Opinion: The defiant tactics of the British Museum

By Kwame Opoku | Tue 23 December 2014

Kwaku Opuko explains how the wilful dispersal of disputed cultural objects in museums have become used as a defence strategy against repatriation.

Those who have followed the discussions on restitution of cultural artefacts in the last few years would know that the British Museum and its director, Neil MacGregor and his supporters have never been short of inventing new theories and explanations for the retention of the cultural artefacts of others by the so-called great museums.

The basic position of the rich museums was stated in the infamous Declaration of the Importance and Value of the Universal Museums (2002) by which the rich and powerful museums declared that the cultural artefacts of others that are in their great museums, however acquired, now belong to them. That notorious declaration was not effective in discouraging claims from the deprived countries. Italy soon obliged many American institutions to return looted artefacts.

And Greece, against which the declaration was primarily directed, never for a second relented in its long struggle to recover the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum. Nigerians continued to press for the return of the looted Benin Bronzes.

A theory of traveling exhibitions was tentatively advanced by the British Museum by which those contested artefacts would be sent on travels to various countries and return to where they started. Nobody seems to have been impressed by the travel exhibitions idea or considered it as a solution to the persistent demands for restitution.

The Parthenon Marbles are usually at the source of any new theory or practice advanced by the British Museum. Just as the Parthenon Marbles were the motivation for the infamous Declaration in 2002, so are they at the source of the practice or threat of practice by the venerable museum to loan more Parthenon Marbles. This new threat as well as the loan to Russia has come just as the attempt by Greece to recover the Parthenon Marbles is gaining more support and the possibility of legal proceedings is being discussed more often in the media in more realistic terms.

After the almost universal condemnation of the British Museum’s lending of the Ilissos Parthenon Marble to Russia, typical of the arrogance of the museum, instead of being repentant or at least trying to cool tempers, including the Greek people and Government, outraged by this illegitimate loan of a contested cultural object, the unrepentant museum has announced proudly and defiantly that this is only the beginning of a series of loans that are being discussed:
The director of the British Museum has said it is already in talks to loan more Elgin Marbles to foreign museums….

“A number of other people, other institutions abroad have suggested that they are very interested [in borrowing Marbles],” said Mr. MacGregor. “A couple of other conversations are in train.” (1)

Lee Rosenbaum has suggested that the British Museum may be banking on loans of Parthenon Marbles to help in any future proceedings although Rosenbaum herself doubts whether any judicial body would be impressed by the fact that the museum has lent the Marbles to others.

“MacGregor may be trying to bolster one of his institution’s chief arguments for retaining possession of Lord Elgin‘s bounty (or booty, as some believe): More people view these cultural treasures in London than in Athens. And now, with the incipient loan program, the British Museum’s reach could be further broadened. Therefore, the world is better off if custodianship of these treasures remains in London.

Taking that irrelevant argument to its illogical conclusion: All small museums should relinquish their greatest treasures to major institutions, so they will be seen by more people.

Somehow, I don’t think that line of reasoning would hold up in court.” (2)

My own impression is that the British Museum, desperate in view of the overwhelming support for Greece, including the massive support from the British people as demonstrated in all opinion polls on the Parthenon Marbles in the last ten years, is now reckless and willing to try all kinds of tactics. Whether the board of trustees is behind such irresponsible behaviour is hard to determine. But we can assume that the director of the museum would not undertake such outrageous adventures without consulting the board of trustees that MacGregor proudly presents as containing two Nobel Prize-winners. (3)

The objective of the new threat of more loans may well be to spread the Parthenon Marbles as far and widely as possible to several countries and museums, possibly over more than two continents (Australia, Asia and America perhaps) so that when the continuing discussions of legal proceedings materialize, it would no longer be the British Museum against Greece but Greece against several other countries. Greece would then appear to be one country that wants to have alone what has been proclaimed as belonging to humanity and has been generously and widely distributed by the great ‘universal museum” in Bloomsbury. Public opinion may be wavering in its hitherto solid support of Greece. A whole generation of people may have grown up, less critical than their predecessors and easily persuaded by the internet that it does not matter where Greek Parthenon sculptures are located. What matters is that we all have access, virtual or real, to these artefacts of human culture. If this is what people are thinking in Bloomsbury, I believe they may be in for a rude awakening.

