The British Museum and the so-called Elgin Marbles have been in the news yet again. Rather than just another twist on what must surely be the most high-profile contemporary cultural debate, the latest furore arose from something altogether different, and quite unexpected. Shortly after midnight on 5 December it was announced that one of the sculptures, Ilissos, from the west pediment of the Parthenon had been secretly removed from the Duveen Gallery in the British Museum and flown to St Petersburg. Here, it was put on temporary display in the Hermitage to mark that institution’s 250th anniversary. Surely no one can claim to be surprised by the outrage that followed. What made this act so provocative, however, was the secrecy with which it was carried out and the deceit with which it was justified. Personally, I believe expressions of outrage are no longer sufficient.
Over the last week or so I have been working on a major project for Archaeology Travel. As I was determined to reach a certain point by Thursday, I had decided I would get to my goal no matter what the time. I eventually crawled into bed just after 2 am, while the news was being read on the BBC World Service. As I was not paying that much attention to the radio, I did not really grasp the item about the Ilissos sculpture. A quick Google search on my trusty Samsung Galaxy revealed the details. There was the tweet from the British Museum at 00:18, and various news websites carrying what had obviously been an embargoed news report. I posted an article from the ITV website on the Archaeology Travel Facebook page, and tried to get to sleep.
Given my academic background as well as my involvement in the campaign for the reunification of the Parthenon sculptures, obviously I then followed the reaction to the secret loan of Ilissos to the Hermitage, and the ensuing discussion. The immediate reaction was understandably predictable, although I dare say some pro-returners would have liked the Greek Première’s response to be stronger, it was strong but measured. Equally predictable, were the discussions in various newspaper articles, comments on these, comments in various social media groups and networks. Predictable because there is in fact nothing new to say on whether the Elgin Marbles should be returned to Athens or not. No smoking gun, in this case it would be a hitherto unseen historical document, has come to light.
Rather, the debate is becoming quite tedious, not least because both sides continue to state their respective positions with inaccurate and irrelevant points. Consequently I find that I have some sympathy for Mary Beard and how she felt that the Elgin Marbles nearly ruined her day (this was in a post on her then TLS blog ‘A Don’s Life’ – now removed from the archive). I was hoping to make progress on the latest guide for this website. Instead I allowed myself to be drawn into futile discussions that have been going back and forth for decades. I say only ‘some’ sympathy because Mary Beard’s blog post on the matter was for me one of the more disappointing interventions of the last few days.
Mary Beard has made no secret of her position on the repatriation of the Elgin Marbles, she explicitly states she is ‘sitting on the fence’ – and has done so for some time (another piece removed from her TLS blog). Although it intrigues me that someone can sit on the fence while claiming to be “wickedly subversive”, particularly on an issue as prominent as this – and when the subject matter in question falls into that person’s area of expertise, any fence sitting by academics is in my opinion wholly irresponsible. Be that as it may, this fence-sitting is less innocent than Mary Beard would have us believe. Perhaps ‘quietly establishment’ is more apt.
The expressions of outrage have ranged from the secret loan to Russia being an act of provocation, an insult to the people of Greece, to the duplicitous act of an arrogant and duplicitous museum director. All the while many of these are wrapped up in the issue of ownership. Somewhat ironically, Mary Beard implies that anyone questioning the secret loan is searching for Machiavellian schemes. The Italian Renaissance diplomat aside, if this loan is such a good thing for all concerned, the UK, Russia and Greece, that it is a gesture the British Museum should be proud of given the opportunities and symbolism it represents, why the unprecedented secrecy? Why was this secret loan not announced as any other loan for a temporary exhibition would be?
Clearly, going by everything I have read, no one buys that the secrecy was necessary for security reasons. After all, the sculptures are not heavily guarded in the Duveen Gallery. Rather, I suggest, the secrecy was required because the justification for the loan is based on a deceit, a deception created by Neil MacGregor, not the Board of Trustees today or in the past (although today they are used to preach that deceit – most shamefully seen in Bonnie Greer’s defence of the British Museum’s position). And it is this deception that has long been used to justify why the Elgin Marbles, and many other contested objects in the British Museum’s care, will not be returned to where they should be.
The Deceit of the Universal Museum
“The British Museum,” its Director tells us in a blog post on the museum’s website announcing the secret loan, “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.”
