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Further coverage of British Museum Hermitage loan

Further general coverage of the loan by the British Museum to the Hermitage [1] of one of the Parthenon Sculptures.

Part of the Parthenon Marbles, the British Museum plans to loan the river-god Ilissos to the Hermitage in St Petersburg [2]

Part of the Parthenon Marbles, the British Museum plans to loan the river-god Ilissos to the Hermitage in St Petersburg

Museums Association [3]

British Museum loans Parthenon Marbles to Hermitage Museum
Patrick Steel

The British Museum is to lend a marble sculpture of the river god Ilissos, part of the Parthenon Marbles, to the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia.

According to the British Museum, it is the first time that one of the Parthenon Marbles has been requested for a loan, and will be the first time the marbles have left the museum.

Neil MacGregor, the museum’s director, said: “This sculpture speaks of the world of Socrates and Plato. A great work of art, it embodies the belief in the supreme value of rational debate among free citizens.

“There can be no better celebration of the Enlightenment ideals, which the British Museum and the Hermitage have shared for 250 years.”

Mikhaile Piotrovsky, the State Hermitage Museum’s director, said: “I am delighted that this important, beautiful and significant sculpture has been lent in celebration of our two museums’ shared values and will be seen alongside the permanent classical sculptures of the Hermitage.”

The British Museum houses about 30% of the original set of the Parthenon Marbles, roughly the same percentage as those in the Acropolis Museum.

The marbles have been at the centre of a dispute between the museum and the Greek government, which does not recognise the British Museum’s ownership of the sculptures.

Last October, Unesco wrote to William Hague, then the UK foreign secretary, and Maria Milller, then the UK culture secretary, inviting them to take part in a “mediation procedure” with the Greek government in a bid to resolve the dispute over the sculptures.

According to a statement from the British Museum: “The trustees will consider any request for any part of the collection to be borrowed, subject to the usual considerations of condition and fitness to travel.

“The simple precondition required by the trustees before they will consider whether or not to lend an object in the collection is that the borrowing institution can guarantee its safe return.”

Sharon Heal, the Museums Association’s director, said: “The Museums Association would like to see all parties around the table in a mediated discussion as Unesco has suggested.

“One of the key considerations should be acting in the public interest. This loan to Russia demonstrates that it is possible to lend sculpture on this scale and that there is huge international public interest in this collection.

“Mediation is a sensible option and Unesco is the right organisation to bring everyone concerned to the table.”

Daily Telegraph [4]

The Elgin Marbles leave Britain for first time
Elgin Marbles have left London for the first time and are on loan to a Russian museum
By Keith Perry
12:23AM GMT 05 Dec 2014

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.”

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.

Artnet [5]

Elgin Marble Loaned to Russia, While Greece Keeps Getting Snubbed
Lorena Muñoz-Alonso, Friday, December 5, 2014

The Elgin Marbles saga has entered yet another controversial chapter. The British Museum has announced that it has loaned one of the 2,500 year-old Greek sculptures to the State Hermitage Museum, where it will be unveiled tomorrow as part of the celebrations commemorating the 250th anniversary of the St. Petersburg museum.

The specific piece, which has left the UK for the very first time since the marbles arrived to the British Museum in 1816, is a headless reclining sculpture of the Greek river-god Ilissos, originally created for Athens’ Acropolis about 438-432 BC.

The loan has been shrouded in secrecy, and when the news hit the international media this morning, the general reaction was one of great surprise, given the heated debate surrounding the Elgin Marbles’ denied repatriation to Greece.

The priceless collection of marble artworks was removed from the Parthenon in Athens between 1801 and 1812 by Lord Elgin, during his time as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. He then brought the items back to the UK, where he sold them to the British Parliament in 1816. The Marbles have been displayed in the British Museum ever since.

In the last few decades, the marbles have been the subject of frictions between the British Museum and the Greek government, which has issued several (unsuccessful) petitions requesting their repatriation. The latest one was supported by the international rights lawyer (and celebrity) Amal Alamuddin-Clooney (“Can George Clooney’s Wife Rescue the Elgin Marbles?”).

But what is perhaps more surprising about this loan is its specific recipient: Russia, whose diplomatic relations with the UK have got to rather frosty point this year, following Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine and the attack on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 last July, which killed 298 people.

