As readers know, the British Museum is at the centre of a theft scandal. First revealed last month, the scandal appears to have involved the removal of around 2,000 artefacts from the collection over a period of about a decade. Some of the details have just this week been confirmed by the museum, as reported in The Art Newspaper.
Many have been asking what impact the scandal will have on the ongoing discussions with Greece over the future of the Parthenon Marbles. Those at either end of the restitution debate have of course argued that the scandal favours their case: from one side, we hear how it once and for all undermines the museum’s old argument about being better suited to look after other people’s patrimony; from the other, that the museum’s sole task should be to maintain its collection and that focusing on anything else is a distraction.
Dealing with the fallout from the thefts will become the unquestionable priority of the museum for the foreseeable future. Much time will now be spent identifying what went missing, understanding how the thefts occurred and recovering lost items. For the time being at least, less public emphasis will be placed on seeking a resolution over the Marbles. So let’s not expect any major announcement on that front any time soon.
But the museum can ill afford to neglect the matter for long. When it comes to the Marbles, the status quo does not favour the British Museum, and a good faith attempt at resolving the dispute is now as necessary as ever. Many have argued that the reputation of the great museum has always suffered as a result of its traditional position on the Marbles (and restitution more broadly) and this is no doubt true. It would be impossible to count the number of times I have met colleagues and strangers from the four corners of the world who have complained vehemently about the reactionary and intransigent position of the British Museum on this matter. But the impact on the museum goes well beyond reputational damage.
Firstly, a refusal to engage on restitution can be seen as an ethical shortcoming. The Icom (International Council of Museums) Code of Ethics, which the British Museum and every other serious museum in the world follows, is the best gauge of ethics on this point. The Code specifically requires that museums promote the sharing of collections with countries of origin (section 6.1) and that they always remain prepared to initiate dialogues for return in an impartial manner (section 6.2). Museums should not shirk their ethical duties and should instead seek to comply with them as openly and honourably as possible.
Secondly, the lingering dispute hurts the museum’s own exhibitions programme. As a result of the museum’s traditional position on the Marbles, the Greek ministry of culture has not permitted loans from public museums in Greece to the British Museum. Because of this sad state of affairs, the British Museum avoids asking for loans of antiquities from Greek museums. This has meant that, over the years, exhibitions on Greek art at the museum have lacked some of the best specimens of classical sculpture in the world—those pieces held by Greek institutions.
The embargo on loans does not exist for any other UK museum: only the British Museum. Consider the excellent exhibition that recently finished at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford called Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth and Reality, which included over 100 loaned objects from Greek institutions, most of which had never before been seen by the UK public. Such a show would simply not have been possible at the British Museum, and that is unfortunate.
Lastly, there is a financial cost to the museum if the infamous dispute is not resolved. So long as the issue is a contested one, it lends itself to political involvement, from either side of the aisle, often from actors who may not have the institution’s best interests at heart. What is the collateral cost to the museum of UK politicians taking a stance on the Marbles? It almost always allows the politicians an easy out, a quick way to avoid having to face the real challenge that plagues the museum, namely the lack of public funding through grant-in-aid. It is far easier for politicians to provide a 30-second soundbite on the Marbles than to set about doing the hard work necessary to martial financial support that is sorely needed at the institution. In fact, some of the financial shortfalls have been laid bare in the fallout from the thefts.
The museum has been doing its best to address the lingering problems around the Marbles and to seek to challenge the status quo, which is a very good thing. But it cannot afford—at least not for long—to relinquish what it has built up with the Greek side over the past year: a seemingly constructive dialogue seeking to address the world’s longest-standing cultural property dispute.
When the negotiations start up again, there is no guarantee that a resolution will be reached (the issues are deep-seated on both sides) but the parties must at least offer good faith attempts at breaking the deadlock. Inaction would of course hurt the Greeks, who consider the Marbles to be an integral part of their cultural heritage. It would also hurt the museum-going public, who will never be able to see, for example, the narrative of the Parthenon frieze as one continuous sweep, and several of the larger pediment figures reassembled—like the Goddess Athena whose shoulder is in London and whose head is in Athens. And, as we have seen, the situation costs the British Museum too, dearly.
• Alexander Herman is the director of the UK-based Institute of Art and Law. His new book The Parthenon Marbles Dispute: Heritage, Law, Politics, published by Hart / Bloomsbury as part of the Art Law Library, will be launched in London on 28 September