Despite all the hue and cry against the recent provocative act of the British Museum in loaning a Parthenon Marble to Russia and the related defiant statements, the British Government has remained relatively quiet and seems to have adopted the usual line that the British Museum is an independent body that takes its own decisions and the Government has no influence over its acts or any responsibility for its acts. Nobody is buying this line which has often been adopted anymore. Some of the grounds for rejecting the usual line are as follows.
a. The British Museum was established by an Act of Parliament, The current law, British Museum Act 1963, can be modified by Parliament if necessary.
b. The British Government appoints the overwhelming majority of the trustees of the British Museum, 19 out of the 25 members.
c. The Parthenon Marbles which were brought to England by Lord Elgin were bought by Parliament in 1816 and then donated to the British Museum and therefore, strictly speaking, it was Parliament and not Elgin that brought the Marbles to the museum.
d. The British Museum receives financial subsidy from public finance and to that extent is subject to Parliamentary control and enjoys charity status. (5)
e. Actions of the British Museum occur in Britain and the British Government has general oversight over what takes place in Britain.
f. The British Museum is subject to British Law and could not have transported the Ilissos sculpture to Russia without government consent.
The British Minister for Culture, Sajid Javid, is reported to have stated that the British Museum was right in sending the Ilissos sculpture to Russia. According to the minister, cultural boycotts do not work and culture is bigger than politics (6)
“Britain is currently leading the way in imposing economic sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine. But that’s not a reason to stop the British Museum loaning part of the Parthenon Sculptures to a museum in St Petersburg. Because culture is bigger than politic.” (6)
We are not sure that one should even bother to comment on statements that are patently wrong. How can anyone assert that culture is bigger than politics, seeing the pervasive influence of political decisions, whether relating to taxes, the conditions and circumstances of cultural activities or war? Cultural boycotts or any other boycotts, will not work if those charged with the implementation of the relevant decisions do not believe in what they are supposed to be doing.
The British Government should at least co-ordinate its policies or at least, the statements of its ministers. Whilst Javid is saying there is no reason not to carry on cultural relations with countries facing sanctions, the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller has declared that British culture should be seen as a commodity, to sell at home and abroad. Should Britain sell a commodity to a country facing sanctions? Can one refuse to sell commodities to persons in a particular State and still dance with them?
The notion of cultural diplomacy that has appeared at several places recently must be examined carefully. Those at the British Museum advancing this argument for the loan to Russia must admit that when it comes to relations with Greece regarding the Parthenon Marbles, the diplomacy of the Bloomsbury museum has failed woefully. Maybe diplomats from the Foreign Office could advise them that diplomacy is a way of solving problems by seeking or providing a solution acceptable to both sides. It does not consist of remaining intransigent and expecting all concessions to come only from the other party whilst your side keeps repeating old slogans. These slogans may earn one praises from a certain press at home, delighted in making easy puns about losing one’s marbles or maintaining them; it may even achieve for some a certain saintly reputation in patriotic circles but that is not diplomacy.
For some hundred years the dispute regarding the Parthenon Marbles has not advanced an inch. All the concessions seem to have been made by only the Greek side with none from the British Museum side. According to Professor Joan Connelly,
“In the past decade or so we have seen a deliberate shift away from the nationalist rhetoric of earlier years, at least on the part of the Greeks, who have now offered reasonable and creative suggestions for overcoming the impasse with the British Museum. In 2002 the then minister of culture, Evangelos Venizelos, visited England with fresh ideas, declaring that “ownership” of the marbles was no longer a key issue. Proposing that the Parthenon sculptures travel back to Athens via a long- term loan agreement Venizelos offered in exchange a never-ending rotation of the very finest antiquities that Greek museums can offer. Accommodating the British insistence on ownership, he even suggested that the gallery in which the Parthenon sculptures would be displayed be called an”Annex of the British Museum”. His innovative and conciliatory offer was rejected out of hand.” (7)
Nor is it the height of cultural diplomacy when one side seems to make a practice of insulting the other to such an extent that one is no more in a position to distinguish plain insults from ordinary nationalistic language. The director of the British Museum has often made statements concerning the Greeks which can only be regretted by diplomats. (8) He has often said that by building the new Acropolis Museum and moving there the Parthenon Marbles; the Greeks were only imitating Lord Elgin, knowing fully well what the name of Elgin stands for in the Greek and other minds. And what about declaring that the location of the Parthenon Marbles was not an issue after the Greeks had built a new museum, partly in response of British argument there was no museum in Athens fit for such precious sculptures? All this does not show the minimum of respect that diplomacy requires.
Whatever the British Museum and the British Government eventually decide to do or not to do, the majority of the peoples of the world, starting with the British people and the majority of States and their leaders, including Putin, have already spoken in favour of the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens. International organizations, such as United Nations, UNESCO, ICOM and others have also called for the return to Athens of the precious sculptures that others in Bloomsbury are beginning to play politics with in a dangerous and reckless manner.
Professor Joan Breton Connelly, who has held posts at All Souls College, .Magdalen College, New College and Corpus Christi College at Oxford University declared in the epilogue to her recent excellent book, The Parthenon Enigma as follows;
“There is not a world leader who fails to stop on the Acropolis for the requisite photo op when visiting Athens. Invariably including a call for the return of the Parthenon sculptures, these appearances have been taking place for years. Jackie Kennedy, wearing pearls and a dress in the brilliant blue of the Greek blue flag, climbed the Acropolis in June 1961 and made the appeal. The Clintons did it in 2002, as did Vladimir Putin shortly thereafter. Even Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, lifted his hands to the sky as he stood before the Parthenon and called for the marbles to be returned. In October 2010, the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, pledged his support for the reunification of the Parthenon sculptures. Standing on the summit, he cited the historical parallel of the Summer Palace in Beijing, which was looted in 1860 under orders from Elgin’s own son, then the high commissioner to China”. (9)
The defiant statements and the outrageous act of the British Museum may of course simply be the desperate acts of an institution short of cash and trying to justify its acts with some semblance of principle. The museum may well loan objects under its control or even sell them as allowed by the rules governing the trustees and we may only know after years. The British Museum has been known to sell for cash the national treasures of Nigeria, the Benin Bronzes. (10). Outright sale may be avoided by long term loans that are renewable. Recently, the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery sold a 4,400 year old statue of an Egyptian scribe named Semkhemka. (11) And as for the 400 Benin Bronzes in the Field Museum, we still do not know their status and whereabouts after the financial troubles of the famous museum in Chicago.
Museums are facing great financial problems and we may experience surprising acts from them. The loan of the Parthenon Marble may be, as the Bloomsbury has advised, only the beginning of a whole series of surprising acts.
The new strategy of the British Museum may in the short run bring cash to Bloomsbury but in the long term will damage its reputation and complicate its relations with other institutions and governments. The policy of dispersal can only work to its disadvantage and must be condemned without hesitation. No court or judicial body will be impressed by the defiant attitude of the British Museum.
For once, the British Government and the British Museum could in this matter listen to the voice of the British people as well as that of the rest of the world, including the opinions of the United Nations and UNESCO as stated in uncountable resolutions.
K. Opoku, 23 December, 2014.