While fear-mongering rumors of an impending new Cold War between Russia and the West have been consistently dismissed, only last month British Prime Minister David Cameron, referring to the Ukraine crisis,told the BBC: “If Russia continues on its current path, then we will keep upping the pressure and Russia’s relationship with the rest of the world will be radically different in the future.”

But it seems that the British Museum has gone out on a diplomatic limb. 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.” He also argued that the Hermitage and the British Museums are “almost twins, they are the first great museums of the European Enlightenment.”

According to the Telegraph, the loan to Russia was only approved 15 days ago, with Sir Richard Lambert, chairman of the British Museum’s trustees, declaring that they had wanted to “leave room for flexibility if the political relationship between Western Europe and Russia changed.”

While the controversial loan might benefit diplomatic relations between the UK and Russia, Greece’s reaction remains to be seen.

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BBC News [6]

5 December 2014 Last updated at 12:41
How did the Elgin Marbles get here?

A sculpture from the Elgin Marbles has been allowed to leave the UK for the first time since Lord Elgin turned up in Greece in early 1800 and had them stripped from the Parthenon and shipped to Britain.

“Elgin believed he was rescuing the sculptures from the risk of further damage,” writes Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, in The Times on Friday.

Athens’ Parthenon, a classical temple built by the ancient Greeks, was in a dilapidated state by the time Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, became British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in 1799.

Partially destroyed by early Christians, converted into a mosque and later used as a weapons store by the Ottoman Turks, some 40% of the Parthenon’s 2,250-year-old sculptures had been destroyed by the time Elgin took up his diplomatic post in Constantinople.

Elgin, an art lover, claimed the sculptures were better off in Britain than the perilous environment he found them in.

In 1801, he negotiated what he claimed was permission from the Turks – who then controlled Athens – to remove statues from the Parthenon.

The document upon which Elgin claimed legality has been cited by campaigners on both sides of the argument, whose interpretations of it inevitably differ.

The British Museum maintains that Elgin was an official diplomat and had acted with the permission of Turkish authorities.

Greek campaigners argue that the Turks were a foreign force acting against the will of the people they had invaded.

The opposing sides agree on only one thing – that the Elgin Marbles form one of the most important collections of classical art in existence.

The Marbles which were taken to Britain include about a half (some 75 metres) of the sculpted frieze that once ran all round the building, plus 17 life-sized marble figures from its gable ends (or pediments) and 15 of the 92 metopes, or sculpted panels, originally displayed high up above its columns.

Plundering classical art was common practice in that era, which saw those on the Grand Tour regularly pilfer “souvenirs” from ancient sites.

Fragments from the Parthenon alone ended up in some 10 European countries, or were lost altogether.

On his return to England, Elgin told a Parliamentary inquest that a desire to protect what was left of the treasure was part of his motivation in taking them. The Turks, he claimed, had been even grinding down the statues to make mortar.

However, in prising out some of the pieces that still remained in place, Elgin’s agents inevitably inflicted further damage on the fragile ruin.

The argument attributed to Elgin that the Marbles could be admired by people from all over the world in their new location is also contradicted by his original intention to house them in his private home.

The sculptures were transported to Britain between 1801 and 1805; by 1807 they were on show in London.

For Elgin, at least, the triumph was short-lived.

Bankrupted by the acquisition and in the throes of a humiliating divorce from his wealthy wife, Elgin needed cash.

So began a new chapter of the history of the Marbles – as museum objects.

In 1816, Parliament paid £350,000 for the Parthenon Marbles – most of which went to Elgin’s many creditors – and a new home was found at the British Museum, albeit initially in a shed.

Since 1832 – apart from the years when they were sheltered in Aldwych underground station to avoid war damage – the Marbles have remained in the British Museum.

A highlight of the British tourist trail, their uncomfortable acquisition has put them at the heart of one of Europe’s most entrenched cultural disputes.

In a blog about the loan, Mr MacGregor said the British Museum was a “museum of the world, for the world”.

The arrival of the Elgin Marbles in London, it is argued, transformed Europe’s understanding of ancient Greek Art.

“They are integral to the whole idea of the Universal Museum and the way museums over the last two centuries have come to display and interpret human culture,” writes Professor Mary Beard.