The legal proceedings may come much earlier than is assumed in one form or another and the uncooperative attitude of the museum would not create a good impression. Recklessly dispersing contested objects obviously in view of impending legal proceedings can only create a negative impact on any well-trained jurist.

The resolutions of the United Nations, UNESCO and recommendations by ICOM and International Conferences on the Parthenon Marbles are not likely to be forgotten so soon or put aside as would want those who have little regard for international opinion but often pretend to speak or act on behalf of the international community when it suits them.

It may be noticed that the British Museum has always preached, and still, propounds the idea of “universal museum”. But in the loan to Russia, the museum becomes British nationalist. The museum is now allegedly concerned by the deteriorating relations between Britain and Russia. The museum acts in accordance with what it thinks is in the interest of Britain and ignores the interest of Greece in keeping the sculptures where they are pending return to Athens. Can or should a “universal museum” take into account the interest of one State and ignore the interests of the majority of States? At this point, it becomes clear the Neil MacGregor’s championing of the “universal museum” is a smokescreen. When he thinks British interest requires, he is prepared to abandon the theory for outrageous acts as recently demonstrated by the loan of the Ilissos to Russia.

Michel Daley has described the action of the museum as dereliction of duty by the trustees; Positively embracing risk by placing the sculpture successively on…can only be seen as a failure of imagination and a dereliction of duties on the part of the museum’s trustees. (4)

The new tactics of the British Museum would only create chaos in the cultural world if, by chance, it became a pattern for others. Anytime an institution is faced by a demand for restitution of cultural objects, all it needs to do would be to distribute by loan or sale the objects to other institutions. In the process of distribution or loaning, institutions will be set against one another and confused antagonistic relations will ensue also between nations and museums. The naïve belief of the museum conducting diplomacy can only hurt museums and the cultural world.

What may be useful at this juncture would be to secure a resolution or decision from international organizations such as UNESCO, United Nations, ICOM and others, condemning the incipient practice of wilful dispersal of contested cultural artefacts and to issue a warning to all institutions of the possible consequences of such wilful acts. Thus potential partners of museums involved in such activities will be put on notice that they may be held accountable for any loss or damage occurring to the cultural artefacts that may have been loaned to them in this practice of dispersal.

Parthenon Marbles, Athens, Greece, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom

The role of parliament in maintaining injustice

Despite all the hue and cry against the recent provocative act of the British Museum in loaning a Parthenon Marble to Russia and the related defiant statements, the British Government has remained relatively quiet and seems to have adopted the usual line that the British Museum is an independent body that takes its own decisions and the Government has no influence over its acts or any responsibility for its acts. Nobody is buying this line which has often been adopted anymore. Some of the grounds for rejecting the usual line are as follows.

a. The British Museum was established by an Act of Parliament, The current law, British Museum Act 1963, can be modified by Parliament if necessary.

b. The British Government appoints the overwhelming majority of the trustees of the British Museum, 19 out of the 25 members.

c. The Parthenon Marbles which were brought to England by Lord Elgin were bought by Parliament in 1816 and then donated to the British Museum and therefore, strictly speaking, it was Parliament and not Elgin that brought the Marbles to the museum.

d. The British Museum receives financial subsidy from public finance and to that extent is subject to Parliamentary control and enjoys charity status. (5)

e. Actions of the British Museum occur in Britain and the British Government has general oversight over what takes place in Britain.

f. The British Museum is subject to British Law and could not have transported the Ilissos sculpture to Russia without government consent.

The British Minister for Culture, Sajid Javid, is reported to have stated that the British Museum was right in sending the Ilissos sculpture to Russia. According to the minister, cultural boycotts do not work and culture is bigger than politics (6)

“Britain is currently leading the way in imposing economic sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine. But that’s not a reason to stop the British Museum loaning part of the Parthenon Sculptures to a museum in St Petersburg. Because culture is bigger than politic.” (6)

We are not sure that one should even bother to comment on statements that are patently wrong. How can anyone assert that culture is bigger than politics, seeing the pervasive influence of political decisions, whether relating to taxes, the conditions and circumstances of cultural activities or war? Cultural boycotts or any other boycotts, will not work if those charged with the implementation of the relevant decisions do not believe in what they are supposed to be doing.

