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MacGregor Whopper: Greek Government “Simply Continued Elgin’s Practice”

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum

It was one of those astonishing “did he really say that?” moments.

The speaker was Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, near the end of his riff on why the Elgin Marbles should remain at the British Museum (which he directs). His comments were part of this conversation with Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate. John Wilson was the moderator.

It started out innocently enough:

Wilson: The Greek’s argument has been considerably strengthened in the last
couple of weeks with the opening of the Acropolis Museum. Do you feel
that your case is now fatally weakened?

MacGregor: I don’t
think the existence ot the new museum changes the basic argument at all,
because that’s never been what the argument’s about. The argument is
entirely about the value of having a collection where the world can
look at the whole world. I think there’s never been a moment when
that’s been more important than now. It’s also about the question of
whether you believe in shared human culture—one culture that is
everyone’s inheritance, or whether you want to define that in
particular national terms….Whatever else has happened in the
world, we no longer live in a world of simple national identities and
that is the key civic question that the whole world has to address.

Wilson: So that’s a very elegant way of saying, “They’re not going back to Greece.”

Yes, if that’s how you want to put it. But I want to focus on the fact
that this is a totally normal European phenomenon—for one great museum
to have great objects from other European countries….All these
questions of what should be seen together are solved by
loans—short-term loans. We have been disappointed that we have never
had that conversation with the Greek government….The trustees [of the
British Museum] have made it clear many times that that’s a
conversation they would like to have.

Wilson: Is there any time when you
walk into the Parthenon galleries and have a quiet, niggling feeling
that maybe you shouldn’t have them?

MacGregor: No. The key
question, if you want to take that address, is: Was it proper for them to
be removed from the Parthenon and from Athens? Well, there’s no
question it was legal because you can’t move those things without the
approval of the power of the day. It was clearly allowed, or it it
wouldn’t have happened.

Surely someone powerful must have “allowed” it, but it may not have been strictly “legal” if, as some contend, bribery was involved.

But that was nothing compared to what MacGregor said next:

The Greek government has simply continued
Elgin’s practice [!?!] and removed the rest [of the Parthenon Marbles] now from the building, because you can’t see them on the building. When those sculptures came to London, for the
first time they were at a height where people could see them and they
were in a place where tens, hundreds of thousands of people could see these
were great objects. That’s part of the purpose of a great museum to
enable huge numbers of people to examine closely things that they
wouldn’t otherwise have been able to examine closely.

By that logic, why not dismantle all the important decorations from major architectural monuments, so we can see them better? The Athens marbles were removed from the Parthenon, long before the new museum opened, because they were being seriously damaged by pollution. To state that the Greeks “simply continued Elgin’s practice” is to affront them—an outcome not at all conducive to the amicable conversation about loans that MacGregor says he would like to have.

I’ll soon be publishing readers’ comments about MacGregor’s and Serota’s critique of American museums, which was part of the same conversation at the London School of Economics and Political Science. I’m still open to more comments. (Click the “Contact me” link in the middle column.)

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