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Neil MacGregor Plays Russian Roulette with the Acropolis Marbles

More on this here.

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, is not a stupid person. So what can he have been thinking when he recently said (as reported by BBC Radio 4) “that he hoped the Greek government would be ‘delighted'” about his institution’s loan to the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, of the River-God Ilissos—a reclining male figure originally from the west pediment of the Parthenon in Athens?

River-God Ilissos, 438–432 B.C., British Museum (originally from west pediment of the Parthenon, Athens)

River-God Ilissos, 438–432 B.C., British Museum (originally from west pediment of the Parthenon, Athens)

In Friday’s radio interview, MacGregor added:

I hope that they [the Greeks] will 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 civilization.

No one in his right mind (and MacGregor is one of the most astute museum directors around) can for a moment believe that the Greek government could possibly be “delighted” that one fragment from the Parthenon has been dispatched to edify the Russians (beginning last Saturday), in celebration of the Hermitage’s 250th anniversary.

This marks the first time that the British Museum has loaned a Parthenon object.The Greeks have long sought the reunification of the so-called Elgin Marbles with their counterparts in Athens, now displayed within sight of the Parthenon in the five-year-old Acropolis Museum, designed by Bernard Tschumi.

View of the Acropolis and Parthenon from within the Acropolis Museum Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

View of the Acropolis and Parthenon from within the Acropolis Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In case there were any doubts that the Greeks would regard this loan as a thumb-in-the-eye, here’s an excerpt from the reaction of Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras:

The decision by the British Museum to give out on loan one of the Parthenon sculptures for exhibit in St Petersburg is an affront to the Greek people.

Much more on Greek officials’ “shock and fury” is reported by Helena Smith in this Guardian article.

The BBC News (and others) also reported that the transfer to the Hermitage was “shrouded in secrecy” and “has raised questions about the statue’s security amidst fractious relations between the UK and Russia.”

Strangely, the sculpture’s presence at the Hermitage is also a secret on that museum’s website, which, at this writing, only says this about its display:

HermElgAnn

The “masterpiece” is not named on the Hermitage website, nor is could I find any image of it.

After Ilissos goes off Russian view on Jan. 18, he will still remain separated from his brethren for at least a while longer. According to the British Museum’s press release about the Hermitage loan, Ilissos “will…be displayed in the British Museum’s major spring exhibition, which will explore the body in ancient Greek art.”

Whatever one believes about whether Lord Elgin was or wasn’t legally authorized to cart off more than half of the Parthenon frieze and other sculptures, there can be no doubt (as I wrote in this 2002 NY Times Op-Ed piece) that this was intended as one work and is best seen as such. As I wrote then (and still believe), the British and Greeks should seek a solution “honoring the museological imperative to put the highest priority on the integrity of the art work.” This means reuniting them in Greece or finding a way to take turns displaying them, reassembled—a daunting, if not impossible, task.

The Parthenon marbles, one of the supreme masterpieces of Western civilization, should be reassembled to the extent possible, not parceled out as diplomatic offerings.

an ArtsJournal blog