The diplomatic fallout between the UK and Greece has made one factor apparent: for the primary time within the long-running dispute over the Parthenon Marbles, Bloomsbury and Westminster appear to be at odds. That they had for thus lengthy been in lockstep, going again to 1983 when Greece made its first diplomatic declare for restitution. They agreed that the marbles had been lawfully acquired, that they have been finest located on the British Museum and that the regulation forbad their return to Greece. Added to this was the acquainted Catch-22: the federal government mentioned it was a matter for the museum whereas the museum mentioned that altering the regulation was as much as the federal government. And so it went… till very just lately.
Spurred on by the surprising openness of its chair, George Osborne, the museum has been in high-level talks with Greek counterparts for the previous two years, in search of an answer to the issue that might work for either side.
It’s now clear how such pragmatism is seen by the UK authorities, which at finest treats it with suspicion. This was evident when the UK’s prime minister, Rishi Sunak, cancelled a gathering along with his Greek counterpart in November on the final minute. It may be seen within the arts minister’s dismissiveness within the Home of Lords in December in direction of any try at putting a deal on the marbles. The standard slogan of “supporting the British Museum trustees” appears to have fallen by the wayside.
This seems to mirror a deeply held perception that any shift in the established order, irrespective of how justifiable, is to not be countenanced. An settlement on the marbles, it’s felt, may tempt international locations all over the place to demand their share of the British Museum, which may ultimately bleed the good museum dry. As Michelle Donelan, the then secretary of state for tradition, put it final 12 months, to return items from museum collections would “open a can of worms” and be a “harmful highway to go down”. Or as the previous prime minister Boris Johnson colourfully put it in March: “Should you give again the Elgin Marbles to Greece then… above all you don’t have any reply within the years forward to the theoretical claims for restitution from Egypt and Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Nigeria—all over the place whose treasures are housed in Bloomsbury.”
‘Theoretical claims’ pose no risk
Is that this a rational place? It above all displays a concern of the unknown. One wonders what menace the prompt “theoretical claims” actually do pose to these within the corridors of energy. Regardless of the metaphor used—can of worms, harmful highway, slippery slope—arguments alongside these strains are virtually all the time fallacious, as they have an inclination to eschew well-established rules of equity, evidence-based reasoning and customary sense.
Within the case of the British Museum, even the numbers don’t maintain up: the museum has eight million assortment objects and, over the previous decade, has obtained fewer than ten restitution requests. The overwhelming majority of the gathering was, in any occasion, legitimately acquired. It boggles the thoughts how striving to acquire a good compromise for comparatively few morally problematic components would put your entire inventory in jeopardy. And, at any given time, the British Museum can solely show round 1% of its assortment at its premises.
Searching for a good decision on the marbles can hardly be mentioned to open the floodgates. To start with, the marbles are as near distinctive a case as potential: it’s troublesome to consider different items as integral to the enduring image of 1 explicit nation’s cultural heritage, and the place a sculptural scheme has been break up in two by the vicissitudes of historical past. Standalone sculptures, particular person work and the panels of altarpieces hardly evaluate. Secondly, any deal negotiated on the marbles can be case-specific, involving a sequence of loans or related transfers that will keep throughout the phrases of the British Museum Act 1963. It might hardly encourage a free-for-all.
And, in any occasion, museums seeking to interact on restitution don’t function in a vacuum. They act in an moral panorama that has developed over the previous technology, one which prompts museums to interact brazenly and pretty with international locations of origin. That is mirrored within the Worldwide Council of Museums (Icom) Code of Ethics and Arts Council England steerage on restitution and repatriation.
An try to interrupt by way of the blockage of the longstanding matter is—and will all the time be—welcome. It deserves all of our assist, even from these on excessive.
• Alexander Herman is director of the UK-based Institute of Artwork and Regulation. He’s the creator of the e-book The Parthenon Marbles Dispute: Heritage, Regulation, Politics (Hart/Bloomsbury, 2023)