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The Parthenon marbles

The Elgin Marbles (BBC 2004)


Parthenon marbles

Parthenon marbles: Greece furious over British loan to Russia

Greek prime minister says loan of statue from pillaged frieze puts end to British Museum argument that disputed antiquities are immovable

 Visitors look at the marble sculpture of the river god Ilissos, from the Parthenon marbles, at the Hermitage in St Petersburg, Russia. Photograph: Dmitry Lovetsky/AP

Helena Smith in Athens

Friday 5 December 2014 15.38 GMT

Greece has reacted with outrage to the British Museum’s surprise move to loan one of the disputed Parthenon marbles to Russia.

Within hours of learning of the unexpected decision to send the monumental statue of the river god Ilissos to the State Hermitage museum in St Petersburg, the Greek prime minister, Antonis Samaris, hit back.

“[It] provokes the Greek people,” he said on Friday, insisting that the loan effectively ended the British Museum’s argument that the Greek antiquities were immovable.

“The last British dogma about immovability has ceased to exist … the Parthenon and its sculptures were the object of pillage. We Greeks are identified with our history and culture which cannot be torn apart, loaned and ceded.”

News of the move elicited shock and fury with Greek officials, and activists abroad, describing the gesture, variously, as sly, arrogant, provocative and rude. Campaigners suggested it would give added impetus to Athens to pursue the legal route in its quest to reclaim the Golden Age treasures from London.

Samaras’ conservative-dominated coalition is currently seeking advice from the human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, and two of Britain’s leading experts in cultural restitution, Geoffrey Robertson and Norman Palmer, in the fight to repatriate antiquities seen as the high point of classical art.

“[The loan is] appalling, no one had any idea whatsoever,” said Elena Korka, a senior culture ministry policymaker involved in restitution efforts since 1986. “For so many years they have argued that the sculptures could not be moved. At the end of the day this will turn against them,” she told the Guardian.

Veiled in secrecy until its announcement late on Thursday, the unprecedented step saw the collection being broken up for the first time since the British Museum took possession of the 5th century BC masterpieces in 1816. Roughly half of the 160-metre-long frieze has been in London since Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, oversaw its removal from the Parthenon as the British ambassador to the Ottoman empire more than 200 years ago.

ebookTwitterPinterestexpandSir Richard Lambert, chairman of the British Museum Trustees, poses next to the Parthenon marbles in the British Museum, London. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Neil MacGregor, the British Museum’s director, said the loan would reinforce the argument that the museum was a universal institution with global outreach.

The headless river god, among the most recognisable of the classical carvings, is due to be unveiled at the Hermitage on Friday in celebration of its 250th anniversary.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday morning, MacGregor said he hoped the Greek government would be delighted that the sculpture would now be on display to a new audience.

“I hope that they will be very pleased that a huge new public can engage with the great achievements of ancient Greece. People who will never be able to come to Athens or London will now, here in Russia, understand something of those great achievements in Greek civilization.”

But Greek officials said if they were to be delighted it would be “for other reasons”.

With a purpose-built museum constructed at the foot of the Acropolis to exhibit the sculptures, the move not only boosted the argument that the marbles should be “reunited” for ethical, aesthetic and scholarly reasons, but provided the first glimmer of hope that, one day, they would return to the place where they were created.

“It’s a change of attitude,” Korka said. “Now that they have taken this decision, they can pack up the rest and bring them here where the climate suits them and where they belong. And when the [two-month] exhibition at the Hermitage is over they can bring the Ilissos over too.”

She rejected the British Museum’s claim that Greece had consistently refused to enter into talks over loaning the antiquities to Athens. “We have never said ‘never’ to anything. We have said, so many times, we are open to mediation and that means we are open to loans as well.”

Macgregor repeated the museum’s claim on Friday, saying: “The Greek government has always refused to borrow, to date, but the trustees’ position is very clear that they will consider any request from anyone who is prepared to return the object.”

Discussions with the Hermitage are believed to have begun in October before the deal was sealed two weeks ago.

