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Supporters of the British Museum’s Russian Marbles loan

Continuing my coverage [1] of the loan of a Parthenon sculpture to Russia [2] by the British Museum, here are some of the articles that express support for this move.

They range from the incorrect and naive (Dominic Selwood). Does anyone really believe that if the Greeks did what the British Museum asked then the marbles would return just like that? Firstly, there is the question of why they should endorse an assertion that they fundamentally believe is untrue. But, there is also the suspicion that when dealing with the British Museum, you are pressured to relinquish some of your position, yet end up getting nothing in return. Mr Selwood also seems to be forgetting how badly his point of view is out of synch with public opinion – as evidenced by the catastrophically low levels of endorsement of his arguments in a recent Prospect Magazine poll [3].

Next come the barking mad – in this instance represented by London’s mayor Borris Johnson, who has regularly in the past chosen to express how much he loves the marbles being in the British Museum, purely for his own benefit so that he can visit them more easily.

Finally there is the the indignant – incredulous querying of why the Greeks do not support this move in the same way as the British museum does, followed by tales of how they should be proud of it rather than complaining. Fairly predictably, this argument is represented its creator, Neil MacGregor. I’m sure that in the days when Britain had an empire, that this approach of telling people to feel thankful might have worked. Those days are long since gone though and countries and their peoples are more than capable of forming their own opinions on topics, without needing to take into account the instructions of those who believe the viewpoint they hold is somehow superior.

Looking at the source of the bulk of these articles, it could almost be argued though, that they are all merely manifestations of the Daily Telegraph viewpoint – that the Marbles must stay, so therefore any argument that backs this is therefore a valid one.

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

Daily Telegraph [5]

The Greeks can have the Elgin Marbles any time they like – if they play by the rules
The decision to lend a piece of the Elgin Marbles to Russia has nothing to do with Greece’s absurd campaign for their return
By Dominic Selwood
3:47PM GMT 05 Dec 2014

Today, everyone should be celebrating, including the Greeks. The Trustees of the British Museum have lent Russia’s stupendous State Hermitage Museum the statue of Ilissos, one of the jewels of the Parthenon sculptures. It is a new chapter in the history of these amazing sculptures, and one that underscores the promotion of education, culture, and understanding that the British Museum has always undertaken with its collections. Now citizens of Russia can also experience the wonder of this exquisite ancient art. This is a great day for Britain, Russia, and Greece.

The decision to lend the sculptures to Russia should not be seen as having anything to do with Greece’s claims over them. Despite the ongoing barrage of emotive complaints from supporters of the repatriation of the sculptures to Greece, the fact is that there is nothing that puts the British Museum’s Parthenon sculptures into a special heritage category. World museums routinely hold and exhibit artefacts from other countries. It is what they are there for, and is at the heart of their educational purpose. Stolen or illegitimate antiquities are required to be returned. Legitimate acquisitions can remain. No one seriously doubts that the Parthenon sculptures are the legal possession of the British Museum.

That being the case, why is there a media clamour for their repatriation to Greece? The National Archaeological Museum in Athens owns a large and famous collection of Egyptian antiquities, and the imposing Benaki Museum in Athens has Chinese, Islamic, and South American collections. Has Greece volunteered to return these? Is anyone suggesting it should?

The Trustees of the British Museum have always been clear that they will lend any of their artefacts to anyone who acknowledges that they belong to the British Museum, and who will return them. These are not mere words. Last year the British Museum lent over 5,000 artefacts. There are no black lists of artefacts that cannot be loaned. As today has shown, even the Elgin Marbles are available to museums which abide by the code. Whenever Greece is ready to swallow its pride and play by these rules, they will be there.

Daily Telegraph [6]

Sending Putin the Elgin Marbles is barmy, but it’s what makes Britain great
That a museum is free to flout government policy towards Russia is immensely good news
By Boris Johnson
6:10AM GMT 08 Dec 2014

The other day, I saw at close hand the bravery and professionalism of a Malaysia Airlines cabin crew as they grappled with a passenger who was being, to say the least, exceedingly difficult; and as I observed them – calm, patient, decent – I could not help thinking back five months, to that other Malaysia Airlines crew, aboard an identical airliner and flying a virtually identical route.

