ITV News is carrying a story (I haven’t seen it picked up anywhere else so far), that a survey carried out by Public relations firm Bell Pottinger Arts indicates 60% of art experts back keeping the Parthenon Marbles in London. The article is short on detail or analysis, so most of what follows below is purely based on my own knowledge, observations and conjecture.
The poll result is interesting, as it does not reflect the results previously shown in a multitude of other surveys of the general public, or targeted groups, all of which have tended to show that more people are in favour of return than retaining them. These surveys have been conducted by respected polling companies such as Ipsos Mori, as well as by newspapers and magazines. Two things have been noticed from thee polls – firstly, that as time has progressed, support for the return for the sculptures has generally increased (possibly due to an increase in awareness in the subject, as press coverage of it has also increased). Secondly, there was a general trend, that the more educated people were about the topic, the more likely they were to support return. This was proven, not just where people were asked to rate their knowledge of the subject, but also borne out in polls such as that carried out by the Museums Association’s journal, which would clearly be catering for an audience that would have a greater understanding of the case than the general public.
Bearing in mind the above, alarm bells are ringing, when a new survey appears that seems to go against what has been shown in every other previous survey that I am aware of from the last 15 years. As such, the methodology has to be examined carefully.
There are a number of things that I would like to know:
Firstly, what was the actual question that people were asked? In most polls, the exact question wording is made public, but in this one, there is no indication of exactly what was being asked and the context of it within the questionnaire.
Secondly, who was asked? It talks about the 70 journalists and leaders of arts organisations in the UK, the Middle East and Asia who were questioned, without going into any more detail of who these were, how they were selected and the breakdown by country, type of organisation etc. It seems to have been a very targeted poll (perhaps intended to produce a certain result) and also to have a very small sample size. Polls by Ipsos Mori have typically used sample sizes of over 1000 members of the public.
Thirdly, the thing that interests me most, is who commissioned this poll and why? In my experience, companies such as Bell Pottinger don’t work for free, so some company / organisation / individual must be paying them to carry out this work. As this is all about the Parthenon Sculptures, the first thought is that the British Museum might be involved. There is also a clear linkage as to why this institution would chose to use Bell Pottinger, as Baroness Wheatcroft of Blackheath (AKA former Journalist Patience Wheatcroft) is not only the Deputy Chairman of the British Museum, but also an advisory board member of none other than Bell Pottinger. She is also a Conservative peer and former Daily Telegraph editor and it is well known that neither of these bodies are sympathetic to reunification of the Marbles.
If my above guesswork is correct, it is interesting, as it indicates that the British Museum have determined that they need to play a very different set of tactics to those that they have employed in the past (namely that of burying their heads in the sand). If they are now employing an outside PR company (albeit one with a less than stellar reputation for being anything other than guns for hire), then it suggests that they are perhaps no longer sitting quite as comfortably as they once were.
This assertion is backed up by the loan of one of the Parthenon Sculptures to St Petersburg last December, something that was the first real variation in policy noticed since Neil MacGregor took over as director of the museum over ten years ago. I can only deduce that is is clear that they are feeling the pressure, that they finally need to try and defend themselves. This ties in to heightened publicity in recent months about the sculptures in general, but also to the fact that it is now publicly known that the Greek Government has been in discussion with lawyers over whether legal action could be used to help secure the return of the sculptures.
I would suggest that this shows that the current Greek strategy is working, and as such I hope that the new Syriza government will continue to follow the footsteps of those who preceded them, in terms of how they deal with this issue, rather than backing off and letting the issue fall off the agenda once more.
One final thing to note is that the use of the name Elgin Marbles to describe the sculptures is a very loaded term, although it is unclear whether this was the decision of Bell Pottinger or ITV London. Even the British Museum has not used this term for many years now.
If The British Museum has appointed Bell Pottinger to handle this issue for them, I am sure we will be hearing far more about it in the coming months. Watch this space.
Part of the Parthenon frieze in the British Museum
18 February 2015 at 12:20pm
60% of art experts back keeping Elgin Marbles in London
A survey of art experts found 60% in favour of the British Museum in London keeping the Elgin Marbles.
The marbles, which are 2,500 years old, were presented to the London institution almost 200 years ago after being removed from the Parthenon temple at the Acropolis by Lord Elgin. The debate over whether they should be returned to Greece raging ever since.
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