Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The British Museum and national politics

I listened last night as Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, was interviewed by Mark Lawson on BBC Radio Four. The conversation predictably turned to the perennial question of the Elgin Marbles, the reliefs from the Parthenon which are exhibited in the British Museum and which the Greek government desperately wants. Was it not the case, asked Lawson, that the Greeks, who have built a gallery to house the marbles, now had an unstoppable moral and practical case for their return? "The key thing", replied MacGregor (28 minutes in), "is whether or not you bring politics into culture. The British tradition of museums has been to separate politics, national politics, from cultural questions. The Greek tradition is a very different one."

What utter rubbish. Britain's museums and national politics have always been tightly intertwined. British rivalry with the French was an important stimulus in the building of a collection which was not an assembly of all things British, but an exhibition of Britain's power and global reach, in the capital of its empire. The dramatic growth of the museum's Egyptian collection followed the defeat, by the British, of the French at the battle of the Nile in 1799. And Elgin himself used his position as Britain's ambassador to the Ottoman Empire to take away the marbles shortly afterwards.

The French behaved similarly. On 23 July 1850 The Times reported that the French were "determined to excel us in the exhibition of Assyrian works of art in order to compensate the comparative deficiency, which the Louvre is obliged to acknowledge as to the treasures it possesses in the other great catalogues."* French archaeologists used their diplomatic corps to assist them in the removal of the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace - to highlight two famous examples that grace the Louvre today - and to thwart the opposition. A set of permits to excavate made out by the Ottoman authorities to the British mysteriously disappeared at the French consulate in Tunis.

By 30 November 1861 the Illustrated London News believed that the British had regained the advantage. It celebrated the fact that "During the last few years the Foreign Office has shown a zeal in the service of archaeology not second to that of the continental governments and the National Collection has in consequence received priceless additions that would else have remained unnoticed or gone to enrich the museums of other countries."*

Personally I support Neil MacGregor's dogged refusal to surrender to Greek pressure, for reasons I've mentioned before. But the line that Britain is somehow different (and superior) as a nation is flimsy. If that is the best argument remaining, it will not be long before the marbles are back in Athens.

*Both the quotes come from Debbie Challis's fascinating book on archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, From the Harpy Tomb to the Wonders of Ephesus: British Archaeologists in the Ottoman Empire, 1840-1880, London 2008.

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