The British Government should at least co-ordinate its policies or at least, the statements of its ministers. Whilst Javid is saying there is no reason not to carry on cultural relations with countries facing sanctions, the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller has declared that British culture should be seen as a commodity, to sell at home and abroad. Should Britain sell a commodity to a country facing sanctions? Can one refuse to sell commodities to persons in a particular State and still dance with them?

The notion of cultural diplomacy that has appeared at several places recently must be examined carefully. Those at the British Museum advancing this argument for the loan to Russia must admit that when it comes to relations with Greece regarding the Parthenon Marbles, the diplomacy of the Bloomsbury museum has failed woefully. Maybe diplomats from the Foreign Office could advise them that diplomacy is a way of solving problems by seeking or providing a solution acceptable to both sides. It does not consist of remaining intransigent and expecting all concessions to come only from the other party whilst your side keeps repeating old slogans. These slogans may earn one praises from a certain press at home, delighted in making easy puns about losing one’s marbles or maintaining them; it may even achieve for some a certain saintly reputation in patriotic circles but that is not diplomacy.

For some hundred years the dispute regarding the Parthenon Marbles has not advanced an inch. All the concessions seem to have been made by only the Greek side with none from the British Museum side. According to Professor Joan Connelly,

“In the past decade or so we have seen a deliberate shift away from the nationalist rhetoric of earlier years, at least on the part of the Greeks, who have now offered reasonable and creative suggestions for overcoming the impasse with the British Museum. In 2002 the then minister of culture, Evangelos Venizelos, visited England with fresh ideas, declaring that “ownership” of the marbles was no longer a key issue. Proposing that the Parthenon sculptures travel back to Athens via a long- term loan agreement Venizelos offered in exchange a never-ending rotation of the very finest antiquities that Greek museums can offer. Accommodating the British insistence on ownership, he even suggested that the gallery in which the Parthenon sculptures would be displayed be called an”Annex of the British Museum”. His innovative and conciliatory offer was rejected out of hand.” (7)

Nor is it the height of cultural diplomacy when one side seems to make a practice of insulting the other to such an extent that one is no more in a position to distinguish plain insults from ordinary nationalistic language. The director of the British Museum has often made statements concerning the Greeks which can only be regretted by diplomats. (8) He has often said that by building the new Acropolis Museum and moving there the Parthenon Marbles; the Greeks were only imitating Lord Elgin, knowing fully well what the name of Elgin stands for in the Greek and other minds. And what about declaring that the location of the Parthenon Marbles was not an issue after the Greeks had built a new museum, partly in response of British argument there was no museum in Athens fit for such precious sculptures? All this does not show the minimum of respect that diplomacy requires.

Whatever the British Museum and the British Government eventually decide to do or not to do, the majority of the peoples of the world, starting with the British people and the majority of States and their leaders, including Putin, have already spoken in favour of the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens. International organizations, such as United Nations, UNESCO, ICOM and others have also called for the return to Athens of the precious sculptures that others in Bloomsbury are beginning to play politics with in a dangerous and reckless manner.

Professor Joan Breton Connelly, who has held posts at All Souls College, .Magdalen College, New College and Corpus Christi College at Oxford University declared in the epilogue to her recent excellent book, The Parthenon Enigma as follows;

“There is not a world leader who fails to stop on the Acropolis for the requisite photo op when visiting Athens. Invariably including a call for the return of the Parthenon sculptures, these appearances have been taking place for years. Jackie Kennedy, wearing pearls and a dress in the brilliant blue of the Greek blue flag, climbed the Acropolis in June 1961 and made the appeal. The Clintons did it in 2002, as did Vladimir Putin shortly thereafter. Even Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, lifted his hands to the sky as he stood before the Parthenon and called for the marbles to be returned. In October 2010, the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, pledged his support for the reunification of the Parthenon sculptures. Standing on the summit, he cited the historical parallel of the Summer Palace in Beijing, which was looted in 1860 under orders from Elgin’s own son, then the high commissioner to China”. (9)

