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HomeSunset Host CoThe Parthenon Marbles And The Culture Of Protest

The Parthenon Marbles And The Culture Of Protest


Campaigners for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures removed from the Acropolis in Athens in the early nineteenth century at the behest of the nefarious Lord Elgin are so passionate about the cause that they have engaged in various forms of public protest to draw attention to the continued and unjust detention of the so-called Elgin Marbles in the British Museum.

This culture of protest, whether by way of performance art, sporting activity, political demonstrations, social media campaigns, public graffiti, mass protests and the like, serves as a reminder that as far as the the issue of the return of Parthenon Sculptures is concerned, cultural heritage matters.

British Museum: on your bike

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Photo credit: David Wilkinson

Only last week a number of cyclists set off from the British Museum to ride to Athens on a long distance endurance ride promoted as “London-Athens on 2 Wheels – Bring Them Back” to highlight the continuing inequity of this cultural misappropriation.

The cyclists are Vasiliki Voutzali, an ultra-endurance cycling racer, and Dionisis Kartsambas from Greece, Steffen Streich from Germany, Christopher Ross Bennett from New Zealand, and Paul Adelson from Britain.  They first did the 3,500 km trip in 2022 to considerable acclaim.  According to Voutzali:

“The aim was to establish an annual event bringing together people who love sports, adventures, and cycling, not least the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, a just cause, supported by many all around the world.”

This is not the first time that bike riders have crossed the continent for the cause of the marbles.

In April 2005 the British philhellene and retired medical practitioner, Dr Christopher Stockdale cycled from London to Athens, some five years after he famously became the first person to swim for the Parthenon Marble when he swam over 40 km in the Aegean sea from the island of Delos, the legendary home of the Delian League which helped fund the construction of the Parthenon and other monuments atop the Acropolis 2,500 years ago, to Paros.

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Photo credit: Alamy

A delayed marathon duathlon for the marbles.

In July 2014 an Italian professor, Salvatore Lo Sicco, launched the “London to Athens Bike Tour 2014” and rode his bike for over a month (averaging 8 hours per days on the road), starting from the British Museum and ending at the Acropolis Museum, to highlight his conviction that the return of the sculptures is a "moral and historical obligation".  In Athens, he was officially greeted by then Greek Deputy Minister of Culture (and now President of the Greek National Tourism Organization), Angela Gerekou.

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Photo credit: Greek Culture Ministry

In the football terraces

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Photo credit: Proto Thema

In September 2017 huge banners in support of the Greek claim for the return of Parthenon Marbles to Greece, were hoisted in Nicosia by supporters of the Greek Cypriot team APOEL FC during a Champions League clash against the London-based English side Tottenham Hotspur.

Football is indeed life as history cannot be stolen.

Viral videos

The Greek-Australian barrister and activist, Jim Mellas, visited the British Museum in June 2018 and was so moved by what he saw that he did a live protest on social media inside the British Museum which literally went viral around the world.

Photo credit: Jim Mellas

Jim is now a member of the Australian Parthenon Association and a founding member of the Acropolis Research Group and is often recognised in public because his video and photographs have had millions of views worldwide, highlighting the role of social media in amplifying the performance of protest and the dissemination of powerful visual imagery.

Protest Performance Art

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Photo credit: Hellena

The aesthetics of protest were again on display in June 2019 when the beautiful Greek singer-songwriter Hellena released an inspiring composition entitled "The Parthenon Marbles – Bring Them Back” and performed live in the Duveen Gallery of the British Museum, singing for their return.

Political Protest in the British Museum 

In 2019 the British Museum staged the "Troy: Myth and Reality" exhibition and set the scene for activists from the organisation BP or Not BP - who were objecting to the museum's controversial oil sponsorship - to wheel a four metre high Trojan horse into the forecourt of the museum to highlight their demands for climate and environmental justice.  But it also highlighted what one commentator described as the Troy exhibition’s showy, uncritical style which distracted from more contemporary debates within the museum, most notably the status of rare cultural artefacts seized through colonial force.

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Photo credit: Alex White

They were also joined by demonstrators calling for the return of the Parthenon sculptures in a cross-cultural protest movement.

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Photo credit: Martin-al-Ashouti

In August 2021 the British Museum rushed to close its African Gallery housing the Benin Bronzes after unofficial tour guides descended on the museum to call for the repatriation of objects plundered by the British Empire as part of the decisive "Stolen Land Stolen Culture Stolen Climate" initiative.

