Why the Ilissos statue loan weakens the British Museum’s case for the Parthenon Sculptures

Why the Ilissos statue loan weakens the British Museum’s case for the Parthenon Sculptures

London, December 6, 2014 /  Independent Balkan News Agency

By Thanasis Gavos

The decision by the trustees of the British Museum to allow the lending of the reclining marble figure of the river God Ilissos to the Hermitage in St Petersburg, the first instance in which part of the Parthenon Sculptures exhibited in London is given as loan, raised a wave of Greek fury. All British commentators admitted this was to be expected.

In taking such a bold and unprecedented decision, the British Museum (essentially its director Neil McGregor) tried to send a statement to multiple recipients. With regard to Greece the Museum basically says “we are the rightful owners of the ‘Elgin Marbles’ so we can use them anyway we see fit.” In selecting Putin’s Russia Mr McGregor attempts the ultimate act of cultural diplomacy; in a period of heightened political tension he and his counterpart at the Hermitage dare to stand up for the things that normally unite rather than divide people and governments.

All would be good and commendable if it wasn’t for a piece of this specific majestic collection of sculptures. It all happens at a time when the UK arrogantly ignores calls by UNESCO to agree to its mediation between London and Athens. Even if the British Museum can afford to say that it is not its fault if Greeks and others consider the Sculptures to belong to Greece, it (and/or the UK Government) should at the very least acknowledge an international organisation that wants to offer its services and try to resolve if not the longest running and deepest cultural dispute in the world then certainly the one with the highest profile. It should at the very least acknowledge the 73% of the British public opinion that support the reunification, according to a 2012 poll.

What has happened has not in the least altered the essence of what should be the main argument for the reunification. The Parthenon Marbles, even the 60% that has survived, as so methodically yet quite irrelevantly Mr McGregor keeps pointing out, should be together as they were supposed to be. It is self-evident that every piece of art has a story to tell. Unfortunately for the British Museum, the story told by the London sculptures is cut short; far from being ‘part of the narration of the global civilisation’ as Mr McGregor claims, it is a story that lacks honesty, decency and meaningfulness – a story with many adjectives but no nouns. The nouns, the basis of the whole story, are and will always be in Athens – they are Athens.

If anything, the loan to Russia will weaken the British Museum’s arguments, not just because it has taken the first step towards letting its ‘marbles’ leave, but mainly because in doing so the way it did, disregarding Greece’s and justice supporters’ objections, it has confirmed its arrogance. Ilissos should be allowed to be carefully flown to other museums, but that should be a decision made by the authorities of the place where it really belongs, not legally but morally, historically and artistically.