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Snatched from northern climes

There is much to be said for moral clarity. Greece is insisting that the British Museum surrender the marble...

There is much to be said for moral clarity. Greece is insisting that the British Museum surrender the marble sculptures that Lord Elgin took down from the Parthenon and carted away in the early 1800s. Anything less,it says,would “condone the snatching of the marbles and the monument’s carving-up 207 years ago.” The Greek demand for ownership will arouse widespread sympathy,even among those who accept the British Museum’s claim to the marbles. With the opening of an impressive new museum in Athens,pictured,the sculptures from the Parthenon now have good cause to be reunited,if only for artistic reasons.

But sometimes clarity is self-defeating. A previous Greek administration was willing to finesse the question of ownership and co-operate with the British Museum over a joint display of the marbles. By hardening its position,the Greek government risks driving museums everywhere into clinging to their possessions for fear of losing them. If the aim is for the greatest number of people to see the greatest number of treasures,a better way must be found.

As curators all over the world will see it,those who call for the permanent return of the Parthenon sculptures from London are arguing for international museums to be emptied. Many other collections have a more dubious provenance than the marbles—think of the British Museum’s Benin bronzes,seized in a punitive raid in Nigeria; of the Pergamon altar removed from Turkey and now in Berlin; of Chinese treasures carried off during the Boxer rebellion and again during the civil war; of hundreds of works in Russian museums that were snatched from their owners in the Bolshevik revolution.

You cannot go very far in righting those wrongs without entangling the world’s museums in a Gordian knot of restitution claims. That is why,in December 2002,18 of the world’s leading directors—from the Louvre to the Hermitage and from the Metropolitan Museum to the Getty Museum—argued for a quid pro quo. The Munich declaration,as it is called,asserts that today’s ethical standards cannot be applied to yesterday’s acquisitions; but in return it acknowledges that encyclopedic museums have a special duty to put world culture on display.

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This has led to a new level of co-operation between museums over training,curating,restoration and loans. Thousands of works are now lent each year between museums on every continent. Who thought that China’s Palace Museum and the National Palace Museum in Taiwan would hold a joint show in Taipei,as they plan to in October,reuniting Qing-dynasty works that have been separated ever since they were borne away from Beijing by the retreating Nationalist forces in 1948? The British Museum was not party to the Munich declaration,but it seems to embrace its spirit. During the Olympic games in China in 2008 it sent the Discobolus,the discus-thrower of Myron,to Shanghai where 5,000 people queued each day to see it. It will soon lend the Rosetta stone,the cornerstone of written language,to Egypt for the opening of the Giza museum. On the day the new Acropolis Museum was opened,the British Museum’s director was in Riyadh,to arrange loans for an exhibition on the haj in London in 2011.

Beware of Greeks causing rifts

The choice is between the free circulation of treasures and a stand-off in which each museum grimly clings to what it claims to own. Instead of grandstanding,the Greek culture minister should call the British Museum’s bluff and ask for a loan. The nervous British would then have to test the waters by,say,sending to Athens a single piece of the Parthenon frieze. If that piece were to be seized,then so be it. But if on the due date,the Greeks surprised everybody and returned the sculpture,then the lending programme would surely be expanded. By taking small steps,the Greeks may yet encourage the British to make the big leap.

© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009

First published on: 29-06-2009 at 03:35 IST
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