It was first argued they should be returned to Greece in 1925, and today Greece still refuses to recognise the Museum’s ownership.

Thirty per cent of the remaining sculptures remain in Athens, which the Greek authorities maintain is their proper home and natural cultural landscape.

“It’s time to heal the wounds of the monument with the return of the marbles which belong to it,” said then Greek President Karolos Papoulias in 2009, at the opening of the Acropolis Museum.

But so far British authorities have opposed all calls for the return of the marbles, with David Cameron saying last year that he did not believe in what he called “returnism”.

Daily Telegraph [7]

Why are the Elgin marbles so controversial – and everything else you need to know
The British Museum has lent one of the Elgin Marbles to Russia. But what are they and why the diplomatic row?
By Victoria Ward
8:43AM GMT 05 Dec 2014

What are the Elgin Marbles?

A collection of stone objects – sculptures, inscriptions and architectural features – acquired by Lord Elgin from the Parthenon in Athens between 1801 and 1805, during his time as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, of which Athens was a part.

What is the Parthenon?

Regarded as one of the world’s greatest cultural monuments. Built nearly 2,500 years ago as a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, it was for a thousand years the church of the Virgin Mary of the Athenians, then a mosque, and finally an archaeological ruin. By 1800 only about half of the original sculptural decoration remained.

Did Lord Elgin steal them?

Not according to the British Museum, which says he acted with the full knowledge and permission of the Ottoman authorities, removed about half of the remaining sculptures from the fallen ruins and from the building itself.

Lord Elgin was passionate about ancient Greek art and transported the sculptures back to Britain by sea.

Where are they housed?

The objects were purchased by the British Parliament from Lord Elgin in 1816, following a Parliamentary Select Committee inquiry which fully investigated and approved the legality of Lord Elgin’s actions. They were presented by Parliament to the British Museum, where they have remained on display ever since.

Why the controversy?

The sculptures are the subject of one of the longest cultural rows in Europe.

The Greeks have demanded that they be returned to their homeland. Greece maintains they were taken illegally during the country’s Turkish occupation and should be returned for display in Athens. The Greek government has disputed the British Museum Trustees’ legal title to the sculptures. Some suggest that Lord Elgin bribed Turkish officials and effectively stole the marbles.

But the British say that Lord Elgin legally purchased the statues from the Ottoman Empire before Greece won its independence and that it would set a disturbing precedent for major museums if they were returned.

Many British historians consider them relics of an Athenian civilisation rather than the modern Greek state.

When did the row begin?

The first serious discussion about returning the Elgin Marbles is said to have been initiated in an exchange of correspondence in a newspaper in 1925, with Courtenay Pollock arguing that the time was right to make the gesture towards Greece.

Since then the issue has been raised by the Greek authorities with almost every British ambassador to Athens.

The British Museum says that the Acropolis Museum in Athens allows the remaining Parthenon sculptures to be appreciated against the backdrop of ancient Greek and Athenian history. It says the Parthenon sculptures in London are “an important representation of ancient Athenian civilisation in the context of world history”.

Why the recent publicity?

In October, lawyer Amal Clooney – the wife of actor George Clooney – said Greece had “just cause” for the return of the marbles.

Mrs Clooney, who is part of the legal team advising the Greek government on possible action in the international courts to force the return of the marbles, claimed Britain should be embarrassed for retaining them.

However, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, ruled out a return, arguing that they gave “maximum public benefit” by staying in London.

What now?

The row will only escalate with the lending of the river god Ilissos to Russia. Greece will no doubt be furious that the British Museum is prepared to send part of the Parthenon to Russia but not back to the Athens.

What survives of the Parthenon?

Roughly half now survives: 247 feet of the original 524 feet of frieze; 15 of 92 metopes; 17 figures from the pediments, and various other pieces of architecture. It also includes objects from other buildings on the Acropolis: the Erechtheion, the Propylaia, and the Temple of Athena Nike.

Where can the surviving sculptures be seen?

Around 65 per cent of the original sculptures survive and are located in museums across Europe. The Acropolis Museum in Athens and the British Museum in London have about 30 per cent each, while other pieces are held by other major European museums, including the Louvre and the Vatican. The British Museum also has other fragments from the Parthenon acquired from collections that have no connection with Lord Elgin.