More Talk With: Neil MacGregor

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Marble metope from the south face of the Parthenon/circa 440 B.C. — Photo: Elgin Collection/British Museum

Let’s continue that conversation about the Elgin marbles with the director of the British Museum.

LACAYO: Your museum has repeatedly taken the position that it will not discuss even the possibility of a temporary loan of some of the marbles unless the Greek authorities will acknowledge that the Trustees of the British Museum are their lawful owners. What if the Greeks were suddenly to surprise you and do just that? Would the museum then agree to enter into some kind of talks?

MacGREGOR: No Trustees in the Anglo-Saxon legal system could lend to people who didn’t recognize their title. This is the duty of Trustees. The Trustees have always made it clear that they regard the collection as being a resource from which they like to lend and they want to lend. There are interesting examples in just the last year of loans of major parts of the collection — of Assyrian art in Shanghai, an exhibition now going to Boston, and then “Treasures of the World’s Cultures” in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

But there has never been a request [from Greece] for a time limited loan for part of the Parthenon sculptures. The Trustees have said they would not consider the removal of all the marbles at one time, just as they would not consider the removal of all the Assyrian sculptures at one time. But their position is absolutely coherent. They would consider a request, and it would then be a question of how long the request was for, whether the objects were fit to travel, all those things.

LACAYO: If the Greeks do not budge on that central question — acknowledging ownership by the Trustees, then presumably there can’t be any movement forward.

MacGREGOR: Trustees are obliged to behave in a certain way. The conversation cannot even begin until that has happened.

LACAYO: Other than conversations with Dimitrios Pandermalis, who heads the New Acropolis Museum project, have you had contacts with the Greek side on this question?

MacGREGOR: Some years ago Dr. Venizelos, who was then culture minister of Greece, came to the museum to speak to the then-chairman of the Trustees and myself. We raised the point that a precondition for a temporary loan of some objects would have to be the recognition of title. We put that to him and he then formally published a letter in the Sunday Times saying that the Greek government does not recognize that the Trustees are the legal owners. We were trying to find a middle ground on which some kind of discussion could be had, but we can’t, at the moment.

LACAYO: If the Trustees agree to a loan, would there still be a role for the government in the decision? Or do the Trustees have full authority?

MacGREGOR: Yes, absolutely, just as in the American system.

LACAYO: Could the Trustees give the marbles back if it should come to that?

MacGREGOR: The Trustees are obliged to hold them. The collection is inalienable.

LACAYO: If the collection is inalienable, and you say you are looking for a way forward, does that mean that the way forward still cannot go all the way to the point of restitution?

MacGREGOR: Of transferring title? Yes. Almost every European collection is the same. The Greek collections are inalienable. It would be impossible for a Greek museum to transfer title to a British museum.

LACAYO: Couldn’t there be an act of Parliament that would change the terms of the Trusteeship? It was Parliament that created it in the first place.

MacGREGOR: It could be done, but I think Parliament is very reluctant to intervene in Trustee obligations. Those are such old and complex systems. Parliament has made it absolutely clear under every government that this is not a matter for it; this is entirely a matter for the Trustees.

LACAYO: Well if the Trusteeship obliges the Trustees to hold on to the marbles, doesn’t that mean that there could not be a return even if there were large public support for such a move?

MacGREGOR: In terms of transferring ownership, no. As the law stands now it is not possible for the Trustees to transfer ownership. That’s why, if there is to be any middle ground, any way forward, it has to be on the basis of some kind of loan.

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