This ‘museum of the World, for the World’ phrase is the mantra of the Universal Museum. The term ‘universal museum’ was first used by David Wilson, the British Museum’s previous Director, in 1989 to justify why his institution would not return the Elgin Marbles. Wilson’s successor, Neil MacGregor, has subsequently developed the term considerably, and in 2002 got a very select group of western Museums to sign up to his “Declaration on the Value and Importance of Universal Museum”. Even though the idea of a Universal Museum is so widely discredited (for an excellent overview and recent insights, see Alexandra Rowson’s dissertation on the topic), it is still used to justify why certain objects in the British Museum should not be returned. And here is a typical example, the opening lines of the position of the Trustees of the British Museum on the Parthenon Sculptures:
The British Museum tells the story of cultural achievement throughout the world, from the dawn of human history over two million years ago, until the present day. The Parthenon Sculptures are a significant part of that story.
The first problem with this statement is that there is a single “story of cultural achievement throughout the world”, from earliest times to the present. I really am sorry, this is just neo-colonial nonsense. No one today, with any credibility, would suggest a single story to account for humanity’s past. But the British Museum needs us to believe that there is such a story, so that we will listen when they tell it.
Put aside whether you agree that such a story exists or not, what is beyond doubt is why the Parthenon sculptures feature in the British Museum’s story. These objects only feature in the Museum’s narrative because they are in the museum’s collection. Had Elgin not been forced to give up the marbles due to financial difficulties, they may very well have not ended up in the British Museum at all. These sculptures were never intended to be in the British Museum. So to suggest they are a “significant part” of some story is at best disingenuous. The Parthenon Sculptures are no more significant to our understanding of the World’s pasts than any other ancient object is – and that is not to undermine the genuine significance of the Parthenon sculptures – in Athens! MacGregor simply asserts their significance in his story as a justification for keeping them in London.
The same can also be said of a number of other objects in the British Museum. The Benin Bronzes, for example, were looted by the British during a military raid on the Royal Palace of Benin. The raid came about because the King of Benin would not give the British access to the palm oil trade. And a letter in the archives explicitly states that the army would loot the palace of its artefacts to defray the costs of the raid. That these objects now feature in the British Museum’s fictional narrative about human history is a consequence of very specific historical events, nothing else. Had there been no raid on the royal palace in Benin, these objects may would still be in Benin and some other object would be assigned to the position they now hold ignominiously.
Contrary to MacGregor’s assertion, there is no intrinsic significance to the Ilissos statue that makes it an appropriate object to lend in secret to mark the anniversary of the Hermitage. Any of the objects in the British Museum’s collection would have been as appropriate as each other. That Ilissos was chosen, one of a series of the most contested cultural artefacts in the World, demonstrates one thing, this was a wilfully provocative act: these are my objects and I will do what I like with them.
The deceit does not end here. Neil MacGregor’s blog post continues:
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 following quote from the Trustees of the British Museum in 1755, setting out the mission of the the museum if you like, provides a different perspective about the museum and who it was intended for:
In Order to prevent as much as possible persons of Mean & low degree & rude or ill behaviour from intruding on such who were designed to have free Access to the Repository Viz. for the Sake of Learning or Curiosity tending to the Advancement & Improvement of Natural Philosophy & other Branches of Speculative knowledge & in Order to render the said Repository of such Use to the Publick as by the Act for that purpose was meant & Intended. That no person or persons whatsoever be admitted to inspect or View the Collections but by a proper Authority from the Trustees or one of them, or by their Order in General Meeting made for that purpose & under & Conformable to the further Rules hereafter mentioned.
Contrary to what MacGregor says, when established the British Museum was not freely accessible for all citizens of Great Britain, let alone ‘studious or curious people everywhere’. To suggest otherwise is not just factually incorrect, it is in the context of this debate underhanded.
Historical Facts or Interpretation?
Despite the decades this debate has been raging, there is still so much that is factually incorrect in the arguments from both sides. At different stages in the debate’s history different points have received more prominence. For various reasons, attention these days is on whether or not Elgin had permission to remove the sculptures. The British Museum claims Elgin had the necessary permission to remove the sculptures, others say he had permission to study the sculptures but not to remove them, and that in doing so he looted the Acropolis. What is worrying about both sides is the certainty with which they state their interpretations of the now distant chain of events.
