British Museum Makes First Ever Elgin-Marble Loan to Russia

Posted: December 6, 2014 in Society and Culture


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British Museum Makes First Ever Elgin-Marble Loan to Russia

The British Museum sent one of its most precious artifacts for display in Russia, in a gesture of diplomacy amid the biggest rift in relations between the government in Moscow and NATO countries since the Cold War.

The sculpture of the river-god Illissos from the Parthenon in Athens — one of the so-called Elgin Marbles — is going on show in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. It’s the first time any of the Marbles has left the U.K. since 1816. The artifacts, removed from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin, Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, are the subject of a long-running dispute between the U.K. and Greece, which demands their return. Greece’s prime minister attacked the loan today.

The move, intended to mark the Hermitage’s 250th birthday and kept secret until today, takes place as European Union nations and the U.S. blame President Vladimir Putin’s government for stoking the crisis in Ukraine. Putin criticized the North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies yesterday in his annual address to parliament and top officials in Moscow.

The British Museum’s “trustees have always believed that such loans must continue between museums in spite of political disagreements between governments,” its director, Neil MacGregor, said in a blog post today. “It is a position energetically shared by our counterparts in Russia.”

MacGregor recalled that the museum lent the Cyrus Cylinder, a clay object with inscriptions detailing the “humane ideals” of ancient Persia, to Iran in 2011, before the recent easing of tensions between the British and Iranian governments.

‘Taunts’ Greeks

“The British Museum’s decision to lend one of the Parthenon marbles to an exhibition in St. Petersburg taunts the Greek people,” Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said in an e-mailed statement. “The Parthenon and its sculptures were vandalized. Their value is priceless.”

The British Museum director told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program that the Greek government had never asked to borrow the sculpture, though “the trustees’ position is very clear that they will consider any request from anyone who is prepared to return the object.”

A spokeswoman for the museum, Olivia Rickman, said that it lends out about 5,000 pieces each year, though this was the first time this sculpture, dating from the fifth century B.C., had been requested.

“We have very positive working relationships with colleagues in Greece,” Rickman said. “We currently have 24 objects on loan to a museum in Athens. The Parthenon sculptures are obviously one debate but actually a lot has been achieved in this area.”

The Hermitage, in Putin’s hometown, was founded in 1764 by Empress Catherine II.


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