December 01, 2014

The Elgin Marbles - A Continuing Controversy: Updated


This situation has happened before. It happened with an Anthony Van Dyck painting which the British own as he was the court painter at that time. To a lesser extent with the "Mona Lisa", and an historical painting of a kangaroo and dingo -  more stories in links below.

Stolen art is quite a different thing than art that is bought and paid for,or even bequeathed.
It's a shame these controversies happen, but  as the narrator in the clip above suggests many art galleries would be empty! 

Thankfully many museums loan their collections out around the world if they are portable.
That way we can all get to see them.

IF he’s a man under pressure he seems blithely unaware of it. At precisely 8.58am on this 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. 
During his 15 years in charge of the National Gallery, Neil MacGregor was nicknamed St Neil by his adoring staff, partly because of his Christian beliefs and partly because he ran that place with a heavenly touch. After 12 years at the helm of the BM the halo is still in place — just.

It’s hard to recall now how dis­united and financially adrift the mighty Bloomsbury institution seemed before MacGregor arrived. He has pulled it around and his own adroit media achievements — notably the marvellous BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects — have given its treasures a much higher profile.

With a new book and another Radio 4 series, he is doing the same thing for the museum’s latest big exhibition: Germany: Memories of a Nation.

Yet in some quarters, particularly around southern Europe, MacGregor is regarded more as devil than saint. He has never wav­ered from his view that the Elgin Marbles (or the Parthenon Sculptures, as the BM officially calls them) should stay in Bloomsbury rather than be returned to Athens, from where they were removed by Lord Elgin between 1801 and 1805.

Now the Greeks are mounting their strongest attack on the BM’s position since the 1970s. 

They have hired a team of media-savvy human rights lawyers, including Geoffrey Robertson and Amal Clooney (wife of George). With a film about wartime art looting to publicise, Clooney himself also joined the attack earlier this year. UNESCO, no less, has now called on Britain to take part in a ­“mediation procedure” with the Greeks to resolve the issue.


Saintly or not, MacGregor visibly bristles at that suggestion. “UNESCO is an intergovernmental organisation but the trustees of the British Museum are not part of the British government,” he says. “The British government does not own the great cultural collections of this country. The pictures in the National Gallery, the objects in the British Museum, are held by the trustees and their duty is to preserve the objects for the study and enjoyment of the whole world. They have a charitable responsibility imposed by law to ensure that those objects give maximum public benefit.”

It’s the belief of MacGregor and his trustees (who, he points out, include “two Nobel prize-winners and distinguished people from all over the world”) that the marbles will give “maximum public benefit” by staying in London rather than going to a new museum in Athens. “From its beginning 250 years ago, the point of the BM was gathering together objects in one place to tell narratives about the world,” he says. “When the Parthenon Sculptures came to London it was the first time that they could be seen at eye-level. They stopped being architectural details in the Parthenon and became sculptures in their own right. They became part of a different story — of what the human body has meant in world culture. In Athens they would be part of an exclusively Athenian story.”

Athenian? “Yes. It’s not even a Greek monument. Many other Greek cities and islands protested bitterly about the money taken from them to build this in Athens.”

Surely one of the strongest Greek arguments is that all the Parthenon Sculptures should be reunited — and the obvious place for that to happen is as close to the Parthenon as possible. “Well, about 30 per cent of the sculptures are in Athens and 30 per cent are here,” MacGregor counters. “You don’t have to be very mathematical to see that quite a lot of them no longer exist. So there’s no possibility of recovering an artistic entity and even less of putting them back in the ruined building from which they came. Indeed, the Greek authorities have continued Lord Elgin’s work of removing sculptures for exactly the same reason: to protect them and to study them.”

Another argument put forward by the Greeks is that the marbles were removed illegally by Elgin. He certainly negotiated with the ruling authorities in Athens, but in the early 19th century that was the Ottoman Empire, not the Greeks. 

