“The government of Greece has charged me with the duty of announcing to you here that Greece, through the mediation of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental committee for the promotion of the return of cultural property to its country of origin, using formal procedures and relying also on legislation currently in force in England, is about to make an official request for the return of the Acropolis marbles.”

Melina Mercouri speaks at the forum of the UNESCO World Conference on Cultural Policies in Mexico in the summer of 1982. In agreement with her friend, Director-General Federico Mayor, Melina officially raised with the international organisation the question of the return the Parthenon Sculptures, which Elgin looted, from the British Museum where they have remained since the early 19th century.

“We are not naive”, said Melina. “The day may come when this world will create other visions, other concepts of what is proper, of what comprises a cultural patrimony and of human creativity. And we well understand that the museums cannot be emptied. But I insist on reminding you that in the case of the Acropolis marbles we are not asking for the return of a painting or a statue. We are asking for the return of a portion of a unique monument, the privileged symbol of a whole culture. I think that the time has come for these marbles to come back to the blue sky of Attica, to their natural space, to the place where they will be a structural and functional part of a unique whole…”.

Her speech was passionate, visionary, full of love for the sculptures. It was the first to raise the issue on 29 July 1982 in a comprehensive manner: “It is for this reason that we see ancient cultural chains broken, past traditions crumble, and wonderful special characteristics wither away. Our common memory is threatened, our soul shrivels, our creativity is stifled, our present becomes rootless. ‘He who has nothing old has nothing new’, says an Arab proverb. This past must emerge from the museums in order to become a source of inspiration and creativity, to become the instrument and the joy of the people…”.
Upon returning to Greece, the Minister of Culture met with journalists at the Foreign Press Association and shared her dream with them. Not without their doubt, the next day they wrote long articles and the campaign had begun. Melina was right to raise the issue, and those who questioned her were wrong. This would soon be proved.

It is said that it all began in 1960, during the filming of Jules Dassin’s film ‘Phaedra’, in which Melina starred alongside Anthony Perkins. The British asked for a payment in order to let the Greek crew film the Parthenon sculptures. This was money the crew did not have. Moreover, since when do you have to pay to film something that belongs to you?

Melina made the return of the Marbles her life’s work after this disgraceful act of the British.

She mentions nothing about this in her autobiography ‘I Was Born Greek’. However, she had sometimes discussed the incident and the imposition of charges, which angered her — and when Melina was angry, nothing could stand in her way.

In any case, in 1982 the Greek delegation submitted a draft recommendation in favour of the return of the sculptures to our country, which was adopted. Two years later, Greece submitted an official request for the return of the sculptures, which Britain rejected. This would later be repeated. That same year, Greece submitted a new request to UNESCO, and in 1987 the issue was included in the official agenda of UNESCO issues; since then, it has been discussed every two years at the meetings of the Intergovernmental Committee.

Nevertheless, over the years, there has been no meaningful dialogue between the two sides and Greece has mainly appealed to international fora, without setting any specific conditions for an agreement. Greece has attempted to exert pressure mainly through awareness-raising, with the results reflected in polls, and by “mobilising” celebrities in favour of the Greek demand, serving as “weapons” that were used to a greater extent in the future. The absence of an Acropolis Museum was a hindrance —although not publicly acknowledged— to Greece’s claim.
So, Melina was the first 20th-century politician to make the request to UNESCO. She had presaged her actions in January 1982 during an interview with the BBC.

“You must understand what the Parthenon Marbles mean to us. They are our pride. They are our sacrifices. They are our noblest symbol of excellence. They are a tribute to the democratic philosophy. They are our aspirations and our name. They are the essence of Greekness…”, she stated.

Addressing the British Government, she said: “[Y]ou have kept those sculptures for almost two centuries. You have cared for them as well as you could, for which we thank you. But now in the name of fairness and morality, please give them back. I sincerely believe that such a gesture from Great Britain would ever honour your name”.

In April 1983, she travelled to London for the first time as Minister of Culture. The campaign for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures had just begun and, of course, everyone was expecting this dynamic Greek woman to raise the issue without beating about the bush. The official dinner, held at the Institute of Contemporary Art, was attended by then director of the British Museum, Sir David Wilson, as well as dozens of other British and Greek officials.

Melina gave her speech without any mention whatsoever of the “Marbles”. Everyone secretly sighed with relief. And then… they made the mistake of applauding her warmly. A diplomatic incident had been averted. Or perhaps this was not the case.

As the guests took their seats again, Melina stood up once more to thank them. And (supposedly) to … apologise for her not-at-all “poor English”. “Ι hear it and reminded of what Dylan Thomas said of a British broadcaster: ‘He speaks as if he had Marbles in his mouth’”.
Some gulped, others applauded even louder than before. They glorified her. Come what may.
Nothing would come.
Nevertheless, the British Museum and the British government were unnerved. Recently declassified UK government documents reveal that the future of the Marbles had become a major issue during the visit of the internationally renowned Melina Mercouri to London. Government documents note that her “colourful personality and romantic cause attracted considerable interest and media coverage”.

