TAITMAIL. Why Sunak should use “common sense” and back out of the Elgin row
What did Rishi Sunak, for whom “the UK-Greece relationship is hugely important”, expect to discuss with the Greek prime minister at their meeting on Tuesday? What might have been be uppermost in the mind of Kyriakos Mitsotakis?
Well, not the Elgin Marbles, obviously.
As it happens, though, on Sunday the Greek PM, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, was slated to appear on Laura Kunssberg’s show and, surprise surprise, she asked him if he wanted the Elgin Marbles returned to Athens from the British Museum. Surprise surprise, he said he did.
So Sunak cancelled the meeting, accusing Mitsotakis of “grandstanding”. According to No 10 the reason was that the Greek leader had promised not to make the Elgin Marbles an issue, an undertaking the Greeks say he never made. So, stand-off and a genuine diplomatic moment that threatens not only the UK’s relationship with Greece, an erstwhile friend, but NATO and the 27 countries of the European Union too.
Instead, Sunak offered his deputy, Oliver Dowden, who the Greeks turned down. Dowden it was who as culture secretary had threatened public institutions with reprisal if they persisted on revising their take on Britain’s colonial past. He had gathered about him a collection of anti-woke MPs off-shooting from the European Research Group and calling themselves The Common Sense Group. Irritated by Black Lives Matter, Me Too and the transgender protest movement the CSG is devoted to combating the “rewriting of history”; that is, opposing all those institutions that they say bring unpatriotic attitudes to a revision of Britain’s imperial accomplishments. Dowden wrote to 26 organisations, including the BM and the Arts Council, warning them that if they persisted they would lose their subsidies. And now we have in the Cabinet an actual “Minister for Common Sense”, the GB News presenter Esther McVey, officially Minister Without Portfolio, who has been tasked by Sunak with "leading the government's anti-woke agenda".
How much the anti-wokers are across the Marbles detail is perhaps demonstrated by the fact that ConservativeHome, Michael Ashcroft’s right wing website and the anti-wokers’ rallying point, illustrated its input (“Giving away the Elgin Marbles would strike at the very heart if the British Museum”) with an image of the Natural History Museum.
So it’s become political at a point where negotiations, which have been ongoing for at least two years led by the BM’s chairman George Osborne, seemed to be nearing some kind of comprise in the ownership problem which has been an issue, mostly soto voce, for over 200 years.
Time for a little bit of history. Between 1801 and 1812 about half of the legendary sculptural frieze from the Parthenon in Athens was removed by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, then ambassador to the Ottoman Empire of which Greece was a part. Elgin had hoped to adorn his Scottish estate with the treasures, maintaining that he had been granted a “firman” by the Ottoman authorities that permitted his agents in Athens to dismantle the pieces, much of the statuary crudely hacked out.
The row started almost immediately, with Lord Byron accusing Elgin of vandalism, but by 1816 Egin’s circumstances had dramatically changed. Bankrupt, despondent and racked by syphilis, the government agreed to buy the Marbles off him, consigning them to the British Museum.
But now the poor old BM has been hit by a perfect storm. It’s director up to June this year, Hartwig Fischer, appeared to be somewhat at odds with his chairman and opposed the return of the Marbles on the long standing premises that they could never be as well cared for anywhere else, the classical scholarship of the BM to interpret the sculptures is pre-eminent, the Marbles had come to the museum legally, and that the BM is a universal museum of antiquity, despite its name, to which more than 6m people make pilgrimage every year, and for whom the Elgin Marbles are a prime attraction. Fischer also appeared to be at odds with his deputy, Jonathan Williams, who told the Sunday Times that the institution was eager to “change the temperature of the debate” and that there was “space for a really dynamic and positive conversation with which new ways of working together can be found”.
Then came the discovery that a thousand or more stored objects had gone missing from the museum’s collections, a senior curator was sacked and Fischer and Williams were both obliged to leave. But still, apparently, the conversation about the Marbles’ future – a return, a loan arrangement, a swap – continued, with the Greeks getting increasingly alarmed at the British political obduracy which was not matched by the museum’s negotiators.
Meanwhile, nations around the world, mostly formerly the subjects of colonial rule, are demanding the return of their cultural property, the Benin Bronzes of which the BM has a large holding being a high-profile example. The BM has not so far followed the example of other European museums in handing them back to Nigeria.
But what might be a signifier to a changing attitude is that it was announced this week that the BM has agreed to loan another ancient Greek treasure, the 5th century BC Meidias Hydria vase (billed as “history’s most famous pot”, pictured here), to the very Acropolis Museum in Athens that would house the Marbles. It goes on display on December 4 and will be there until April, while at a trustees’ dinner Osborne emphasised the willingness of the BM to consider a temporary return of the Elgin Marbles, completely at odds with the government’s stance, and urging a partnership with Greece that would not negate historical claims or change laws.
Getting rid of things from national collections – “deaccessioning” - is complicated and rare, beset by laws and ethical practice rules, but positions changing. The present interim BM director has kept stumm so far, but he is Mark Jones who was director of the V&A when he advocated loosening the rules around deaccessioning in an essay entitled “Too Much Stuff”.
Jones’s successor at the V&A, Tristram Hunt, says these things should be left to museum trustees to decide. Labour has side-stepped the issue as it would a dead cat, accusing the prime minister of petulance and saying it should be for the museum to negotiate, there are more important things for prime ministerial confabs.
Hunt is, of course, a former politician, as is George Osborne, but there’s no zealot like a convert. Labour may poo-poo the Elgin Marbles row, but beyond could there be something more fundamental happening?
With the Elgin Marbles, what is the British Museum other than one of the greatest museums of antiquity in the world, but could it now change its nature with the times and become something else? This could be the time for the British Museum to change its focus from the objects it hardly knows it possesses to addressing its audiences more directly with education the prime mission.
As the pragmatic, scholarly, non-political, regionally linked, comprehensive Museum of the British, perhaps.
Search for trustees: https://www.vitalxposure.co.uk/new-trustees/