Cultural Postcards + [UK]

Southern Europe: Parthenon sculpture leaves Britain for the first time
The decision of the British Museum to lend one of the Parthenon sculptures to an exhibition at the Hermitage Museum in Russia, has created a storm of reactions. This is how The Telegraph tells the story:

Parthenon sculpture leaves Britain for the first time
The statue of Ilissos at the British Museum 
[Credit: Telegraph]

"The British Museum has allowed one of the Elgin Marbles to leave London for the first time after lending a sculpture to a Russian museum.

The headless statue of a Greek river-god will be unveiled in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg on Friday as part of the celebrations for the institution’s 250th anniversary.

The move comes despite fears of a new Cold War between the Kremlin and the west.

The artwork’s arrival there after a top secret journey, is likely to further inflame one of the world’s longest-running cultural heritage disputes: the Greek government’s claim to the 2,500-year-old sculptures that were removed from the Parthenon in Athens in the19th century by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, told The Times: “The politics of both museums have been that the more chilly the politics between governments the more important the relationship between museums.”

 Four years ago he took the Cyrus Cylinder, a small Persian clay tablet often described as the earliest charter of human rights, back to Iran for an exhibition at which it was seen by nearly 500,000 people.

His museum has used history to improve cultural links with China, Afghanistan, Africa and the Middle East. In this case there were “two sets of politics” to contend with, he said.

Greece refuses to recognise the British Museum’s ownership of the sculptures, which make up about 30 per cent of the surviving decoration from the Parthenon.

The museum maintains that the sculptures’ reputation as art rather than decoration was forged in London and that they can best be understood in the context of Western civilisation by remaining in the museum.

Athens has contended for almost 40 years that they belong in Greece alongside the other remaining fragments. The Greek possessions are displayed in a museum with a view of the Acropolis, where the ruined Parthenon stands.

“The Greek dimension is much more about where the sculpture belongs on a permanent basis,” Mr MacGregor said.

Although the trustees of the British Museum have made clear that any part of the collection is available to travel, subject to concerns about its conservation and safe return, there has never been a conversation with the Greek government about a possible loan.

“To date they have always made it clear that they would not return them. That rather puts the conversation on pause.”

Parthenon sculpture leaves Britain for the first time
A visitor walks past by an empty plinth (L) of the Ilissos statue part of collection 
of The Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles in the 
British Museum in London, Britain [Credit: ANA MPA]

The loan to Russia was finally approved only 15 days ago. Sir Richard Lambert, the chairman of the British museum’s trustees, said that they wanted to “leave room for flexibility if the political relationship between western Europe and Russia changed”.

Mr MacGregor said that after the provisional decision to lend in October “the politics had looked very uncertain.”

That period included Russia voicing “respect” for flawed elections held by pro-Russian rebels in east Ukraine and the growing death toll in the conflict.

In a blog on the British Museum's website, Mr MacGregor added: "The British Museum is a museum of the world, for the world and nothing demonstrates this more than the loan of a Parthenon sculpture to the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg to celebrate its 250th anniversary."

The Hermitage was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great to enable Russia to participate in the European Enlightenment.

The figure of the god Ilissos will go on public display there until January 18. It is a “very big and important gesture” Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the museum, said, “the most exciting thing and the most important thing” that could have come to the Hermitage to celebrate its 250th anniversary. He hoped that any political fallout from the announcement would not affect his relations with Greek museums. "

The Greek Prime Minister lashes out

Meanwhile, the Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said on Friday in a statement that the decision of the British Museum to “loan” a sculpture of the Parthenon Marbles to an exhibition held in St. Petersburg "was a provocation to the Greek people."

"The British dogma according to which the Parthenon Marbles are immovable is no longer applicable," Samaras said, noting that the argument had been contested in the past by the construction of Athens' Acropolis Museum in response to British authorities' claim that the Greeks' have no acceptable venue for hosting the Sculptures.

“The Parthenon and its sculptures have been looted. The value of the sculptures is inestimable,” the Prime Minister said adding that "Greeks identified with their history and civilization, which cannot be fragmented, lent or conceded."

The Sculptures belong to the World... or rather, 
to the British Museum

The Telegraph continues with an article titled: 'The Greeks can have the Elgin Marbles any time they like - if they play by the rules'

Parthenon sculpture leaves Britain for the first time
The not so honourable Lord Elgin 
[Credit: WikiCommons]

"The decision to lend a piece of the Elgin Marbles to Russia has nothing to do with Greece's absurd campaign for their return."