The crew of MH17 had no time to show their courage, or to follow the correct procedures. They had only a split-second of horror. You think of the momentary fear of those 298 passengers and crew as the Russian-made Buk missile exploded outside, shredding the fuselage of the plane. You try to imagine what it must have been like as the machine broke up in the air and they made their descent to the fields of wheat, thousands of feet below; and then you recall that in all this time we have still had no word of apology from Vladimir Putin or the Kremlin, for the actions of those Russian-funded and Russian-armed separatists. Not a flicker of contrition has passed across the waxy and impassive features of the Russian leader. All we have had is the insulting suggestion that the missile was actually fired by the Ukrainians, and, indeed, that it was an assassination attempt on Putin himself.

In the face of such brutality and marmoreal indifference, you have to wonder how on earth we can persuade the Russians to accept responsibility; and you have to wonder – or at least I do – whether any of these considerations passed through the heads of the trustees of the British Museum when they agreed to send one of our greatest national treasures outside this country for the first time in two centuries – and to send that priceless artefact, of all possible destinations, to the Russia of Vladimir Putin.

As decisions go, it looks, on the face of it, utterly chaotic. It looks as though the right hand and left hand of government are in complete ignorance of each other’s existence. Russia has invaded and annexed part of the territory of another sovereign European state. Britain and other EU countries have imposed sanctions. There are bans on the export of oil and gas technology. About 130 Russians are on a blacklist, and may not travel to this country. Russia has responded with a ban on foodstuffs from the EU.

As so often, the sanctions are doing neither side much good: the collapse of the oil price is hurting Russia; the collapse of the rouble is hurting some remaining British exports to Russia, for instance luxury cars. People are talking about a new Cold War, but it is all said to be worth it – because we are allegedly “putting pressure” on Putin.

Well, perhaps we are; and we must all hope that there is a sensible solution in the Ukraine. But how exactly does it constitute “putting pressure” on Putin to send him a masterpiece of Phidian sculpture? The British Museum is one of the very greatest in the world (if not the greatest, as I am sure its director, Neil MacGregor, would attest). The Duveen Galleries are the holy of holies, the innermost shrine of that cultural temple; and the river god Ilissus is one of the most fluid and extraordinary pieces of 5th-century Athenian sculpture.

Why send it abroad now? Why to Russia? Why Putin? The French have just decided not to send the Russians the warships they have built for them; and here we are, despatching a portion of the Elgin Marbles. It is hard, on the face of it, to see why there should be one rule for oil and gas companies, which are private businesses, and one for a museum that receives – rightly – substantial support from the taxpayer. If you were Putin, you might feel that this was a decidedly friendly gesture from the British Government – a calculated thawing in relations, an olive branch.

And there, I think, Putin would be completely wrong. I don’t believe for a minute that the Government plotted to send Ilissus to Russia. This is not an act of state; this is not some serpentine piece of British diplomacy, a surreptitious little bit of détente. This is what it looks like – a moderate shambles, in which the trustees of a national museum have taken a decision, at the urging of their flamboyant and enterprising director, which simply does not cohere with British foreign policy. And the decision, therefore, is all the more glorious – and all the more correct.

The idea of sending a piece of the Elgin Marbles to the Hermitage did not need to be cleared by government. The British Museum did not obtain prior government approval – and in that simple fact you have the difference between Britain and so many other countries on earth, and especially Russia. This is not a tyranny. We do not have power located in one place. We have and we protect an idea of cultural, artistic and intellectual freedom – and that is of immense economic value to this country.

We have more live-music venues in London than any other city on earth; we have twice as many theatres as Paris, and we will soon produce more TV and feature films than New York or even Los Angeles. One of the reasons for that global success is that politicians, by and large, do not interfere – except to encourage.

Can you imagine any other country where a national museum could take such a politically charged decision, without government knowledge and acquiescence? Greece? France? Russia? Don’t make me laugh. That is why good old George Clooney is so wrong in his plan to restore the marbles to the “Pantheon”, as he puts it (I think even M Vipsanius Agrippa would have had some trouble with that project, since the Pantheon is the wrong temple, in the wrong city, with the wrong architectural order).

That is why it is entirely fitting that the owl of Pallas should still haunt the squares of Bloomsbury. It is the British Museum’s freedom to loan Ilissus to Russia – even in this wretched period – that shows exactly why the Elgin Marbles belong and shall remain in London.

Daily Telegraph [7]

British Museum: Greece should applaud transfer of Elgin Marble
Director of British Museum defends transfer of sculpture to Russia, claiming it will widen the appeal of ancient Greece
By Victoria Ward
10:06AM GMT 05 Dec 2014

The Greek government should be “delighted” that one of the Elgin Marbles has left London and is on display in Russia, the director of the British Museum has said.

