When the British Museum declined to engage in UNESCO initiated mediation on the Parthenon Marbles Chairman of the British Museum Board of Trustees, Sir Richard Lambert, responded to UNESCO on behalf of the Trustees. His letter was also translated into Greek and is available here.
Sir Richard’s letter is interesting not only because of its revisionist position but also because it reflects the simple fact the British Museum cannot keep pace with its own contradictory statements. It seems to be rushing to present new justifications for retention of the Parthenon Marbles in the face of the strengthening global movement calling for their return. IN doing this it is exposing the contradictions in its position.
Sir Richard’s begins by reiterating the usual willfully ambiguous insistence that the Parthenon Marbles are not owned by the British Government. This is an often repeated deception and draws attention from the Museum’s true status which is of an institution governed by the British Museum Act 1963 and subject to change at the decision of Parliament. Perhaps ownership of the Parthenon marbles is not technically with the government at present but it certainly could be with a simple amendment to the Act. In reality the care of the Marbles is vested in the British Museum’s Board of trustees.
I make this point only to highlight the ongoing obfuscation employed by the British Museum.
Inalienable or not?
Sir Richard also informs UNESCO that the Trustees have a legal and moral responsibility to preserve and maintain all the collections in their care, to treat them as inalienable and to make them accessible to world audiences.
An interesting point that is contradicted in the next paragraph when he writes “In pursuit of this aim, the Trustees would want to develop existing good relations with colleagues and institutions in Greece, and to explore collaborative ventures, not on a government-to-government basis but directly between institutions.”
A puzzling statement. One is left wondering if they are indeed inalienable. Actually the question has already been answered. as in January 2015 the statue of the river-god Ilissos was loaned by the British Museum to the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.
Clearly the collection in the Parthenon Sculptures gallery is not inalienable. Another set of values now operate.
Defining Beauty, the Body in Ancient Greek Art exposes a contradiction
Sir Richard’s letter seems to have been strategically timed to coincide with the opening of the British Museum’s exhibition Defining Beauty, the Body in Ancient Greek Art. This exhibition, we are told was Focusing on the human body and allowing visitors to experience the brilliance and diversity of ancient Greek art.
Whatever the advertising spin generated for the exhibition its clear intention was making a physical statement, an affirmation of the Museum’s new ideology that it is a universal museum.
In making this ideological statement the British Museum merely emphasised its abandonment of a fundamental principle of inalienability. This principle is clearly stated on its website where it insists that:
it will be interesting to see how long this statement remains on the website.
This new policy, and the allied set of excuses for not returning the Parthenon Marbles, has its place in a litany of changing perspectives and justifications offered by the British Museum.