"Today, everyone should be celebrating, including the Greeks. The Trustees of the British Museum have lent Russia’s stupendous State Hermitage Museum the statue of Ilissos, one of the jewels of the Parthenon sculptures. It is a new chapter in the history of these amazing sculptures, and one that underscores the promotion of education, culture, and understanding that the British Museum has always undertaken with its collections. Now citizens of Russia can also experience the wonder of this exquisite ancient art. This is a great day for Britain, Russia, and Greece.

The decision to lend the sculptures to Russia should not be seen as having anything to do with Greece’s claims over them. Despite the ongoing barrage of emotive complaints from supporters of the repatriation of the sculptures to Greece, the fact is that there is nothing that puts the British Museum’s Parthenon sculptures into a special heritage category. World museums routinely hold and exhibit artefacts from other countries. It is what they are there for, and is at the heart of their educational purpose. Stolen or illegitimate antiquities are required to be returned. Legitimate acquisitions can remain. No one seriously doubts that the Parthenon sculptures are the legal possession of the British Museum.

That being the case, why is there a media clamour for their repatriation to Greece? The National Archaeological Museum in Athens owns a large and famous collection of Egyptian antiquities, and the imposing Benaki Museum in Athens has Chinese, Islamic, and South American collections. Has Greece volunteered to return these? Is anyone suggesting it should?

The Trustees of the British Museum have always been clear that they will lend any of their artefacts to anyone who acknowledges that they belong to the British Museum, and who will return them. These are not mere words. Last year the British Museum lent over 5,000 artefacts. There are no black lists of artefacts that cannot be loaned. As today has shown, even the Elgin Marbles are available to museums which abide by the code. Whenever Greece is ready to swallow its pride and play by these rules, they will be there."

The 180-year-old battle to reclaim the Parthenon Sculptures

The 7th Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce (photo above), forcibly removed the Parthenon Marble pieces from the Acropolis, causing a great deal of damage to the site in the process. He claimed to have obtained a permit from the Ottoman authorities in 1801, however many doubt the authenticity of this document that has been lost. The illegal excavation and removal was completed in 1812 and the sculptures were shipped to Britain.

Parthenon sculpture leaves Britain for the first time
Melina Mercouri during her campaign for the return 
of the Parthenon Sculptures [Credit: Protothema]

The British Museum’s signs may claim that the marbles were “saved” by Lord Elgin but the truth is they were nearly destroyed forever in 1802 when one of the ships chartered by the British aristocrat sank off the coast of the southern Peloponnese. The sunken ship, the Mentor, sank off Cape Tainaro and the precious cargo was trapped in the wreckage for two years. Lord Elgin paid exorbitant amounts to Kalmynos sponge divers to reach the depths of over twenty meters to salvage the marbles from the sea bed.

Most of the cargo was recovered, however some believe that the two-and-a-half year salvage project may have been responsible for Elgin’s financial ruin that led to his decision to sell the Parthenon Marbles to the British Museum in 1816 for a very low price.

In Greece, the aristocrat was immediately accused of looting and vandalism. Formal efforts for their repatriation had begun by the first king of Greece, Otto of Bavaria. A green folder titled “Akropolis von Athen” contains 223 formal documents calling for the return of the marbles from 1834 to 1842 proving that Greece had sought their return for 180 years.

In more recent times, actress-turned-politician Melina Mercouri launched a restitution campaign.

State archaeologists from the Greek Ministry of Culture had asked to borrow the Parthenon Marbles prior to the 2004 Athens Olympics in exchange for a pick of 32,000 statues and vases dating back to the 5th century B.C. but the offer was rejected.

The latest bid for the return of the Parthenon Marbles is being handled by human rights lawyer Amal Clooney and her colleagues from the Doughty Street Chambers.  

Editor's Note:

The British Museum also holds additional fragments from the Parthenon sculptures acquired from various collections that have no connection with Lord Elgin. The collection held in the British Museum includes the following material from the Acropolis:

  • Parthenon: 247 ft (75 m) of the original 524 ft (160 m) frieze; 15 of the 92 metopes; 17 pedimental figures; various pieces of architecture
  • Erechtheion: a Caryatid, a column and other architectural members
  • Propylaia: Architectural members
  • Temple of Athena Nike: 4 slabs of the frieze and architectural members

Also stolen by the British is the famous Bassae Frieze, also known as the Phigalean Marbles, which comprises 23 panels 31m in length, and which once decorated the interior of the cella of the Temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassae. The frieze was bought at auction by the British Museum in 1815 where it is now on permanent display. Eight fragments believed to belong to the frieze are in the National Museum, Athens.

See also: Squalid saga of Parthenon marbles loan to Russia, published by The Guardian.

Sources: The Telegraph/ANAMPA/Protothema [December 07, 2014]