“Was the acquisition legal?” MacGregor asks rhetorically before answering himself with a rather optimistic generalisation: “I think everybody would have to agree that it was.”

Isn’t the vital document giving Elgin the right to remove the marbles missing? “You had to surrender the document as you exported,” MacGregor replies, now every inch the tenacious Scottish lawyer he once trained to be. “That’s the point. Everything was done very publicly, very slowly. In 1800 you couldn’t move great slabs of marble quickly. At any point the Ottoman authorities could have stopped it.”

Nevertheless, if artefacts acquired the same way as Elgin acquired the marbles were offered to the BM today, wouldn’t modern ethical guidelines prevent their acceptance? MacGregor refutes even this, pointing to what he considers to be a present-day parallel. “The BM excavates in Sudan today at the invitation of the authorities,” he says. “And the Sudanese authorities allow us to keep some of what we find.”

So for all Mrs Clooney’s entreaties — and the attention she draws — is the BM still determined not even to talk to the Greeks about the future of the marbles? “On the contrary,” MacGregor says. “The trustees have ­always been ready for any discussions. The complication is that the Greek government will not recognise the trustees as the legal owners, so conversations are difficult.”

Then how about lending the marbles (or the parts fit enough to travel) as a temporary exhibition? After all, the BM is (as MacGregor points out) the most generous ­lender of all the world’s great ­museums.

“The Greek authorities are not interested in borrowing them,” he replies. “That’s sad ­because these sculptures do ­belong to everyone. Letting them be seen in different places is important.”

Odd though it now seems, MacGregor was expecting to spend this northern autumn thinking and talking about Germany, not Greece. His book, Germany: Memories of a Nation, was published recently to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, as well as the BM’s exhibition of the same name.

“I couldn’t call it a history of Germany because a history of ­Bavaria would be completely different from a history of Prussia,” MacGregor says.

“So I tried to reflect the fact that 25 years ago this newly reunified Germany brought together people with completely different histories and to ask: ‘What was it that they all shared?’ To put it another way, if you are a young German today, looking back over your shoulder at the past like the Gerhard Richter portrait of his daughter in the ­exhibition, what do you see?”

How do present-day Germans see their own history?

“Very differently from how we see ours,” MacGregor says.

“History for us is about reaffirming national achievement, national destinies. Whereas for Germans history is, in Michael Sturmer’s extraordinary phrase, ‘that which must not be allowed to happen again’. And no other country has explored the painful parts of its history with such rigour and intensity. 

Italy, France and Austria were all ­complicit, to different extents, with the Nazi regime, and none of them has carried out this rigorous examination.”

His book ranges as widely as the exhibition, through five centuries from Luther to reunification and beyond. Indeed, one part of his thesis is that “Germany” has always been an idea rather than a fixed geographical entity. Another is that the names of its cities can simultaneously evoke feelings of historical pride and revulsion in modern-day Germans.

He cites the example of ­Weimar. “It was the city of Goethe, this great cosmopolitan, world-embracing figure — the British Museum in human form, if you like. Then in the early 20th century it was where the Bauhaus school reimagined the world in a completely cosmopolitan, non-national, humane way. Yet it was also the city of the Buchenwald concentration camp. So in that one city you have the best and the worst of a great civilisation. The Germans constantly ask themselves how these things could coexist in their history, and that is admirable.”

Though the Elgin Marbles row may make him seem like one, MacGregor is far from being a conventional member of the British establishment. He accepted his appointment to the Order of Merit in 2010 but declined a knighthood in 1999, the first National Gallery director to do so. When I ask him why, he clams up. “We have a convention in this country that we don’t discuss these things,” he says.

He is no more forthcoming about how much longer he might run the BM. “That’s for the trustees to decide,” he says. “I will say that this is a wonderful place to work: living daily with the greatest objects in the world and looking at them with the world’s greatest scholars.” From the fierce glint in his eye I surmise that he’s not going to quit just yet. And while he stays, so do the marbles.

