Greek anger at the refusal of the British Museum to consider the repatriation of the Parthenon Sculptures has been reignited by the museum’s decision to loan one of the statues to the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.
Specifically the statue of the river-god Ilissos will travel to Russia to be displayed by the Hermitage Museum in an event to celebrate its 250th anniversary. It will be the first time that any part of the sculptures will leave the British Isles since Lord Elgin first transported them from Greece in the 19th century (suffering a shipwreck on the way). The statue will remain in Russia until January.
The news immediately provoked the angry reactions of many in Greece, including the Prime Minister Antonis Samaras who said:
“The decision of the British Museum to ‘loan’ one of the Parthenon sculptures to an exhibition in St Petersburg is provocative for the Greek people. The latest, until today, dogma regarding the ‘immovability’ of the Parthenon Sculptures ceases to apply. Just as with the operation of the Acropolis museum eliminated their other ‘argument’: the absence of a equivalent space that could house them.”
“The Parthenon and its sculptures were subjected to looting. The value of the sculptures is inestimable. We Greeks are one with our history and culture! Which cannot be broken up, cannot be loaned and cannot be relinquished.”
The President of the Acropolis Museum, Dimitris Pantermalis stated that the decision by the British Museum would add weight to the Greek arguments for the marble’s return.
“It appears that the dogma of immovability promoted by the British Museum does not apply. Ultimate care is required in their movement because the weathered, fragile, and the aesthetically exquisite Sculptures require special handling. In the discussion for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures it is self-evident that the argument will be used that since they can go to St Petersburg, they can also come to Athens.”
For his part the Director of the British Museum, Neil Macgregor defended the decision. “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,” he told the Guardian.
While the high profile visit of Amal Clooney to Greece several weeks ago as part of a team of British lawyers advising the Greek government on the repatriation of the marbles propelled the issue to the front pages, far from swaying the British Museum, the added publicity seems only to have bolstered their stubbornness in the face of Greek requests. The decision to send the statue to Russia was reportedly only finalized two weeks ago.
Recently UNESCO submitted a request to the British government that the two sides sit down to talks over the possible repatriation – or some loan agreement – mediated by the international organization. However no response has been forthcoming.
Instead, the British Museum has now decided to lend one of the most spectacular statues to a Russian institution – courting further controversy in wake of Russia’s souring relationship with Europe due to the country's annexation of the Crimean peninsula and its involvement in turmoil in the Ukraine which led to the downing of the Malaysian flight MH17 in July, killing 298.
Macgregor explained to the Times that, "the more chilly the politics between governments, the more important the relationship between museums," which is a position that stands in stark contrast to the British Museum's indifference to the sentiments of the Greek people.