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British Museum Director on Parthenon Marbles Hermitage loan

British Museum Director Neil MacGregor sets out why he believes that the loan of the Parthenon Sculptures to the hermitage in St Petersburg is entirely appropriate.

As expected, it falls back on MacGregor’s old favourite reasoning – that is to say, the Universal Museum [1]. While what MacGregor describes as Universal Museums may have existed for a long time though, you will not see any mention in the press of such a concept prior to 2002.

We must remember that these so called Universal Museums are entirely self appointed entities. Outside of the new world, almost all have their roots in the era of colonialism & empires. They never asked the permission of the other countries whose artefacts they exhibit. They can only justify it now, through being bigger than the other museums. It is an incredibly elite club & the barriers to entry (both legal & financial) are such that it would be almost important to create similar institutions today.

It is interesting that MacGregor makes much of the loan of the Cyrus Cylinder to Iran – conveniently forgetting that for years the British Museum reneged on a prior reciprocal loan agreement [2] to the infuriation of Iran. The loan only eventually proceeded after Iran threatened to withdraw all cultural cooperation [3] with the museum.

It is clear that the Hermitage has cooperated with the British Museum numerous times in the past, meaning that they are in the institutions good books. However, this is also the case with Greece, that has on regular occasions loaned artefacts & never made any threats to withdraw cooperation in the way that Iran did.

He ends with a justification for the choice of the Parthenon Sculptures (rather than any of the eight million or so (by their own estimation) other items in their collection). This section is where it gets particularly hazy, with the rationale essentially boiling down to the fact that Pericles (under whose instruction the Parthenon was built) was a great statesman who understood the value of being seen as an ambassador abroad. From this vagueness, he jumps straight onto the presumption that “Pericles would applaud the journey of Ilissos to Russia”.

Certainly, there is some slight value to this justification, but the same could be said of many other items in the British Museum’s collection. And if this is seen as a valid reasoning behind a loan, then surely the overwhelming moral & contextual argument of unification presented by Greece presents a far more compelling case?

Part of the Parthenon Marbles, the British Museum plans to loan the river-god Ilissos to the Hermitage in St Petersburg [4]

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

British Museum [5]

December 5, 2014 • 12:15 am
Loan of a Parthenon sculpture to the Hermitage: a marble ambassador of a European ideal
Neil MacGregor, Director, British Museum

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 British Museum opened its doors in 1759, just five years before the Hermitage. Sisters, almost twins, they are the first great museums of the European Enlightenment. But they were never just about Europe. The Trustees of the British Museum were set up by Parliament to hold their collection to benefit not only the citizens of Great Britain, but ‘all studious and curious persons’ everywhere. The Museum today is the most generous lender in the world, sending great Assyrian objects to China, Egyptian objects to India and Iranian objects to the United States – making a reality of the Enlightenment ideal that the greatest things in the world should be seen and studied, shared and enjoyed by as many people in as many countries as possible.

The Trustees have always believed that such loans must continue between museums in spite of political disagreements between governments. That is why in 2011 they lent the Cyrus Cylinder, the document setting out the humane ideals of the ancient Persian Empire, to Tehran. It is a position energetically shared by our counterparts in Russia. Last year, the Hermitage lent the spectacular collection of paintings, formed by Sir Robert Walpole and sold to Catherine the Great, back to his country house, Houghton Hall, for the summer. Loans from Russian museums enriched the recent exhibition Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind and the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend both at the British Museum, and Malevich at Tate Modern earlier this year was an outstanding act of Russian generosity, enjoyed by thousands of visitors. Both Tate and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts are in return lending works to the exhibition Francis Bacon and the Art of the Past which opens at the Hermitage this weekend.

So, when our colleagues at the Hermitage asked if we might also make an important loan to celebrate their 250th anniversary, the Trustees immediately answered yes. And no loan could more fittingly mark the long friendship of our two houses, or the period of their founding, than a sculpture from the Parthenon.

The great leader of Athens, and the visionary spokesman for its exemplary status for all humanity, was Pericles. In 431 BC, in his famous funeral oration for the heroic Athenian dead, he proclaimed the world-wide renown to which destiny had summoned both them, and their city:

For glorious men like them, the whole earth is their sepulchre. And their memorial is carved not only on a headstone by their home, but far away in foreign lands, unwritten, in the minds of every man…

Two and a half thousand years later, I hope that Pericles would applaud the journey of Ilissos to Russia, where ‘far away in foreign lands’, this stone ambassador of the Greek golden age and European ideals will write ancient Athens’s achievements – aesthetic, moral and political – in ‘the minds of every man’. It is a message that Russia, and the whole world, need to hear and I am delighted that the British Museum has been able to lend such a remarkable object.

This post is based on the text of an article by Neil MacGregor for The Times, 5 December 2014.