Passing by: Not losing our Marbles

Antony Thorncroft has little sympathy with the foreign countries claiming the repatriation of works of art and antiquity, but sees a way in which our museums can be globally generous


For Neil Macgregor, that most liberal and internationalist of men, one of his biggest headaches as director of the British Museum must have been how to fob off the incessant demands from foreign governments for the return of some of the museum’s greatest treasures, secured when Great Britain was the world’s leading imperial power, to their countries of origin.

Greece wanted its Parthenon Marbles back; Nigeria the Benin bronzes; even Egypt put in a bid for the Rosetta Stone. Macgregor well knew that once the dam burst the museum would be little more than a depository for Iron Age sword hilts and Anglo Saxon coin hoards, so he cleverly bought off the clamour by claiming that art and antiques should be ambassadors for global goodwill, and, in an act of diplomacy in frosty times, sent the Cyrus cylinder to Iran in 2010 and a marble of a river god that had once adorned the Parthenon to Russia in 2014, both on a strictly temporary basis, while standing firm against permanent repatriation. These gestures helped to defuse the situation.

But this is a problem that is not going away and the arguments on both sides seem to be fairly balanced. If I were a Greek I would no doubt be campaigning for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Athens. On the other hand when they were sculpted Greece did not exist. Indeed, the city states that occupied the region were often at each others’ throats and subsequently the land became part of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Lord Elgin acquired the Marbles legitimately from the Turkish authorities in 1801 and in effect saved them: the Acropolis was being used as a munitions store. Greece as a nation only emerged some 30 years later, helped greatly by the British government of the day.

The most prized of the Benin bronzes owe much to the artistic and metallic contribution of the first Portuguese explorers of West Africa and the Rosetta Stone was created when Egypt was ruled by a Greek dynasty and was unearthed by the French. The whole excavation of ancient Egypt was a European passion which has greatly benefited the Egyptian economy through tourism. Trying to undo the past is a disruptive task, likely to cause tensions and anomalies, and it is patronising of a few contemporary intellectuals to think they can roll back history.

Where will it end? Who can claim original ownership of the Lion of St Mark in Venice or Napoleon’s war loot distributed among the victors after 1815? Who can make good the unequal bargaining of rich collectors who gave pennies to impoverished peasants in Italy, the Middle East and Central Asia for Etruscan tombs, Assyrian sculptures, Persian manuscripts. The past is indeed another country and to attempt to respond to claims for repatriation by the current governments of the cultures of long dead kingdoms is futile and destabilising.

This is especially true in an age of globalisation and cheap and easy travel where most committed art lovers can view treasures well preserved and presented in the great museums of London, New York, Paris, Berlin and more, museums which over centuries have developed the scholarship and forensic skills to look after collections for the general good. Indeed recent events in Syria and Iraq suggest that 19th century Western scholars have proved the incidental preservers of lost ancient civilisations. Times change and we do not object, indeed we are rather pleased, if the well endowed new museums of the Gulf States acquire European treasures for their collections. Art can be a great ambassador and the West can best encourage the trend by using its accumulated knowledge to offer expertise to the new generation of museum curators in the developing world.

The irony is that the last decade or so has seen the greatest ever repatriation of art from west to east. 

The Chinese have bought back their porcelain and jade; the Russians their icons and Fabergé; the Indians their miniatures; the Arabs their Korans. Many of these objects are destined for national and private museums.

Of course some repatriation of art is to be greatly welcomed, in particular the works stolen from Jewish families by the Nazis, a process that seems to be working well. I also find it hard to get worked up by campaigns to keep in this country paintings and artefacts, especially Old Masters, that have been bought at auction, often by rich American museums, for a new home overseas: we already have enough works by Rubens and Van Dyck,
and as for paintings by Turner and drawings by Blake it is good that native talent should be seen abroad.

There is, however, one area in which some museums can be rightly criticised and gifts to foreign museums might offer a solution. Most of the major national museums, in particular the British Museum,
the V&A and the Tate Gallery, are awash with surplus artefacts and paintings, tucked away in basements and off-site depositories. Tate Britain has many masterpieces which the taste of its current curators keeps
off the walls. The British Museum and the V&A must have millions of objects, from Assyrian cuneiform tablets to Greek vases to Egyptian scarabs, which linger unseen and unloved. Of course most have little popular interest but dressed up and carefully marketed they could be sent on protracted visits to overseas museums with limited collections, museums which the UK could view as partners. And some of the more striking un-displayed paintings and objects could also act as ambassadors of goodwill. The UK should proclaim itself the careful custodian of the best of the world’s past while letting go its more casual accretions.

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