The British Committee had its origins in the campaign of Melina Mercouri, in the 1980s, for the return of the Marbles to Athens. We shall always be mindful of that fact, even when we are obliged to adopt more indirect strategies than hers.
I should like to look back to a statement made by Neil MacGregor, in a press interview published exactly three years ago: “What we are talking about is in which European museum…[the Marbles] are best displayed, and how they should be displayed for the maximum public benefit”. We still believe that this is the central issue; indeed, from next year when the New Acropolis Museum building is completed, it will become almost the only issue.
But for the British Museum, that was then and this is now. Perhaps because of the looming spectre of the New Museum, it has radically changed its strategy. In his public statements, Neil MacGregor now no longer mentions the criterion of the best place to show the Marbles; instead, he prefers to talk of the British Museum’s ‘legal title’ to possession of the London Marbles, and of the necessity of a Greek recognition of that title before any meaningful discussions can take place. This is plainly a delaying tactic: the issue is one that everyone had thought obsolete and irrelevant, ever since in 2003 a previous Greek government proposed to set it entirely on one side in future discussion.
The British Committee has to take account of this volte face: not in order to debate the issue of legal title, but to by-pass it. At a press conference in Athens in autumn 2005, I stated that our strategy was now one of ‘encirclement’: to ‘surround’ the British Museum by detaching, one by one, their natural allies. The first place among those allies might seem to be that of the national and international museum community of the British Museum’s peers (in so far as it believes it has any ‘peers’). Here we have joined in a development that was already advancing under its own momentum: one after another, the Directors of London’s other leading museums have distanced themselves from the British Museum’s stance, calling (for example) for ‘less dog-in-the-manger nationalism’. The Museums Association in Britain has been outspoken in its criticism; so has the International Council on Museums. This has left the British Museum in an enclave shared with a few remaining allies, the mostly American museums who signed the ‘Declaration of the importance and value of universal museums’ in December 2002.
The British right-wing press is a harder proposition: for them, the issue seems to amount to little more than ‘my country, right or wrong’. But a telling sign is the extreme form that their comment sometimes takes. When the British Committee was first set up, it was seen as a marginal grouping of dreamers and extremists, up against the calm majesty of the British Establishment. In 2006, the behaviours are reversed: it is we who have become the calm rationalists, our opponents who, suddenly seeing us as a real danger, resort to violent language. I think that tells you who is winning the argument. To repeat what I said near the beginning: the question “Where are the Marbles best displayed?” is now the only one that really matters. The answer to it is equally clear: they are best displayed where they can be “together”, where the monument can be reunited and the mutilations of the past two hundred years can be repaired.
Professor Anthony Snodgrass
Chairman, British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles