I wasn’t surprised this morning to see that the government of Greece has turned down an offer from the British Museum to lend the Elgin Marbles for three months to the New Acropolis Museum in Athens, which will be having its much delayed official opening on June 20. In October of 2007, when the museum was largely complete and the works of art were just beginning to come in, I went over to take an early look and to talk with Dimitrios Pandermalis, president of what was then called the New Acropolis Museum Project.
Here’s the pertinent part of that conversation.
LACAYO: Earlier this year Greece suggested to the British Museum that the Museum might lend the Elgin Marbles to Greece for the opening of the new museum. The British response then was what it has been for some time — that it was not possible even to consider such a thing until Greece formally recognizes that the Elgin Marbles are the lawful property of the Trustees of the British Museum. Why not just agree to that as a first step?
PANDERMALIS: On that particular question only the minister of culture is authorized to give answer. But I can tell you it’s a part of a complicated dialogue.
LACAYO: Have you proposed a loan show again to the British Museum?
PANDERMALIS: I have had informal talks with the British Museum. I think there is a possibility for cooperation, and on the basis of that cooperation we can also talk about the marbles.
A few days later I stopped in to visit Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, and asked him about the loan idea. In April, 2007 he had said for the first time that such a thing might be possible — so long as Greece first recognized ownership of the marbles by the Trustees of the British Museum. When we spoke in October, he didn’t budge at all on that pre-condition.
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.
And now today we learn that the Greek Culture minister Antonis Samaras has said in an e-mail to Bloomberg.com that to accept the British pre-condition would be “tantamount to legitimizing the snatching of the marbles and the carving up of the monument 207 years ago.”
Meaning, no go.
I have to assume that MacGregor is relieved.