Foreign Office staff said that she had indisputably stolen the spotlight from its star, David Wilson, the director of the British Museum. This was particularly evident during a “televised exchange of views between the two on a sofa” at the Institute of Modern Arts in London, after a lecture he gave there on 22 May 1983. The video of that meeting is a masterpiece.

“I want my marbles back!”, she said to Sir David Wilson, director of the British Museum, during the event at the Institute of Contemporary Art, only to receive the answer: “You want your marbles, and other people want their marbles.” Melina did not leave Wilson’s arguments unanswered, retorting: “They are part of a monument. They are torn down. You say there are many Parthenons in the world?”

That same year, certainly at her own initiative (and, of course, that of Konstantinos Alavanos and Jules Dassin, who accompanied her and offered valuable services to this national endeavour), the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles was established. The Committee was founded in October 1983 by James Cubitt and his wife, Eleni, and was first chaired by Professor Robert Browning.

1986 was a great year for the campaign, with a speech by Melina at Oxford Union on 12 June on the return of the Parthenon Sculptures, a public debate and a vote. The majority voted in favour of returning the Sculptures.

“And the Parthenon Marbles they are. There are no such things as the Elgin Marbles. There is a Michael Angelo David. There is a Da Vinci Venus. There is a Praxiteles Hermes. There is a Turner “Fishermen at Sea”. There are no Elgin Marbles!”, she stressed during her speech, which was, in fact, attended by future Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

She had been invited by Oxford University to speak at a debate on the Parthenon Marbles and the return of the sculptures to Greece. With her political stature and seductive presence, she set straight all those who unashamedly claimed that the Parthenon Sculptures belong to the British. In fact, she warned the audience that it was not easy for her to talk dispassionately about the subject. And how could she?

“You know, it is said that we Greeks are a fervent and warm blooded breed.

Well, let me tell you something – it is true. And I am not known for being an exception. Knowing what these sculptures mean to the Greek people, it is not easy to address their having been taken from Greece dispassionately, but I shall try. I promise.”

She recounted the story of Lord Elgin, British Ambassador to Constantinople, and details how he looted the sculptures from Athens, which had been subjugated by the Ottoman Empire. She convinced the audience that Elgin had no permission, he simply grabbed them. This was her first victory.

Of course, she has boldly yet soberly conceived of the next steps: a statement that Greece acknowledges that the Parthenon sculptures are integral parts of a unique monument and that it will claim nothing other than them. A programme for unification of the archaeological sites around the Acropolis (which has come to pass) to rebut the British argument that pollution would destroy the marbles if they were to be returned. And erection of a large museum to house the findings of the Acropolis, which was in all events necessary for such glorious findings, which were suffocating in a small and inappropriate space.

However, reactions to the construction of the Museum and fragmentary treatment of the issue have not yet allowed this to come to pass. Nevertheless, recently declassified documents of the British government show that they were indeed afraid of such erection.
In April 1987, the Greek delegation intervened at the Fifth Session of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee, held in Paris, with new information concerning the Greek government’s intention to build a new Acropolis Museum, following an international competition, in order to house the Parthenon sculptures according to the international state of the art.

The same year, Christopher Hitchens published his book “The Elgin Marbles – Should They Be Returned to Greece?” in a bilingual edition (Greek – English). The Greek edition was prefaced by Melina Mercouri and Manolis Andronikos.

Finally, Melina inaugurated the Centre for the Acropolis Studies, to be housed in the Weiler Building.

In 1989, she launched an international architectural competition, allowing designers to pick one of three sites: Makrygianni, Dionysos or Koili. The competition was held under the auspices of the International Union of Architects with the participation of 438 firms from 41 countries around the world. The jury was chaired by Professor Georgios Kandylis, with first place awarded to Italian architects Manfredi Nicoletti and Lucio Passarelli. Second place was awarded to the Greek architects Tasos and Dimitris Biris, Panos Kokkoris and Eleni Amerikanou. Third place was awarded to Raimund Abraham.
However, an appeal filed by the Association of Architects against the competition with the Council of State overturned everything and led to its annulment. In January 1995, the contract with the Italians was terminated. The state tried to overcome the issue by founding the Organisation for the Construction of the New Acropolis Museum and assigning it the project, in collaboration with the Melina Mercouri Foundation.

This was followed by excavations on Makrygianni site and the findings there, which changed everything. A new architectural competition was held and was won by Bernard Tschumi and M. Fotiadis (2001). After 106 (!) appeals which were all dismissed, the museum was finally erected and now adorns today the Greek capital.

From 1989 to 1993, the governments of Greece did not achieve much — or, to be precise, virtually anything. Melina returned to the Ministry in 1993, albeit briefly. She had time to help turn British public opinion through a broadcast on Channel 4. The legendary figure of approximately 90% acceptance of Greece’s claim changed the balance and convinced even the most sceptical. Jules Dassin had the ingenious idea to ask for the assistance of the Cypriot community of London, which came to pass and contributed to the success.

In 2009, the Acropolis Museum was finally inaugurated. A plaque mounted inside the entrance of the Museum includes the Melina Mercouri Foundation among the benefactors.

Today, many years and many steps later, one cannot but simply thank Melina Mercouri once more. And to once again remember and be moved by her words: “I hope that I will see the Marbles back in Athens before I die; but if they come back later I shall be reborn”.