The loan of one of the so-called Elgin Marbles by the British Museum to Russia’s State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg raises a number of interesting issues.
Lending one of these disputed artefacts, the headless statue of the Greek river god Ilissos, is very much at odds with the increasing ostracism by the West of Russia over the Ukraine conflict and other East-West disputes. The UK is therefore being more than a little hypocritical in this respect, condemning Russia for its actions on the one hand and yet seeing fit to loan them one of these controversial sculptures.
It should also be noted the loan was only announced after the statue had already been spirited away to Russia.
The return of the sculptures, originally housed in the Parthenon and removed by Lord Elgin in 1801, has been sought by Greeks ever since they won their independence. But one of Britain’s longstanding arguments for keeping the works — that they are too delicate to be moved — has been contradicted by the loan to Russia. Indeed, there is also now a new state-of-the-art museum at the Acropolis designed to display the marbles, instead of replicas. This is in part to undercut the other argument against their return, which was that Greece had polluted air and no facilities to protect them.
It is clearly now time for a measured and rationale debate between the UK and Greek Governments to establish what the future is for these wonderful objects.