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British museum adds insult to injury

The British Museum has stated that it intends to loan more of the Parthenon sculptures to museums around the world.

According to an article in the Daily Telegraph, the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor told the newspaper that, “A number of other people, other institutions abroad have suggested that they are very interested [in borrowing the Marbles]. A couple of other conversations are in train."

Several days ago, the statue of the river god Ilissos went on display at the Russian State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg after the British Museum decided to lend the statue to the institution for about two months.

According to the newspaper when he was asked if the works could be loaned to Athens, Mr MacGregor said: "To date, the Greeks have always refused to borrow [the Marbles] because they would not borrow what belongs to them. But were they to make a request, it would be reviewed in exactly the same terms as any other."

Effectively the British Museum would only lend the marbles to Greece, if the Greek side accepted that they were the rightful property of the Museum, which they refuse to do.

The recent move amounts to the first time that one of the Parthenon Marbles has left the British Museum after the institution bought them from the 7th Earl of Elgin who removed them from Ottoman occupied Athens over 200 years ago.

The decision to lend out the Marbles caused widespread anger in Greece which has long demanded the return of the Marbles, and was described as an ‘affront’ to the Greek people by the Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. The move also invalidated one of the arguments previously deployed by the Museum against their return to Athens: that their transport would be too logistically difficult and dangerous.

However the Director of the British Museum could apparently care less about the sentiments of the Greeks, boasting instead of the British Museum’s magnanimity in sharing the ancient Greek treasures with the Russian institution.

The decision was also hailed by London Mayor Boris Johnson who called the marbles “one of our greatest national treasures.” In an editorial also printed in the Telegraph Johnson argued that the move by the British Museum was one that demonstrated its independence, “and in that simple fact you have the difference between Britain and so many other countries on earth.” 

“Can you imagine any other country where a national museum could take such a politically charged decision, without government knowledge and acquiescence? Greece? France? Russia? Don’t make me laugh. That is why good old George Clooney is so wrong in his plan to restore the marbles…” Boris Johnson writes.

The mayor continues, “That is why it is entirely fitting that the owl of Pallas should still haunt the squares of Bloomsbury. It is the British Museum’s freedom to loan Ilissus [sic] to Russia – even in this wretched period – that shows exactly why the Elgin Marbles belong and shall remain in London.” 

Of course others might argue that the only reason that the Marbles continue to remain in the British Museum is a misplaced sense of superiority on the part of the institution, with the museum claiming that it is promoting cultural diplomacy, even as it displays a level of insensitivity more in keeping with Lord Elgin's era, as opposed to post-colonial Britain.