Last week saw the secret transfer of the Elgin Marble, Ilissos the Greek river god to Russia. This marks the first time any of the vast sculptures have left the UK since Lord Elgin himself delivered them to safety in the early 19th century. On temporary loan from the British Museum, the headless statue is now on show in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. However, the displaying of Ilissos comes at a curious moment, politically.
In 2011, the Greek government turned to Amal Clooney, a human rights and international law specialist and Geoffrey Robertson QC, the highly regarded human rights lawyer, for advice on the return of the Marbles to Athens. Recently Clooney announced her suggestion that the UK accept a “swap deal”, with the Marbles returning to Greece in exchange for other pieces of Greek sculpture. This proposal throws up visions of a playground swap where neither party will give up their possession until the other does first. Equally, as all playground veterans will know, the swap is never even unless both parties stand to gain, or at least believe they will. The current value of the Marbles, if a value could even be put on them, probably surpasses the entire Greek economy and very little is likely to satisfy the British Museum in return for their pride and joy.
The timing of her comments, shortly after her marriage to George Clooney in October, turned the whole thing into a PR stunt, using the media frenzy over her extravagant nuptials to bring the Marbles back into the spotlight. A fine idea theoretically, but in reality it simply emphasises the complete lack of progress she and Robertson have achieved in three years.
Further highlighting this shortfall is the decision of the British Museum to loan out one of the sculptures for the first time underlining their continued public indifference towards the Greek protests. Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, said that the museum is always happy to lend as long as the piece was able to travel and its return was guaranteed. However the likelihood expressed by MacGregor of further loans proves that all potential negotiations will be strictly in line with British whims. Furthermore, he stated that Greek authorities have never made a formal request for the return of the sculptures nor asked to borrow them. Consequently he dismissed Greece’s claim to the Marbles as a purely political gesture with no conservational or academic basis. Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras answered this statement by accusing Britain of “an affront to the Greek People” after hearing of the loan, while also describing the Marbles as stolen property. David Cameron has long remained quiet on the subject, insisting that it is for the trustees of the British Museum to decide their fate.
Yet this loan should be welcomed in Greece as a significant step towards a resolution. It is hoped by trustees at the British Museum that this move can be a new era of cooperation and communication between Britain and Greece and the chance for mutual appreciation rather than continued arguments over these extraordinary pieces of art.
However just as intriguing as the decision to loan out Ilissos, is the destination of this priceless artefact. A day after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s state-of-the-nation speech in which he pledged to maintain Russia’s ties with Europe, the State Hermitage Museum revealed its new exhibit. Despite the positivity and optimism that can stem from such a gesture, this Marble will remain a political symbol until its return to Britain. Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage, confirmed as much at the statue’s unveiling.
Putin’s speech was a sequence of mixed messages, emphasising Russia’s military muscle at one moment, pledging not to isolate Russia from the west the next. He capped it all by vowing to continue to withstand all economic sanctions against his country. The weakness of the rouble is threatening to reverse the improved living conditions that Russians have experienced in recent years and is plunging the country into recession. Yet Putin’s intentions remain unclear and his poker face shows no sign of twitching.
This loan is without doubt a cause for optimism and perhaps even a first step towards a resolution to this 21st Century “Cold War”. Putin has put forward his first faintly encouraging words since the dispute began and this loan further backs that up. Equally, the displaying of Ilissos to an audience of whom a great percentage will never be able to visit Athens or London is a fantastic achievement. However these Marbles will surely now be forever judged from a political perspective, even if they were to be returned to Greece. Perhaps this loan can prove that art and culture can transcend politics and governments and these magnificent relics can be admired without the shadow of dispute that has lingered for so long. For now, however, it serves only to further entwine the Marbles in politics. Rising Greek anger at the British government is peaking with the unveiling of this statue, while in Russia the timing just seems slightly too convenient. The Elgin Marbles are now far more than simply a work of art.
By Ben Grimshaw, Junior Writer at Daily Political View