The defiant statements and the outrageous act of the British Museum may of course simply be the desperate acts of an institution short of cash and trying to justify its acts with some semblance of principle. The museum may well loan objects under its control or even sell them as allowed by the rules governing the trustees and we may only know after years. The British Museum has been known to sell for cash the national treasures of Nigeria, the Benin Bronzes. (10). Outright sale may be avoided by long term loans that are renewable. Recently, the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery sold a 4,400 year old statue of an Egyptian scribe named Semkhemka. (11) And as for the 400 Benin Bronzes in the Field Museum, we still do not know their status and whereabouts after the financial troubles of the famous museum in Chicago.

Museums are facing great financial problems and we may experience surprising acts from them. The loan of the Parthenon Marble may be, as the Bloomsbury has advised, only the beginning of a whole series of surprising acts.

The new strategy of the British Museum may in the short run bring cash to Bloomsbury but in the long term will damage its reputation and complicate its relations with other institutions and governments. The policy of dispersal can only work to its disadvantage and must be condemned without hesitation. No court or judicial body will be impressed by the defiant attitude of the British Museum.

For once, the British Government and the British Museum could in this matter listen to the voice of the British people as well as that of the rest of the world, including the opinions of the United Nations and UNESCO as stated in uncountable resolutions.

K. Opoku, 23 December, 2014.

External Links
British Museum Sold Benin Bronzes
English Museum Loses Accreditation for Selling Ancient Egyptian Statue

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Irrespective of the British Museum & British Government decisions, the majority of the peoples of the world, starting with the British people and the majority of States have spoken in favour of the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens.

Kwame Opoku

See Related:

1. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/11277535/British-Museum-to-send-more-Elgin-Marbles-abroad-despite-Greek-anger.html
2. Preparing for Lawsuit? Why Might Neil MacGregor Be Doubling Down on His Elgin Marbles Bet?\", Culturegrrl December 9, 2014.
3. Appointing the Board of Trustees
The Board of Trustees comprises up to 25 members. One Trustee is appointed by Her Majesty, 15 are appointed by the Prime Minister and five appointed by the Trustees themselves. The remaining four Trustees are appointed by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on the nominations of the Presidents of:
• the Royal Academy
• the British Academy
• the Society of Antiquaries of London
• the Royal Society
The Chairman is appointed by the Board from amongst its members.
The full Board of Trustees meets four times a year usually at the British Museum.
Current Trustees
• Ms Karen Armstrong
• Professor Sir Christopher Bayly
• The Hon Nigel Boardman
• Ms Cheryl Carolus
• Miss Patricia Cumper
• Dame Liz Forgan DBE
• Professor Clive Gamble
• Sir Antony Gormley OBE
• Ms Penny Hughes CBE
• Sir George Iacobescu CBE
• Ms Wasfi Kani OBE
• Sir Richard Lambert
• Mr James Lupton CBE
• Sir Deryck Maughan
• Mr John Micklethwait
• Sir Paul Nurse, PRS PhD
• Mr Gavin Patterson
• The Rt Hon the Lord Sassoon, Kt
• Professor Amartya Sen
• Sir Martin Sorrell
• Ms Ahdaf Soueif
• Lord Stern of Brentford, Kt, FBA
• Lord Turner of Ecchinswell
• Baroness Wheatcroft of Blackheath
4. Letter – The Times, 9 Dec 14 “Where should the Elgin Marbles be housed?” - http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/

British Museum sends artefacts overseas as UK funding falls ...
www.independent.co.uk › News › UK › Home New

7. The Parthenon Enigma-A new understanding of the West’s most iconic building and the people who made it. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2014, p.347.
9. Joan Breton Connelly, op .cit. p. 349.

10. British Museum Sold Benin Bronzes - Forbes

11. English Museum Loses Accreditation for Selling Ancient ...
BBC News - Egyptian statue Sekhemka sells for nearly £16m
K. Opoku,” WHERE ARE THE 400 BENIN BRONZES DONATED TO THE MUSEUM BY FULLER? http://www.museum-security.org/2013/07/where-are-the-400-benin-bronzes-donated-to-the-museum-by-fuller/

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