November 9, 2007

A talk with Neil MacGregor

Posted at 2:02 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles

Following his talk with Professor Pandermalis of the OANMA, Richard Lacayo now talks to Neil MacGergor, director of the British Museum. Much of the talk focuses on restitution issues generally with specific reference to the plight of the Elgin Marbles.

Time Magazine Blogs

November 6, 2007 8:21
A Quick Talk: With Neil MacGregor
Posted by Richard Lacayo

In London last week I sat down for a conversation with Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum. I had just paid a visit to the New Acropolis Museum in Athens, so this seemed like a good time to talk with him about the Elgin Marbles, which the Greeks want back, and why he believes they should stay where they are.

I’ll post this exchange in several parts over the next few days.

LACAYO: I’ll start with the most basic question. Why should the Elgins be here, in London, and not there, in Athens?

MacGREGOR: The sculptures of the Parthenon are part of two separate stories, two distinguishable stories. One is the story of architecture and sculpture in Athens. The other is the story of sculpture in the world. It’s very important that they be in both stories. As you cannot reconstruct the building and you cannot put the sculptures back on the building — roughly half the sculptures have been destroyed completely — you cannot restore the aesthetic whole. So the current arrangement is more or less the ideal one. That is, you can see about half of what survives in the context of an Athenian story, and the other half in the context of a world story.

LACAYO: The Greeks would say you can reconstitute the narrative of the frieze.

MacGREGOR: You can’t. About 40% of the frieze has been destroyed. We’re talking about fragments, fragments of what was a great work of art, but which is now a broken and partial work of art. You simply can’t reconstruct it.

LACAYO: Even if it’s true that the Trustees can’t be compelled legally to return the Elgins, why should the marbles not be returned anyway for moral reasons, as Yale University recently agreed to return the Machu Picchu silver to Peru

MacGREGOR: When Lord Elgin sold them [to the British government] in 1816 there was a parliamentary committee precisely on the question of the circumstances of the acquisition. Parliament was satisified — not easily satisfied; it was a very serious investigation — that the sculptures had been properly acquired by Elgin and that therefore it was proper for the British Museum to buy them. So I don’t think that there’s any legal or moral argument.

Indeed, if we’re going to talk about wider issues, it was only when the sculptures came to London that they became world “star” objects. You couldn’t see them close up on the Parthenon. And the ones that had fallen off the Parthenon had been damaged and were in poor condition. It was only when you could see them at eye height that it became clear that these were great things. Elgin removed them, and it was by taking them to the British Museum that they became, to the educated world of Europe, great things.

Athens, in 1816 — the building was really a ruin, conditions were very poor, Athens was difficult to get to. It was bringing the marbles to London that actually allowed the European educated world, French, German, Russian, Italian and British, to discover for the first time what great Greek sculpture was. And this is the purpose of a museum like this — to bring things not previously appreciated for their proper worth, and put them in the context of other things from around the world.

LACAYO: As you know there were uncertainties about the firman, the document issued by the Ottoman authroties that provided the legal basis for Elgin to remove the marbles that he took. No one in that parliamentary committee in 1816 actually saw the firman. All they had was an Italian translation. The original is now lost, and to this day we don’t now how accurate the Italian translation was. And even if we accept that the Italian version was accurate, there’s also a question as to whether Elgin had greatly overstepped what the language of the firman authorized him or his agents to do. Given all this somewhat unstable documentary evidence, do you do still feel that the British Museum has a strong legal claim?

MacGREGOR: There is no legal system in Europe that would challenge the legal title. Because it’s impossible to sort out what the legalities of over 200 years ago were. We also know that this [the removal of the marbles] was happening absolutely in public. And Elgin was accompanied by an official of the sultan of the Porte of Constantinople, a man of a high rank — the voivode. I think it’s perfectly clear that Elgin couldn’t remove things without the consent of the voivode. Those consents might have gone beyond the terms of the firman, whatever those were, but this was done very publicly, in consultation with the public authorities of the day. So it is very difficult to argue that what he did was beyond the authority granted by Constantinople in one form or another.

Time Magazine Blogs

November 7, 2007 4:18
More Talk With: Neil MacGregor

Let’s continue that conversation about the Elgin marbles with the director of the British Museum.

LACAYO: Your museum has repeatedly taken the position that it will not discuss even the possibility of a temporary loan of some of the marbles unless the Greek authorities will acknowledge that the Trustees of the British Museum are their lawful owners. What if the Greeks were suddenly to surprise you and do just that? Would the museum then agree to enter into some kind of talks?

MacGREGOR: No Trustees in the Anglo-Saxon legal system could lend to people who didn’t recognize their title. This is the duty of Trustees. The Trustees have always made it clear that they regard the collection as being a resource from which they like to lend and they want to lend. There are interesting examples in just the last year of loans of major parts of the collection — of Assyrian art in Shanghai, an exhibition now going to Boston, and then “Treasures of the World’s Cultures” in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

But there has never been a request [from Greece] for a time limited loan for part of the Parthenon sculptures. The Trustees have said they would not consider the removal of all the marbles at one time, just as they would not consider the removal of all the Assyrian sculptures at one time. But their position is absolutely coherent. They would consider a request, and it would then be a question of how long the request was for, whether the objects were fit to travel, all those things.

