With an end of March deadline looming, the UK government and the British Museum have at last responded to UNESCO’s request to enter into mediation with Greece regarding the future treatment of the Elgin (or Parthenon) Marbles. The request was made on 9 August 2013 at the behest of Greece (both the UK and Greece are members of UNESCO). As everyone more or less predicted, the answer was negative.
In a letter dated 26 March (last Thursday), the UK Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy (Ed Vaizey) and the Minister for Europe (David Lidington) expressed the government’s position that “mediation would not carry this debate substantially forward”. This was based on the view that the sculptures were legally acquired by Lord Elgin “under the laws pertaining at the time” and that the British Museum has “had clear legal title” ever since. And in a seemingly simultaneous letter of the same date, the Chairman of the Museum’s Board of Trustees (Sir Richard Lambert) also provided words of denial, explaining the Museum’s position that “UNESCO involvement is not the best way forward”.
Both letters include enthusiastic comments about the work of UNESCO and the work of Greek museums in displaying and sharing ancient Greek art. And yet both are essentially rejection letters. Interestingly, the Independent and the Telegraph (the only two major UK papers to cover the story so far) both interpret the letters as suggesting a loan possibility of the Marbles to Athens. It may be a case of reading between the lines. Or of wishful thinking. In the matter of a response to UNESCO, the letters are categorical.