PERTH’S Greek community has called on the British Museum to give their countrymen back ancient Parthenon artworks taken in the 19th Century.
As WA’s Museum Boola Bardip re-opens this week with a cast from one of the great Parthenon friezes held in the Brits’ Elgin Marbles collection, local Greeks have presented a petition to Mt Lawley Labor MP Simon Millman asking for the WA Parliament to support the originals’ return.
The British took the artworks in the early 1800s when Greece was ruled by the Ottoman Empire.
The British ambassador to the Ottomans, the Earl of Elgin, claimed to have the Ottoman Sultan Selim III’s authority to take parts of the frieze and the 2400-year-old marble statues now known as the “Elgin Marbles”.
Whether he had the Sultan’s permission is disputed, and in any case the Greeks themselves didn’t approve, with their government long calling for their return.
Australia’s Greek communities formalised a global campaign for restitution in 1981, with an international organising committee founded by Sydney man Emmanuel John Comino.
They’ve been campaigning to get parliaments across the world to ratify calls for the artifacts’ return.
The Parthenon petition to WA parliament states:
“It is unconscionable for the Government of the United Kingdom to retain possession of the Parthenon Sculptures. They are the rightful property of the Greek people and their government, and must be returned to Athens.
“Now we ask the Legislative Assembly to express its support, on behalf of the people of Western Australia, for the repatriation of the Parthenon sculptures to Athens and to convey that support to the United Kingdom government through its representatives in Australia.”
Mr Millman agrees they should be returned. He’s been keen on the issue for a while, making a statement to parliament in March 2018 on behalf of the Perth Greek community, and has now submitted their 124-signature petition on November 11.
“As the WA Museum opens in all of its splendour next week, members of Perth’s Greek community will be reminded, when they see the cast of the Parthenon Frieze on display there, of the much more tumultuous story of its original,” Mr Millman said last week.
“The WA Museum cast serves to preserve history, should the original frieze be further damaged. However, the original frieze was taken from the Parthenon along with its many many other iconic sculptures and decorative pieces and scattered across the globe as souvenirs, often under the guise of saving them from pillagers. The irony is not lost here.”
Australian human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson stated last year: “The trustees of the British Museum have become the world’s largest receivers of stolen property, and the great majority of their loot is not even on public display.”
The British Museum also holds Aboriginal artefacts and human remains and has steadfastly refused to return items, only allowing temporary loans of significant artefacts like the Gweagal shield. It has allowed limited numbers of human remains to be returned, but there’s many loopholes to jump through and it’s still at the discretion of the museum’s Trustees.
The British Museum has a monumentally lengthy defence of retaining the Parthenon sculptures on its website.
by DAVID BELL