LACAYO: If the Greeks do not budge on that central question — acknowledging ownership by the Trustees, then presumably there can’t be any movement forward.

MacGREGOR: Trustees are obliged to behave in a certain way. The conversation cannot even begin until that has happened.

LACAYO: Other than conversations with Dimitrios Pandermalis, who heads the New Acropolis Museum project, have you had contacts with the Greek side on this question?

MacGREGOR: Some years ago Dr. Venizelos, who was then culture minister of Greece, came to the museum to speak to the then-chairman of the Trustees and myself. We raised the point that a precondition for a temporary loan of some objects would have to be the recognition of title. We put that to him and he then formally published a letter in the Sunday Times saying that the Greek government does not recognize that the Trustees are the legal owners. We were trying to find a middle ground on which some kind of discussion could be had, but we can’t, at the moment.

LACAYO: If the Trustees agree to a loan, would there still be a role for the government in the decision? Or do the Trustees have full authority?

MacGREGOR: Yes, absolutely, just as in the American system.

LACAYO: Could the Trustees give the marbles back if it should come to that?

MacGREGOR: The Trustees are obliged to hold them. The collection is inalienable.

LACAYO: If the collection is inalienable, and you say you are looking for a way forward, does that mean that the way forward still cannot go all the way to the point of restitution?

MacGREGOR: Of transferring title? Yes. Almost every European collection is the same. The Greek collections are inalienable. It would be impossible for a Greek museum to transfer title to a British museum.

LACAYO: Couldn’t there be an act of Parliament that would change the terms of the Trusteeship? It was Parliament that created it in the first place.

MacGREGOR: It could be done, but I think Parliament is very reluctant to intervene in Trustee obligations. Those are such old and complex systems. Parliament has made it absolutely clear under every government that this is not a matter for it; this is entirely a matter for the Trustees.

LACAYO: Well if the Trusteeship obliges the Trustees to hold on to the marbles, doesn’t that mean that there could not be a return even if there were large public support for such a move?

MacGREGOR: In terms of transferring ownership, no. As the law stands now it is not possible for the Trustees to transfer ownership. That’s why, if there is to be any middle ground, any way forward, it has to be on the basis of some kind of loan.

Time Magazine Blogs

November 9, 2007 4:26
Last Talk: With Neil MacGregor

Let’s finish up that conversation with the director of the British Museum.

LACAYO: Do you worry about the future of what’s sometimes called the universal museum, the museum, like your own, that features objects from as many cultures as possible? It would seem that such museums would be threatened as more nations demand the return of artifacts that were taken from their territory in the past. It’s not just the Elgin Marbles. For instance, the Egyptians have said they would like your museum to return the Rosetta Stone.

MacGREGOR: The Egyptians have never questioned the Trustees’ ownership of the Stone. The Trustees have received a letter from the Egyptians asking the museum to lend the Stone for a number of months. So it’s a perfectly ordinary loan request, of exactly the sort that has never been received for the Parthenon sculptures. The Egyptians have started from the position that legal title is absolutely clear and that they want to borrow it like anything else and then return it.

As for the universal museum, is it endangered? No, I think the need for a museum where the world can look at itself as one is greater than ever. The British Museum was the first great museum to aim at bringing to the world things from all over the world. It’s an 18th century ideal, an Enlightenment ideal — a pre-imperial ideal. The museum was founded in 1753, before the British Empire really gets going. The idea of having, in one building, things from the whole world, there for free, for the whole world to study, is just as important now as it was 250 years ago.

It’s very interesting that the French government, in their discussions with Abu Dhabi — [about French museum involvement in the culture complex planned there] — is using exactly the same language. What they want to offer Abu Dhabi is a universal museum. And that is what Abu Dhabi wants. When they opened the new Capital Museum in Beijing, they opened it with “Treasures of the World’s Cultures”, an exhibition from the British Museum showing the cultures of the world other than China. Museums in China have very little in them that was not made in China, so for most Chinese it is very hard to see things made outside.

LACAYO: You’re often mentioned as a posible successor to Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, whenever Philippe retires. You’ve said you wouldn’t want the job because you have things still to do at the British Museum. What are those?

MacGREGOR: I would like to make the museum a place where the world can tell its histories, to allow the whole world to think about its oneness, how it interconnects. Over the next five years, in the run-up to the Olympics, we want to embark on a series of projects about the histories of the world as told through the objects in the British Museum. One aim is to make the museum more available on line. We now have about 300,000 objects in photographs documented on line. We want to make it usable throughout the world, to make the museum what Parliament set it up to be, a resource for the studious and curious of all nations.

Until about the 1960s, when air transport and packing changed, the question for most objects was where should they be. That’s not now the case. The fact that Assyrian sculptures can travel to Shanghai, and allow the Chinese for the first time ever to see the civilization of the Mesopotamia, and then come back, changes the assumptions of that argument very profoundly. [Developments in] the technology of transport mean that those old discussions about whether an object should be in place A or place B are old discussions. Objects can be, over time, in many places.

LACAYO: In that case, would you agree to an actual sharing arrangement with Greece for the Elgin marbles?

MacGREGOR: We already have a sharing agreement — we each have about half.

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