George Osborne, Chairman of the British Museum Trustees, has been in discussion with the Greek Government for some time about a loan. Alistair Lexden brought this contentious issue before the House of Lords on 14 December when he opened a short debate on it. Some of the contributors to the debate wanted to go further and transfer the sculptures permanently to Athens. Opinions differ, often strongly. That has been the case for some 40 years. The status quo may well remain unchanged, and not just in the short term.
The Elgin Marbles—or Parthenon Sculptures, as some prefer—are famous for two reasons.
The first reason is of course because they are magnificent treasures of civilisation, part of the heritage of our world.
The second reason that they are famous is as regrettable as it is persistent. These great treasures have an almost infinite capacity to provoke heated arguments about their ownership and their location. It is almost impossible to mention them in everyday conversation without instigating a dispute on these points.
This has not always been the case. The sculptures were brought to our country by the 7th Earl of Elgin, about whom many unkind things are said, between 1801 and 1812. They were placed in the possession of the British Museum by Act of Parliament in 1816.
For the next 165 years, there was scarcely a peep of protest from anyone in Greece-- which had become an independent country in 1832-- about their residence in one of the world’s greatest museums.
During this long period, the idea that the British Museum’s possession was permanent became a settled conviction in Britain.
The peace was shattered forty years ago. Since then, politicians and other leading figures in Greece, a country whose friendship has always been greatly valued in Britain, have repeatedly demanded that the treasures should be installed once again on the Acropolis, from which, in the Greek view, they were illegally removed by the much- criticised Lord Elgin.
No one, I think, can doubt the strength of feeling that exists in Greece. It has the power to damage and blight good relations between our two countries, particularly at official and diplomatic levels.
People of good will in both Greece and Britain must surely seek to diminish the acrimony with which the heated and recurrent arguments, engendered by the dispute over ownership and location, have invested the great and famous sculptures.
Those seeking to understand the issues more fully will be greatly assisted by a recent detailed study by one of our leading scholars, Sir Noel Malcolm, a most distinguished historian of international standing with a particular interest in the Balkans ,a Fellow of the British Academy and of All Souls, Oxford.
Sir Noel Malcolm’s meticulous scholarly work was published earlier this year by Policy Exchange, an organisation of enormous value in promoting debate on political and public affairs.
Not all scholars reach clear conclusions. Sir Noel Malcolm does so. He finds the claim that the removal of the treasures was illegal to be false. He finds the claim that Elgin saved the treasures from serious damage, dispersal and destruction to be true. The central point is this: the British Museum has full legal entitlement to the treasures which Elgin saved for posterity.
It should perhaps be noted that no Greek Government has ever sought any form of legal judgement on the question of ownership. Yet the words “ theft” and “ robbery” are freely bandied about on the Greek side.
The absence of serious doubt on the question of legal ownership is of course immensely important. But it does not settle an issue of this kind definitively.
I sought the view of a retired Conservative Minister, an academic philosopher well-known for his careful consideration of all sides of highly contested issues.
He told me that, in his view, the Elgin Marbles “have a special and disproportionate importance for the Greeks which sets them apart from almost everything else that has ended up outside their mother country.”
Should not that view incline us to consider sympathetically the Greek demand for the transfer of the sculptures from London to Athens?
But must not weight—great weight-- also be given to the fact that, in over more than 200 years, the Elgin Marbles have become part of Britain’s cultural heritage?
Some assert that a mere 200 years are of no significance in a roughly 2,500-year-long history of the sculptures. But that is to ignore the important fact that these 200 years constitute the great majority of the period during which, in post-classical times, the sculptures have been seriously valued as works of art.
Professor Mary Beard, who has done so much to extend understanding of the ancient world, has said that “after 200 years the Elgin Marbles have a history that roots them in the British Museum as well as in Athens.”
Surely such a statement confers great merit on the suggestion, which has been given wide publicity, that some form of loan scheme might be instituted between the British Museum and the Greek Government.
Mr George Osborne, the current Chairman of the British Museum, has become the principal champion of this idea. He tells us not infrequently that he is exploring ways in which a loan scheme might be agreed with the Greek Government, with, as he put it recently “Greek treasures coming our way in return.”
A loan is at present the only basis on which any of the Elgin Marbles could go to Greece. They are the property of the Museum, which is prohibited by Act of Parliament from selling them or giving them to anyone else.
A loan would be wholly compatible with the British Museum Act 1963 which states that “the Trustees of the British Museum may lend for public exhibition”. It is a power that the Trustees have not in the past been reluctant to use.
The 1963 Act goes on to state that “in deciding whether or not to lend any such object, and in determining the time for which, and the conditions subject to which, any such object is to be lent, the Trustees shall have regard to the interests of students and other persons visiting the Museum.“
This surely rules out open-ended, potentially permanent arrangements.
There is another crucial issue. In any agreement with Greece, the Museum would need to be certain that it will get its property back.
Its current policy on loans makes clear that “the Trustees of the British Museum will lend only in circumstances when the perceived risk to the object is considered reasonable and where the borrower guarantees the object will be returned to the Museum at the end of the loan period.”
So if proposals for a loan, the subject of this debate, are to succeed, two essential preconditions would surely have to be met.
First, the Greek Government would need to give a binding, legally enforceable commitment to restore the sculptures to their owner at the end of the loan period.
Second, the length of the loan period would need to be firmly settled.
On the latter, various possibilities have been mentioned, ranging, I think, from five to fifteen years. Does the Government have a view on the maximum time the sculptures should be on loan from the British Museum? [The answer, provided by the Minister who wound up the debate, is a maximum of three years, for which the open export licence scheme provides.]
Clearly, the position and intransigence of the Greek Government make it hard to see how the preconditions tor a loan could possibly be met.
Would it not be wholly wrong in seeking an agreement with Greece to sacrifice the interests of the British people?
Though the British Museum may at present have its difficulties, which will keep Mr Osborne busy, it has never failed in its duty to hold the Elgin Marbles securely, in its own words, “for the benefit of the world public, present and future.”