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Kwame Opoku: Arrogance, Duplicity and Defiance with No End: British Museum Loans Parthenon Marble to Russia

The arrogance seeping through the statements of the British Museum in connection with its latest act is glaring and unbearable, writes cultural critique Kwame Opoku in reaction to the latest news of the British Museum's loan of the Parthenon Marble to the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

“Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday morning, MacGregor said he hoped the Greek government would be delighted that the sculpture would now be on display to a new audience”. www.theguardian.com 

As if to reinforce its defiance against the will of the British people and the vast majority of States, the UNESCO, United Nations and all those who have urged that the British Museum return the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles to Greece, the venerable museum that is known to hoard thousands of looted artefacts of others, has sent one of the Parthenon Marbles to Russia on loan for an exhibition from 6 December 2014 until 18 January 2015. (1)

The headless statue of a Greek river god will be displayed in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg as part of the celebrations for the institution’s 250th anniversary. Though the Director of the Museum and the Board of Trustees are delighted with the loan, they have not disclosed the terms of the arrangement with Russia.

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, is reported to have told the  The Times:

The politics of both museums have been that the more chilly the politics between governments the more important the relationship between museums.”

This may be the policies of the museums that often pretend not to have anything to do with politics but it seems to us that the British people who have overwhelmingly demanded that the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles be returned to Greece will not be amused by this latest act of defiance by the museum. This comes on the heels of an incredible interview in which the museum director even goes so far as to deny that the Parthenon Marbles are Greek. (2)

In a blog on the British Museum's website, entitled Loan of a Parthenon sculpture to the Hermitage: a marble ambassador of a European ideal MacGregor stated: "The British Museum 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."

Lending a contested object is not a demonstration that the British Museum is a museum of the world for the world. This can at best demonstrate that the museum does not care for the opinion of the British people, the Greek people, the United Nations and all those who seem to support Greece in its efforts to recover the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. The lending is furthermore a demonstration that the old British argument that the Marbles are too fragile to move outside Bloomsbury is gone forever.

There is no objection to cooperation between museums but this type of cooperation should not be encouraged since it is very likely, in the end, to create problems in the relationship of Russia and Greece. We cannot see a Greek minister going now to Russia to participate in the celebrations of the 250th anniversary of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Contested or looted cultural artefacts are clearly not appropriate instruments for cultural diplomacy. They serve at best to complicate situations where there have been more than enough disputes of long-standing.

MacGregor who is known for incredible and provocative statements is reported to have said that he hoped the Greek Government will be delighted by his latest action of defiance:

"I hope that they 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 London will now, here in Russia, understand something of those great achievements in Greek civilisation."

As we have often written these acts of provocation and insults to the Greeks may be part of a strategy to prevent Britain and Greece from sitting together at a table to solve the issues concerning the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. One side insults the other party to such an extent that the two cannot stand one another.

It is not by accident that this provocative act comes at a time when there is much discussion on taking legal proceedings on the matter. This latest act will surely inflame the Greeks and their supporters.

It is also noteworthy that the British Museum is loaning a contested cultural object to a country against which the European Union of which Britain is still a member has enacted sanctions against Russia. Questions are likely to arise as to whether decisions of the EU bind cultural institutions in member States. Can the British Museum loan cultural objects, as part of regular business to a country against which the British Government has enacted sanctions? Is the museum allowed to carry on parallel diplomacy with institutions in States sanctioned? Who leads the country in such matters? The Government or the museum?

The implications of the provocative act of the British Museum and the affront to the Greek people may be more than the museum officials realize. They may have to bring their action in line with the policy of the Government. One institution cannot be dancing with a foreign partner whilst the other practices economic sanctions.

The arrogance seeping through the statements of the British Museum in connection with its latest act is glaring and unbearable. The museum arrogates to itself the right and duty to control the narrative of Greek history and culture. It is sending the headless sculpture to enlighten Russians about the glory and grandeur of ancient Greece. The British Museum determines which Greek sculptures are appropriate to fulfil this duty of enlightenment and has even appointed ambassadors to do this. The sculpture of Ilissos is designated “ stone ambassador of the Greek golden age.”.

Taking control of the narrative of the history and culture of the Greeks is surely the worst form of cultural imperialism. The museum withholds Greek artefacts and states it will explain Greek culture to other nations. What are the Greeks to do when someone else has seized their magnificent cultural artefacts and using that as instruments of didactic history and culture? May Zeus and all the gods of ancient Greece protect Greece from this form of imperialism.

Whilst professing to be ready and willing to discuss issues relating to the Parthenon /Elgin Marbles with the Greeks, the British Museum was busy at the same time negotiating or finalizing negotiations with the loan of the Ilissos sculpture and its secret transport to St. Petersburg. When the whole deal was revealed, the Museum still unashamedly states it has always been willing to discuss the matter with Greece.

This latest act of affront and provocation shows clearly the museum‘s stand on resolving longstanding disputes on cultural property and appears to be very proud of it.

O what a glorious deed in Bloomsbury!

Kwame Opoku, 6 December, 2014.


1. The Times, Elgin Marbles moved out of Britain for first time


The Elgin Marbles leave Britain for first time - Telegraph


Why are the Elgin Marbles going to Russia? They belong to GreeceSpectator.co.uk

Elgin Marbles: British Museum loans statue to Russia

BBC News

Elgin Marbles: British Museum loans statue of god Ilissos to ...


Parthenon marbles loaned to Russian museum | Art and...


2. K. Opoku, “British Museum Director Defends Once More Retention of Parthenon Marbles”, http://www.modernghana.com/news/580881/1/british-museum-director-defends-once-more-retentio.html

In view of the following letter of Mr. R. Adair a Senior Official in the British Embassy to Turkey to Lord Elgin, the legal argument based of permission from the Ottoman authorities to take the Parthenon Marbles can no longer be sustained:

My Lord

In answer to your Lordship's enquiry respecting the marbles collected by your Lordship at Athens, and for leave to transmit which to this country I was directed by the Secretary of State for foreign affairs to apply to the Turkish government, I have to inform your Lordship that Mr Pisani more than once assured me that the Porte absolutely denied your having any property in those marbles. By this expression I understood the Porte to mean that the persons who had sold the marbles to your Lordship had no right so to dispose of them.

At the same time I beg leave to add that this communication was not made to me in any formal conference with the Turkish ministers.

I have the honour to be, my Lord,
your Lordship's most obedient and humble servant
R. Adair.

Elginism: http://www.elginism.com /elgin-marbles/people-really-think-elgins-removal-marbles-legal/20141203/7601/ 

Picture: Headless statue of the Greek river god Ilissos, Athens, Greece, taken to British Museum, London, now on loan to Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

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