The new Chair of the Trustees of the British Museum, George Osborne, in a recent op-ed piece in The Times headed “It’s right to be proud of the British Museum” has acknowledged that the museum is open to lending its artefacts to “anywhere who can take good care of them and ensure their safe return … including to Greece”. Is this actually a sign of the times? Are the Parthenon Sculptures finally coming back to Greece?
Despite the optimism that has been generated, I am afraid that nothing really has changed, despite the recent goodwill tour by the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, to London and his meeting with Boris Johnson, during which Mitsotakis made a forceful case for the reunification of the sculptures and also offered the tantalising prospect of Greece reciprocating by means of recurring long-term loans of rare Classical Greek artefacts to fill the Duveen Gallery.
The Greek PM was outwardly optimistic in looking at ways to break the age-old cultural deadlock, declaring:
“I am sure that if there was a willingness on the part of the Government to move, we could find an arrangement with the British Museum in terms of us sending abroad cultural treasures on loan which have never left the country … Refusing to discuss the topic seems to me, given the context of everything that has been happening in terms of the return of cultural treasures, to be rather an anachronistic approach.”
Despite this, George Osborne, an erstwhile parliamentary colleague of the British PM, is not about to let the so-called 'Elgin Marbles' leave Bloomsbury and his opinion piece merely reinforces the conservative ‘retain and explain’ policy that has been adopted as a counter to the growing movement for the restitution of looted cultural artefacts.
Why the pessimism?
For a start, in March this year Johnson stated that “the UK government has a firm longstanding position on the sculptures which is that they were legally acquired by Lord Elgin under the appropriate laws of the time and have been legally owned by the British Museum's trustees since their acquisition”. He reaffirmed this in his meeting with Mitsotakis in 10 Downing Street.
At around the same time the current director of the British Museum, Dr Hartwig Fischer, declared that the while the museum does engage in long-term loans there was no such thing as “indefinite loans” and the sculptures will not permanently return to Greece.
The British Museum’s own stated policy on the issue of loans is clear on its website. The Trustees will consider any request for any part of the collection to be borrowed and then returned on the “simple precondition” that the borrowing institution acknowledges the British Museum's ownership of the object.
And the Trustees of the British Museum have in the past dismissed out of hand the idea of lending, let alone transferring, any of the sculptures to Greece.
In 2002, the then Greek Culture Minister, Evangelos Venizelos, met with the chair of the British Museum, Sir John Boyd, to discuss the possibility of sharing collections. The response from Bloomsbury was brutal.
Venizelos was told that there is a “prima facie presumption against the lending of key objects in the Museum’s collection” and in this case the Parthenon sculptures are regarded as being among a “group of key objects, indispensable to the Museum’s essential, universal purpose.”
Boyd added, for good measure, that he could not envisage the circumstances under which the Trustees would regard it as being in the Museum’s interest, or consistent with its duty, to endorse a loan, permanent or temporary, of the Parthenon sculptures in its collections.
George Osborne tries to paint the British Museum as a cultural institution born out of the Enlightenment, and not Empire, and defends the museum’s holdings. In his view, in a “fragmenting society” the British Museum remains one of the very few places on earth where you can see the great civilisations of the world side by side.
And yet there are some uncomfortable truths that the British Museum continues to ignore if it is to shed its reputation as a citadel of colonialism.
Lord Elgin used and abused his diplomatic status position as the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 19th century to oversee the pillaging of the Parthenon and other classical monuments atop the Acropolis.
Less than a century later, British colonial troops in Africa in a brutal punitive expedition sacked the city of Benin and looted thousands of rare artefacts. The Benin Bronzes are a symbol of the greed of empire and a large collection still sits uncomfortably in the Africa gallery of the British Museum.
Nor was it the spirit of the Enlightenment that inspired a British Museum curator, Richard Holmes, who was embedded with the British troops during the Battle of Maqdala in Ethiopia in 1868, to ‘buy’ looted and plundered cultural artefacts, including rare religious icons and manuscripts, from the conquering British soldiers. Those spoils of empire are not even on display in Bloomsbury.
So what kind of loan, if any, does George Osborne really have in mind?
In the British Museum’s website the example given is the notorious temporary loan of the pedimental sculpture of the River God Ilissos to the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg in 2014 which was nothing more than a provocative act by the British Museum to remind the Greeks that it could do whatever it liked regarding the Parthenon Sculptures.
So when you unpack George Osborne’s piece in The Times, what is left?
A simple clue can be found in two social media releases by the UK and Greece following the recent meeting in Athens between the new UK Ambassador to Greece, Matthew Lodge (who incidentally has described Osborne’s article as a “thoughtful piece”) and the Greek Culture Minister, Dr Lina Mendoni, to discuss a number of issues of mutual concern, including the return of the Parthenon Sculptures.
Compare the tweets below issued by the UK Embassy and the Hellenic Ministry of Culture:
As John Cleese (as his alter ego, Basil Fawlty) would say, don’t mention the 'marbles'.
It is the view of many seasoned campaigners that the British Museum has no intention whatsoever of lending the Elgin collection in its entirety to the Greeks, whether on a temporary basis or for eternity. At most, it may offer several pieces by way of a short-term loan on condition that the Greeks expressly acknowledge that legal ownership vests in the British Museum and in the clear knowledge that no Greek government would conceivably make such a concession.
George Osborne himself once joked (in poor taste) that Greece had lost its 'marbles' twice, one being a reference to the country’s parlous economic state during the financial downturn and the other a direct allusion to the desecration of the Acropolis monuments by Elgin.
I therefore remain to be convinced that the British cultural establishment has now had a change of heart.
The issue of the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures should not be the subject of historical revisionism and imperial obfuscation by the British Museum or its new Chairman. It is time that the British Museum adopted a truly enlightened approach to the return of significant cultural treasures that constitute the keys to a country’s ancient history, whether they be from Benin, Maqdala or the Parthenon.
Only then can the British Museum be rightly proud of its achievements.
George Vardas is Co-Vice President, the Australian Parthenon Committee and Co-Founder, The Acropolis Research Group