2021 08 14 Drop BP Striking Back at The Empire 398Copyright© Ron Fassbender
Photo credit: Morning Star

In 2023 a resounding banner "Reunify the Marbles" was unfurled in the British Museum by Philhellene campaigners, including the acclaimed novelist and honorary Greek citizen, Victoria Hislop.

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Photo credit: Kathimerini

The Curse of Minerva returns to haunt the Duveen Gallery 

On 18 June 2023 a group well-known actors  and supporters of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures gathered in Room 18 in the British Museum to recite Lord Byron's epic satirical poem, "The Curse of Minerva".

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Bill Nighy, the award-winning thespian who has appeared in many beloved roles and films, and most recently nominated for an Academy Award for his stirring performance in Living, read excerpts from Byron's scathing critique of Elgin's actions against a marbled backdrop of pedimental sculptures and metopes taken from the Parthenon:

"Yet still the Gods are just, and crimes are crossed:
See here what Elgin won, and what he lost!
Another name with his pollutes my shrine:
Behold where Dian’s beams disdain to shine!
Some retribution still might Pallas claim,
When Venus half avenged Minerva’s shame.”

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His fellow actor, Simon Callow, whose character Gareth in Four Weddings and a Funeral suddenly died from over energetic Scottish dancing, was very much alive and animated in Bloomsbury, reciting Lord Byron’s scornful satire of the pilfering Scottish earl:

"Daughter of Jove! in Britain’s injured name,
A true-born Briton may the deed disclaim.
Frown not on England; England owns him not:
Athena, no! thy plunderer was a Scot."

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And not to be outdone, the American actress Stockard Channing, from performing in “Grease” and “West Wing” to defending Greece in the hallow portals of the British Museum, took aim at Lord Elgin’s errant activities and the reactions that the naked sculptures elicited in Victorian London:

While many a languid maid, with longing sigh,
On giant statues casts the curious eye;
The room with transient glance appears to skim
Yet marks the mighty back and length of limb;
Mourns o’er the difference of now and then;
Exclaims, “These Greeks indeed were proper men!”

Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts 

In 1816 a British House of Commons Select Committee issued its report on the Earl of Elgin's Collection of Sculptured Marbles recommending that the government acquire the sculptures from Elgin for £35,000.  The parliamentary report described them as the “Elgin Collection of Marbles” which included statuary and fragments from all over the Acropolis, and not just the Parthenon, and notably one of the caryatids from the Temple of Erectheus which, according to Elgin's recorded inventory,  supported a roof under which the olive tree sacred to Minerva was supposed to have been preserved.

The money was eventually paid to Elgin’s creditors (of which there were many) and all of the sculptures were acquired by the government and transferred to the British Museum with title vesting in the trustees of the museum.

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Photo credit: The Times

Earlier this year, amidst reports that the British museum may be open to doing a deal of sorts with the Greeks over the fate of the marbles, the British Committee came up with an idea for crowdfunding the amount paid for the Marbles as a symbolic gesture and test of the British Government’s good faith.  In what the conservative newspaper The Times described as a "stunt", campaigners unsuccessfully tried to hand over a cheque for the raised amount of £35,000 to the UK Ministry of Culture.

Acropolis Now: the Art of Protest

In July 2023 the acclaimed Greek-Australian hyperreal artist Michael Zavros unveiled a huge and photo realistic painted wall mural of the Parthenon in the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art as part of a major retrospective exhibition of his work.

In 2022 Zavros' hyperreal self-portrait of his gazing at the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum was entered as a finalist in the Archibald Prize and drew instant attention.

As Zavros explained at the opening in Brisbane, the issue of the historical dislocation and the desired reunification of the sculptures that were once integral to the aesthetic sensibility of the Parthenon can no longer be ignored:

“The Greek people - my people - invented so much of the mathematics, art and philosophy my kids are learning at school now.  We were overachievers, until one day we weren’t, and this famous building on the hill of Athens reminds contemporary Greeks of what we once were. Now everybody’s claiming what’s theirs, and repatriation is part of that conversation."

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As we can see, the culture of protest and resistance to one of the world's oldest cultural heritage disputes will continue until a real and meaningful resolution can be found.

Maintain the rage.


George Vardas is the Arts & Culture Editor and is also the co-Vice President of the Australian Parthenon  Association and co-founder of the Acropolis Research Group.

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