Last month it was revealed that the British Museum had loaned a sculpture from the Parthenon, a/k/a Elgin, Marbles to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Reaction ranged from puzzlement to fury. Lee Rosenbaum pondered whether the loan was in fact a trial balloon to prepare for litigation, specifically, to rebut Greece’s claim that the sculptures are a single unified work that should be returned with an argument that the collection of individual objects is more complicated. My reaction really boiled down to the “law” of unintended consequences: once the UK put any of the objects outside its territorial control—let alone in Russia, which has shown little interest in the niceties of international loans and restitution—the British Museum may find itself in a Portrait of Wally situation.
The story will not be over for a long time (ever?), but the predictable unhappiness in Greece has raised the first possible related skirmish. From The Art Newspaper:
A British Museum spokeswoman confirmed that “we have requested to borrow” an important work from the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens for the show, “Defining Beauty: the Body in ancient Greek Art” (6 March-5 July). She says the Greek museum has not yet decided on the loan request.
The British Museum currently has 24 items on loan to the Museum of Cycladic Art, and curatorial relations between them are friendly. The fact that the loan has not been formally agreed is because of tensions with the Greek government after one of the Parthenon Marbles, the headless figure of the river god Ilissos, was sent to the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg in December. Antonis Samaras, the Greek prime minister, described the loan, the first time one of the sculptures has left Britain since they were controversially taken from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century, as “an affront to the Greek people”.
As if that weren’t enough, TAN also reports that the British Museum is considering other loan requests.
As with the Russian loan embargo, all these developments underscore the delicate balance of exhibition, particularly international, loans. One assumes Britain cannot be surprised that the Greece reaction would be somewhere between insult and rage, which just further begs the question of what the motivation for the loan to Russia was. Expect more complications.
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