No one expects the British Museum to just suddenly acquiesse on the issue of the Parthenon Sculptures. Even by their own standards though, some of what is in the latest interview with their Director, Neil MacGregor, is pushing the bounds of credibility.
Now – to the best of my knowledge, the only firman (or permit) that Elgin ever managed to show to anyone (in Italian translation) stated that he had permission to make measure, sketch & make casts of the sculptures and buildings on the site. It also stated that they could dig up inscribed blocks that might have been preserved in the rubble. Some of the Parthenon Sculptures may fall into this category, but the vast majority were sawn from the building by Elgin. The firman is fairly specific in its wording regarding taking casts, so it seems that it would be an odd omission to describe other things in such detail, but not to mention that he was also allowed to remove large chunks of the ancient monument & saw it apart to remove the sculptures from it. On this basis alone, I think it would be safe to say that the legality of the removal is called into question.
Neil MacGregor however seems to see things a different way – and he believes that most other people do too. He asks himself “Was the acquisition legal?” and then immediately responds “I think everybody would have to agree that it was.” Hearing things such ass this only helps to convince me that a major change of tactics is needed if the sculptures are to return to Greece any time soon. When the institution that holds them is so emphatically certain that they are right, it is hard to start any sort of serious negotiations.
MacGregor falls on a peculiar fallacy, that because it took a long time to remove the sculptures (this is true & well documented), that therefore lots of people must have seen him do it & therefore as he was not stopped, what was doing must have been legal. If a criminal used this as a defence today, we wouldn’t use it as evidence of the legality of their actions though – merely that they were adept at avoiding getting caught.
It is clear from his statements that the British Museum has no fear of the UNESCO mediation request – they believe that UNESCO should deal only with governments, so it does not apply to them. The British Government will of course take the line that it is not the decision for the government can make, and note that the responsibility falls to the Trustees of the British Museum. This is a true assessment of things – but if the government had a will to do something, I’m sure they would not be adverse to leaning on the Trustees & trying to get them to deal with the issue.
MacGregor also highlights another major stumbling block (although I’m sure that he does not see it this way), that Greece must acknowledge that the British Museum is the legal owner of the sculptures, before any negotiations can begin. As a large part of Greece’s claim rests on the fact that the marbles were not legally acquired, then to state that they were before any negotiations would be a disaster. Why would they want to relinquish a big chunk of their arguments before they even start? If the same thing happened in trials over the ownership of Nazi loot, there would be a public outcry.
Throwing one final stone over his parapet, MacGregor shows that the museum is entirely remorseless on the issue (or perhaps entirely misunderstands the issue), stating that even if Elgin was to do the same now, it would still be legal by the standards of the museum. Using as an example (an entirely different situation of) archaeological digs in Sudan, where they have been invited to excavate by the authorities. To understand just how spurious this example is, note that:
1. The government of Sudan is not seen by Britain to be an occupying power.
2. The permits & what they allow them to do / not do, are presumably carefully documented, checked by various lawyers & certified copies filed away somewhere securely.
3. The terms of the permits are presumably adhered to, without massive ad-hoc undocumented changes to the mission.
I’m sure if I looked into it in more detail, many more details would show just what a ridiculous comparison is being made here.
British Museum Director Neil MacGregor
Neil MacGregor: ‘There is no possibility of putting the Elgin Marbles back’
Published at 12:01AM, November 7 2014
The British Museum director explains why the Parthenon Sculptures will not be returned to Greece during his tenure
If he’s a man under pressure he seems blithely unaware of it. At precisely 8.58am last Tuesday morning a dapper 68-year-old docks his Boris bike and walks through the great gates of his institution, which are still closed to the public. “Morning, Neil,” says the security guard. “Gentleman from The Times waiting to see you.” The director of the British Museum has arrived for work.
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