By Richard Morrison

With thanks to The Australian


British Museum’s secret loan of Parthenon Marbles statue angers Greece

ONE of the British Museum’s much-disputed Parthenon Marbles has been unveiled after being sent in secret to Russia — a surprise move that outraged Greece, which has long demanded the return of the artifacts. 
The loan of the piece, an elegant depiction of the Greek river god Ilissos, was the first time in two centuries that any of the contested sculptures has left Britain — and raised questions of timing amid growing tension between Russia and the West over Ukraine and other disputes.

Greece reacted with fury.

“Greeks identify with our history and culture! Which cannot be sliced up, loaned or given away!” Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras fumed in a sharply worded statement punctuated with exclamation points.

He described the British Museum’s move as a provocation.

The museum announced the loan only after the sculpture — a headless Ilissos reclining amid exquisitely carved drapery evoking river water — had been spirited to Russia’s Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. It will be on display until January 18 as part of a major exhibition to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the museum, Russia’s most renowned.

The sculptures are at the heart of one of the world’s most famous cultural heritage disputes. The marbles graced the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis for more than 2000 years, until they were removed at the beginning of the 19th century by Scottish nobleman Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, when it was fashionable for the aristocracy to collect ancient art.

Greece contends they were looted illegally while the country was under Turkish occupation.
The British Museum has long rejected their return, arguing that the pieces, sometimes known as the Elgin Marbles, can be seen in London by a global audience, free of charge.

In announcing the loan, the museum’s trustees described the sculpture as a “stone ambassador of the Greek golden age,” whose loan should continue despite the tensions between Britain and Russia.

“It is precisely because relations between the countries are difficult that this kind of loan is so important,” British Museum director Neil MacGregor told the BBC. “As we know, relations between Britain and Russia have been bumpy over the last couple of years. But the Hermitage has lent very generously.”

MacGregor added that he hoped the Greek government would be “delighted”.

“I hope that they’ll 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 to London will now here in Russia understand something of the great achievements of Greek civilisation.”

The marble sculpture of the river god Ilissos is unveiled at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The trip to the Hermitage marks the first time any of the sculptures have left the museum since being presented to its trustees by Parliament in 1816, with the exception of their evacuation for safekeeping in wartime. 
  The British Museum has said it will consider any request for any part of the collection to be borrowed with the precondition “that the borrowing institution can guarantee its safe return” — a condition Greece is unlikely to agree to.

Efforts to return the works were recently given a fresh boost by lawyer Amal Clooney, wife of actor George Clooney, who stepped in to back the Greek cause.

Britain’s government played no role in the loan to the Hermitage — the British Museum is independent of the government, a view it has often repeated as Greece sought to have the marbles returned.

The loan highlights a dilemma for Western museums that have substantial holdings of ancient art, which are often at the heart of their collections.

Returning such pieces would encourage other countries to seek the return of their treasures, said Beatrice Heuser, professor of international relations at the University of Reading.

“It would start a merry-go-round,” she said. “Everybody else would start claiming things as well.”

Departure of the marble to Russia also represents a calculated risk for the British Museum, said Keir Giles, a Russia expert and associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank.

Russian President Vladimir Putin may step in and return the sculpture to Greece, should it meet his political goals at the time, Giles said.

“The Hermitage, just like the British Museum, will set itself out as independent entity,” Giles said. “However in Russia, they may be given an offer they can’t refuse.”

The British Museum trustees underscored the connections to a cultural heritage shared by both museums, and the possibility the work could become the centrepiece of cultural diplomacy, despite tensions over Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and support for pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of that country.

While relations between the two nations may be frosty, the warmth between the leaders of the two museums was clear in St. Petersburg.

After a cheerful welcome, MacGregor and Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage, together cut a ribbon to the round hall called the Roman Yard, where the sculpture was placed on a pedestal.

“This display is the highest gesture of trust between the museums,” Piotrovsky said. “It is a symbol of friendship, trust and the significance of cultural ties.

“No political situation should interfere in building bridges between cultures.”

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