Campaigners for the return of the marbles to Athens said the loan was all the more inflammatory for its timing. In July 2013, Greece called on Unesco, the United Nations’ cultural organisation, to intervene, urging David Cameron’s government to participate in mediation in an attempt to settle the long-dispute. London has yet to respond.

“It is not just rude, provocative and arrogant, it is a highly offensive thing to do when Britain has completely ignored a Greek request to mediate this issue through Unesco,” said David Hill, the Australian president of the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures. “For the best part of 18 months Unesco has been waiting for a reply,” he told the Guardian from Sydney. “The only thing this will do is aggravate the situation. It’s extremely inflammatory.”

The Parthenon marbles should be returned – but George Clooney is wrong

The legal case for giving them back to Greece is weak, but the marbles deserve to be seen in their original setting in Athens
Acropolis Museum
The Acropolis Museum could be the best setting for the Parthenon marbles. Photograph: Stephen Moss for the Guardian
George Clooney thinks Britain should return the Parthenon marbles to Greece. It's a widely held and perfectly respectable view – certainly not a "Hitlerian agenda" for London's cultural treasures, as Boris Johnson would have it. But is it right?
There are certainly bad reasons to return the marbles.
One is that Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman empire in the early 19th century, denuded the Parthenon of much of its sculpture immorally, or even illicitly. He certainly seems to have exploited his firman or licence from the Sultan to remove "stones with inscriptions and figures" from the building with an enthusiasm that did not escape the critical notice of contemporary observers.
When Elgin was forced by straitened financial circumstances to sell his booty, and the British parliament voted in 1816 to accept a select committee report that he had legitimately acquired it before purchasing the marbles for the British Museum, it took a narrowly legal view of the issue that was not universally accepted at the time, or even in the house: during the debate, Hugo Hammersley MP suggested that they be returned to Athens.
But we can't determine the right thing to do now solely on the basis that someone did the wrong thing done in the past – whether Lord Elgin himself, the government who endorsed his actions, or the British Museum staff who damaged the sculptures through over-enthusiastic cleaning in the 1930s. That's not to say that institutions and states, and perhaps even families, shouldn't be held responsible for the present consequences of their past actions, even if none of the people directly involved or affected are still alive. But putting those past wrongs right is rarely as simple, or as cheap, as reversing the original act.
Another reason is that the marbles belong to Greece. The temple itself was built in the 5th century BC by the city-state of Athens for Athena, its patron goddess, and it housed the tribute the Athenians received from the other city-states subject to them: hardly a symbol of Greek democracy or fellow-feeling. Athens ceased to exist as a Greek polis in the 6th century AD, well over a thousand years before the seventh Earl of Elgin removed them from the Ottoman empire. The nation of Greece dates back to 1830, 20 years after Elgin finished his dirty work, and 14 years after the British state turned them over to the British Museum, whose trustees are now the legal owners of the sculpture. It is hard to see what the modern nation states of Greece and the UK, or the issue of ownership, really have to do with the question of where the Parthenon sculptures are best displayed.
But there's a very bad reason not to return to the marbles, which is that doing so would set a precedent. That depends entirely on what is done. Returning the marbles to Greece would indeed suggest that cultural artefacts should as a rule be sent to the modern nation state occupying the land on which they were built or found.
But if the guiding principle is that our global cultural heritage belongs to all of us, and should be available to as many of us as possible, then more difficult decisions have to be made.
In this case, there's a persuasive argument that people should have the chance to see the marbles beside the Acropolis on which they were first erected. In the new Acropolis Museum, the Parthenon itself is visible through the windows of the room in which the marbles would be displayed together with the fragments that remained in Athens. The sculptures currently split in two – including a decapitated goddess and a great procession that disappears half way through – would be reunited, and would finally make all their sense. Athens is no less accessible than London to the rest of the world, and to see and think about this temple and almost all of its sculpture on the same morning, under the same Athenian sky, would be a privilege and a joy.
So perhaps George Clooney is wrong, and Britain should not return the Parthenon sculptures to Greece. But there is a case that the British Museum should send them to the Acropolis Museum in Athens with ownership invested in a trust connected to neither institution or state. The fact that this solution would be unacceptable to both Greek and British governments is a problem of modern nationalism, not ancient sculpture.