Archaeologists and historians quibble over the daily details of every single day of the last two million years of humanity’s history – often where the evidence is much stronger than the records we have for Elgin on the Acropolis. This is what we do, it is what we are trained to do, very simplistically – to take the meagre evidence left to us and re-construct what might have happened. And yet, the main protagonists in this debate talk of “known facts”. Clearly, the wrong people are teaching archaeology and history at schools and universities around the World.
If only there were a few ‘known facts’, the issue might have been resolved some time ago. What we have are interpretations of documents that do not tell the whole story. This leads to endless discussions about ownership that are obviously getting nowhere. It is highly unlikely that the issue of ownership will ever be resolved to the point that the sculptures are immediately returned to Athens. We just do not have the records to be able to make such a definitive statement. And while the two sides argue over details in a pointless discussion, the real opportunities for the return of the marbles have been lost, on more than one occasion.
Back in 2000 George Papandreou appreciated this point when he spoke before the British Parliamentary select committee.
Who owns the sculptures is unimportant; what matters is where they are and how we write their history for the future.
That sentiment is as true now as it was in 2000, when Papandreou was seeking the return of the Elgin Marbles in time for the Olympic Games in Athens, 2004. Whatever the past, there is no longer any justification for the continued separation of these fine objects. How can anyone look at the photograph below and argue otherwise? Here, attached to one of the blocks of the Parthenon frieze in the Acropolis Museum in Athens is the plaster cast of a torso and head that is in London. There is no justification today for the continued separation.
There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience. It supercedes all other courts.
Who knows whether the secret loan to the Hermitage will have any substantive impact, one way or another. Some commentators have suggested the incident advances the case for the return of the marbles, others say not. As is clear above, I doubt it will – it does not add any definitive point to the debate. I agree with the many commentators who have said that the act was at least insensitive, at worst arrogant. Our best hope for the return of the marbles, certainly the one I cling to, is that something will come from the efforts of Amal Ramzi Alamuddin and the legal team she is a part of that are advising the Greek Government on their course of action. To the best of my knowledge, there has been no statement in the last few days from Amal Ramzi Alamuddin, or her husband George Clooney.
Whatever, I am not holding my breath. As provocative as the act is, it does seem to have been just that. And I am not going to simply express my outrage and let that stand while the dust settles; as so often happens when the Elgin Marbles hit the news. Rather, I am using what little influence this website has to take a stand against the British Museum, and the increasingly distasteful way in which the Director of that institution plays the cultural god on the World stage with certain objects.
Until there is definitive news that the Elgin Marbles are to be returned to Athens, Archaeology Travel will no longer promote the British Museum and its activities. In fact, over the next few weeks I will publish a series of posts actively drawing attention to other archaeology museums in London. Some of which are woefully overlooked by visitors to the city as it is.
There have been calls for an outright boycott of the British Museum for decades. And I can certainly understand why some feel very strongly that this is what should be done now. Unfortunately perhaps – because boycotts can be effective, no one really believes such an action would work – not least because the British Museum has far too many important objects and artefacts from around the World (some of which also have an unethical acquisition story) that people want to see when they visit London. And the British Museum knows this. They really do have nothing to fear, sadly. And it is for this reason I will be actively suggesting and recommending the other, under-rated cultural institutions in London to the many people who come to this website for information about what there is to see in London. Many of these have collections that rival those of the British Museum.
Some of you reading this will feel as uneasy as others by this situation, but still have a desire to go and see some of the fantastic objects in the collection. One way of dealing with this dilemma is to go, but not to donate any money (entry is free, but a donation is requested), not to buy anything, and not to publicise your visit on social media. Also consider this, the British Museum uses the fact that people still go to the museum to see the Elgin Marbles in the Duveen Gallery as a vote in their favour.
Of course, I am not that naive so as to believe that my removing the British Museum from the Archaeology Travel map will get the Elgin Marbles on the next ‘plane, ship or truck to Athens. But, as a result of this shameless act of provocation, an act that I believe has plumbed a new low in this ongoing battle, and which according to recent reports is not going to be the last, I can no longer in all conscience promote the British Museum to my readers. Perhaps Archaeology Travel is just a small website – easily swiped aside, but it is an expanding resource that is growing in popularity. And if I can use it to make only a few more people aware of the issues behind some of the collections in our museums around the World, then I will have achieved what I set to.