The director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, sparked outrage last month following his suggestion that the removal of the Parthenon marbles from Greece in the 19th century could be viewed as “creative”.
In an interview to the Greek newspaper Ta Nea, Fischer proposed “we should appreciate this opportunity” and “when you move a cultural heritage to a museum, you move it out of context. Yet that displacement is also a creative act, and each encounter with it is potentially a creative act.”
He went on to declare that Greece was not the “legitimate owner” of the renowned sculptures.
Popularly known as the Elgin marbles, the sculptural treasures have spent the last 200 years in the British Museum. Greece strongly maintains the removal of the marbles was illegal and has demanded their return ever since.
Myrsini Zorba, the Greek culture minister, expressed her disappointment in Fischer, stating “his remarks downgrade cultural heritage from an invaluable universal value to a mere exchange sale.”
Hartwig’s statement provoked a worldwide media frenzy. “Seriously. What was so creative in the destruction of the temple and looting and pillage of a nation’s keys to its ancient history?” tweeted George Vardas, the secretary of the International Association for Reunification of Parthenon Sculptures.
Those supporting Fischer argue their removal from Greece preserved the marbles and returning them would diminish a world-class museum. Others assert that they should be displayed in their place of origin as the marbles are part of Greece’s heritage.
The Trustees of the British Museum hold the Parthenon Marbles under the terms of the British Museum Act 1963, for the benefit of the public – in the same way as the rest of the museum’s collection. This Act prohibits the trustees from permanently disposing of objects, unless they are duplicates of others already in the collection, or are ‘unfit to be retained … and can be disposed of without detriment to the interests of students.’ However the Act does allow objects to be temporarily loaned for public exhibition, having ‘regard to the interests of students and other persons visiting the Museum, to the physical condition and degree of rarity of the object in question, and to any risks to which it is likely to be exposed,’ but permanent loans are not permitted.
This week the Director of the Acropolis Museum, Dimitris Pandermalis, refuted the British Museum’s ownership claims, stating: “The return in full of the Parthenon Marbles is the one and only solution.”
Ultimately, the debate boils down to one complex question: who owns culture?