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Elgin Marbles Dispute

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Richard Morrison, ‘British Museum director: the Elgin Marbles aren’t Greek’, The Times, reprinted in The Australian, 7 November 2014

If he’s a man under pressure he seems blithely unaware of it. At precisely 8.58am last Tuesday morning a dapper 68-year-old docks his Boris bike and walks through the great gates of his institution, which are still closed to the public. “Morning, Neil,” says the security guard. “Gentleman from The Times waiting to see you.” The director of the British Museum has arrived for work. During his 15 years in charge of the National Gallery, Neil MacGregor was nicknamed Saint Neil by his adoring staff, partly because of his Christian beliefs and partly because he ran that place with a heavenly touch. After 12 years at the helm of the BM the halo is still in place — just.

It’s hard to recall now how disunited and financially adrift the mighty Bloomsbury institution seemed before MacGregor arrived. He has pulled it round and his own adroit media achievements — notably the marvellous BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects — have given its treasures a much higher profile. With a new book and another Radio 4 series, he is doing the same thing for the BM’s latest big exhibition: Germany: Memories of a Nation.

Yet in some quarters, particularly around southern Europe, MacGregor is regarded more as devil than saint. He has never wavered from his view that the Elgin Marbles (or the Parthenon Sculptures, as the BM officially calls them) should stay in Bloomsbury rather than be returned to Athens, from where they were removed by Lord Elgin between 1801 and 1805. Now the Greeks are mounting their strongest attack on the BM’s position since the 1970s heyday of Melina Mercouri. They have hired a team of media-savvy human rights lawyers, including Geoffrey Robertson and Amal Clooney (wife of George). With a film about wartime art looting to publicise, Clooney himself also joined the attack earlier this year. Unesco, no less, has now called on Britain to take part in a “mediation procedure” with the Greeks to resolve the issue.

Saintly or not, MacGregor visibly bristles at that suggestion. “Unesco is an intergovernmental organisation but the trustees of the British Museum are not part of the British government,” he says. “The British government does not own the great cultural collections of this country. The pictures in the National Gallery, the objects in the British Museum, are held by the trustees and their duty is to preserve the objects for the study and enjoyment of the whole world. They have a charitable responsibility imposed by law to ensure that those objects give maximum public benefit.”

It’s the belief of MacGregor and his trustees (who, he points out, include “two Nobel prize-winners and distinguished people from all over the world”) that the Marbles will give “maximum public benefit” by staying in London, rather than going to a new museum in Athens. “From its beginning 250 years ago, the point of the BM was gathering together objects in one place to tell narratives about the world,” he says. “When the Parthenon Sculptures came to London it was the first time that they could be seen at eye-level. They stopped being architectural details in the Parthenon and became sculptures in their own right. They became part of a different story — of what the human body has meant in world culture. In Athens they would be part of an exclusively Athenian story.”

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