Neil MacGregor said the controversial transfer of the headless statue of Greek river god Ilissos to the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg would only serve to enlighten a nation.

“The Greek government I hope will be delighted,” he said.

“I hope that they will be very pleased that a huge new public can engage with the great achievements of ancient Greece. People who will never be able to come to Athens or London will now, here in Russia, understand something of those great achievements in Greek civilisation.”

But the move is expected to inflame tensions in Greece, where the authorities have been demanding the marbles are returned to Athens for decades.

It is the first time any of the ancient sculptures have left Britain since Lord Elgin took them from the Parthenon in the early 19th century.

Mr MacGregor insisted that they would lend them to any country, including Greece, if their return was guaranteed. But the Greek authorities have always vowed never to give them back if they ever managed to reclaim them.

The unprecedented move comes despite fears of a new Cold War between the Kremlin and the west but Mr MacGregor insisted that the relationship between museums was more important than ever when diplomatic relations were so “bumpy”.

“It is precisely at moments like this that the museums have to keep speaking,” he said.

Asked if the sculpture could be loaned to a Greek museum, Mr MacGregor told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The trustees have always been perfectly clear that they are willing to lend anything in the collection, provided it’s fit to travel and there’s a serious reason, to a place where it could be safe and where it would be returned.

“The Greek government has always refused to borrow, to date, but the trustees’ position is very clear that they will consider any request from anyone who is prepared to return the object.”

Explaining the loan to the Hermitage on his blog, Mr MacGregor said the two museums were “like sisters” having opened their doors just five years apart, in 1759 and 1764 respectively.

He said the British Museum was the most generous lender in the world, having lent more than 5,000 objects worldwide last year, more than any other museum.

“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,” he said.

“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.”Ilissos, found in the Parthenon in Athens Greece nearly 2,500 years ago, has been lent to the St Petersburg museum until mid-January.

The headless marble statue is one of a number of similar items that once decorated the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis and were removed more than two centuries ago by Lord Elgin and are displayed in the British Museum.

But Greece maintains they were taken illegally during the country’s Turkish occupation and should be returned for display in Athens.

It is the first time one of the British Museum’s Parthenon sculptures, which represents about a third of the original decoration of the temple, has left the London institution except in wartime.

The reclining statue will go on public display on Saturday in the world-renowned museum, founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great as part of the European Enlightenment.

Evening Standard [8]

British Museum boss: Loan of Elgin Marbles to Russia ‘shows they are held on behalf of the world’
Updated: 11:44, 05 December 2014

The British Museum today upped the stakes in its claim to be the rightful home for the Elgin Marbles by loaning of one of the sculptures to Russia.

Museum director Neil MacGregor said the decision to allow one of the marbles to go abroad for the first time since they arrived in London nearly 200 years ago showed that its treasures were held on behalf of the entire world.

The Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg had requested the loan to mark its 250th anniversary and in recognition of its strong links to the London institution, which was founded on similar Enlightenment principles only slightly earlier.

Mr MacGregor said: “When the museum says it holds these objects for the world, it means it. The British Museum continues to be the most generous lender in the world. The more people that have a chance to engage with these works the better.”

The loan of a single headless sculpture of the river god Ilissos comes as the Greek government has employed lawyers including Amal Clooney to re-examine the legal case for the return of those works it claims Lord Elgin took illegally when Athens was under Turkish rule.

The Greeks want the marbles reunited in its museum with a view of the Acropolis and the ruined Parthenon temple on which they were first displayed.

Mr MacGregor repeated that those marbles fit to travel could be lent to Greece, as to Russia, if the Greeks agreed to return them afterwards.

But he added its trustees also wanted to acknowledge how generous the Hermitage had been in lending treasures to Britain including art once owned by Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole and works by Malevich.

“Dr [Mikhaile] Piotrovsky, the Hermitage director, has made such a clear statement that as political relations chill, the cultural ones should survive. It is particularly important that when relationships are politically bumpy that museums should go on cooperating,” said Mr MacGregor from St Petersburg this morning.

Leaders from the world’s top museums and culture ministers are attending the Hermitage celebrations this weekend. The statue of Ilissos has been placed amid the Hermitage’s collection of Roman copies, which replaced missing heads and limbs.

It will be on show until January 18 when it will return for a British Museum exhibition on the body in Greek art.