lodged its first complaint for their return. Recently declassified government documents from the United Kingdom reveal that the Foreign Office dismissed the British Museum’s efforts to retain the marbles, as reported by The Art newspaper. It was Mercouri who challenged them.
She traveled to London to visit the museum and witness the treasures that were originally stripped by Lord Elgin, a Scottish diplomat who claimed to have obtained permission from the ruling Ottoman Empire, which governed Greece at the time. However, Mercouri played a pivotal role in rebranding the artifacts as the Parthenon Marbles, emphasizing their connection to Greek culture and the passionate Greek temperament that made her famous. Her determination and romantic cause attracted significant interest and media coverage, as documented in government papers. The British, seemingly unsure of how to interpret her fervor, were captivated by her passion.
Mercouri’s relentless efforts and influence brought international attention to Greece’s rightful claims for the return of the Parthenon Marbles. Today, her legacy endures as Greece continues its pursuit to reunite these significant cultural treasures with their rightful home.
Foreign Office staff expressed concern that Mercouri was gaining the upper hand in the debate. According to the papers, “her dramatic gestures sometimes bordered on the histrionic, but she undoubtedly overshadowed David Wilson, the Director of the British Museum,” as stated in the report.
This was particularly evident during a highly publicized confrontation, which took the form of a televised discussion on a sofa at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. The face-off followed a lecture delivered by Mercouri on May 22, 1983.
Wilson, attempting to stand up to her like a character in a movie, found himself quickly silenced, unable to match her forceful arguments. The documents clearly indicate that the British view was that she convincingly won the debate “without a doubt.”
The Foreign Office recorded Mercouri’s assertion that the Marbles “constitute an inseparable part of a monument that embodies Greece’s national spirit.” In response, Wilson stumbled, stating that they “should not be fragmented,” although they had been and she sought their reunification.
The British Ambassador in Athens, Peregrine Rhodes, commented that in Greece, “the arguments presented by Wilson are likely to have a counterproductive effect.” Just before Mercouri’s visit, she warned that the British should brace themselves for her assertive approach. Rhodes remarked, “To avoid addressing the issue directly will only lead to problems in the future.” And indeed, his prediction has proven accurate to this day.
The Marbles dispute threatened the UK’s relations with the European Community (the forerunner of the European Union), which troubled Burke Trend, the Chair of the British Museum, as noted by the news site.
He cautioned the Foreign Office that if the government were to advise the museum trustees to “make accommodations” for the Greeks due to their membership in the European Community, it would create a “very challenging situation,” and indeed it did.
According to the recently revealed documents, John Macrae, the head of cultural relations at the Foreign Office, stated, “The problem appeared to be one that would persist for quite some time. We had to accept it and try to manage it to the best of our ability.” This was nearly four decades ago.
During her visit, the Foreign Office observed that Brian Cook, the British Museum’s Curator of Classical Antiquities, was unable to handle the unpredictable Mercouri either. She managed to dismantle his arguments as well.
Cook’s defense was described as “disappointing and pedantic,” as he attempted to prove that Elgin was not responsible for vandalism and that the Parthenon symbolized Athenian imperialism rather than Greek freedom and nationhood, as stated by the site.
Instead of using the universally accepted term “Parthenon Marbles,” Cook referred to the sculptures as “the Elgin Marbles.” He even authored a museum book with that title, which remained in print until 2005.
Macrae expressed his disappointment, saying, “It is regrettable that the British Museum does not present a more effective defense of their claim to the Marbles.” He believed that retaining stolen goods was a moral and political issue that the British government should address through Parliament.
The trustees of the British Museum are prohibited from deaccessioning items from the collection under the 1963 British Museum Act, which was approved by Parliament and remains in effect. This prohibition continues to be used to reject Greek restitution claims.
Shortly before Mercouri’s arrival, Hugh Jenkins, a former Labour arts minister, proposed an amendment that would allow deaccessioning, but it was opposed by the Conservative government and failed. This defense strategy is still being employed today.
Five months after her visit, the Greek government officially registered its claim for the Marbles. However, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ government is reportedly discussing a potential arrangement to share the Marbles without relinquishing ownership, even if it is only in name. This arrangement would essentially constitute a de facto loan deal.