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Does the art industry support returning Parthenon Marbles?

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 [1] 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 [2] 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 [3], as well as by newspapers [4] and magazines [5]. 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 [6], 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 [7] for being anything other [8] than guns for hire [9]), 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 [10] 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 [11] 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 [12]

Part of the Parthenon frieze in the British Museum

From:
ITV London [13]

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.

Greece maintains they were taken illegally during the country’s Turkish occupation and should be returned for display in Athens, which the British Museum and the Government reject.

Public relations firm Bell Pottinger Arts spoke to 70 journalists and leaders of arts organisations in the UK, the Middle East and Asia about the works, also known as the Parthenon Marbles.

Update:
I’ve located a lot more information on the survey on Bell Pottinger’s own website [14], which indicates that the Marbles question was part of a bigger survey.

While this goes some way towards answering some of my questions above, it raises another question – why did ITV chose to pick this one item from the press release and make it into a news story, while ignoring any other content from the survey.

The full poll details are presented in the Arts Report [15], which as well as giving a breakdown of the people surveyed also explains their reasons behind running the poll and the details given by some of the respondents. While these details are unsurprising (based on past press comments etc), they are at the same time depressing. Do people in this day and age really believe that “The magnificent way in which the British Museum has looked after them” really represents a valid reason for the retention of the sculptures? If I was to take somebody’s car, valet it every week & then argue in court that I should be allowed to keep it because I had cared for it so well, I don’t think I would stand much chance of success.

The people surveyed were as follows:

Who Took Part in the Survey?

Between Friday 16 January and Monday 2 February the Bell Pottinger Arts team held 70 separate conversations with the arts communities in London, Middle East and Asia. Respondents were invited to answer a number of questions anonymously.

Of the 70 respondents, 50 (74%) were UK based, while the rest 20 (26%) were equally split between the Middle East and Asia. What respondents told us can be found on the following pages.

For the purposes of this survey we have classified respondents into five groups:
Galleries and museums (18/26%)
Advisors (17/24%)
• Including fine art dealers, valuers, restorers, archivists, wealth managers, insurers, legal experts, sponsorship brokers and event organisers
Arts media (14/20%)
Other (14/20%)
• Including auction houses, collectors, artists, performing arts, art schools and universities
Political (7/10%)
• Including those in the political world who advise on the arts or who have specific interests in art

The detail of the Parthenon Marbles question is given below:

The Elgin Marbles

Bell Pottinger Arts has no wish to enter the public
debate about the issues regarding ownership and
location of the Elgin Marbles – or the Parthenon
Marbles as they are also known – however we were
keen to understand the mood of opinion in the arts
world on this perennially controversial subject.
Sixty per cent of respondents felt that they should
remain in the British Museum while forty per cent
thought they should be returned to Greece.

The points made in favour of keeping the Marbles included:

• The dreadful precedent set for museums all over the world
• The length of time that has passed
• The ‘legality’ of the original transfer
• The magnificent way in which the British Museum has looked after them
• The fact that over 6m people visit the British Museum every year

Those believing that the Marbles should be returned suggested:
• That they were stolen and therefore should be returned
• Even if the law does not support this, the moral obligation exists nonetheless
• Maybe copies could be made
• One or two respondents suggested that a more intelligent, respectful and co-operative conversation, as opposed to a purely nationalistic argument, was probably the sensible way forward.