Outrage? Indignation? Exasperation? All three words, and others, sum up the Hellenic world’s reaction to the loan by the British Museum of one of the Parthenon Marbles to Russia.
The trustees’ position is very clear that they will consider any request from anyone who is prepared to return the object.
– Neil MacGregor, British Museum director
Within hours of learning of the decision to send the statue of the god Ilissos to the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Greece’s Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said the act constituted a provocation of the Greek people, and that the loan finally laid to rest the British Museum’s long-standing argument that the marbles could not be moved.
“The last British dogma about immovability has ceased to exist,” said Mr Samaras. “The Parthenon and its sculptures were the object of pillage. We Greeks are identified with our history and culture which cannot be torn apart, loaned and ceded.”
Kept secret until late last week – though planning had been underway since October – the loan marks a watershed moment in the marbles’ controversial history: the collection has been broken up for the first time since the British Museum took possession of the fifth century BC sculptures in 1816.
Almost half the 160-metre-long frieze has been in London since Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, removed it from the Parthenon, an action he took whilst British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
Just days after the Greek government turned to human rights lawyer Amal Clooney and leading experts in cultural restitution in order to identify the detailed legal basis for the marbles’ repatriation, the loan appears as a hugely disrespectful act.
Speaking to the BBC from St Petersburg, Neil MacGregor, the British Museum’s director, appeared impervious to criticism, saying that he hoped Greeks would be “very pleased that a huge new public can engage with the great achievements of ancient Greece”.
“People who will never be able to come to Athens or London will now, here in Russia, understand something of those great achievements in Greek civilisation.”
Mr MacGregor added that the loan reinforced the argument that the British Museum was a universal institution with global reach, and that the Greek government and the new purpose-built Acropolis Museum continued to rule out a loan arrangement.
“The trustees’ position is very clear that they will consider any request from anyone who is prepared to return the object,” said Mr MacGregor.
The headless river god, one of the most recognisable of the carvings, was unveiled at the Hermitage last week in celebration of its 250th anniversary attended by President Vladimir Putin.
Despite Russia’s strained relationship with the UK over the Ukraine, Mr Putin is likely to steer well clear of entering the debate around the marbles’ rightful home.
Campaigners for the restitution of the marbles to Athens said the loan was particularly inflammatory for its timing.
In July 2013, Greece asked Unesco, the United Nations’ cultural organisation, to intervene and encourage British PM David Cameron to participate in mediation to help end the dispute. The British government has yet to respond.
“It is not just rude, provocative and arrogant, it is a highly offensive thing to do, when Britain has completely ignored a Greek request to mediate this issue through Unesco,” said Sydney-based (English born businessman) David Hill, president of the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures.
“For the best part of 18 months Unesco has been waiting for a reply,” he told reporters.
“The only thing this will do is aggravate the situation. It’s extremely inflammatory.”
Meanwhile, the passionate founder of the first ever international committee for the restitution of the marbles, Mr Emmanuel Cominos told Neos Kosmos that after 30 years he was still trying to persuade the Australian government to actively support the campaign to return the marbles to Athens.
“In 2007 the New Zealand parliament unanimously passed a motion to support their return. We’re trying to do the same thing here,” said Mr Cominos, who is of Kytheran descent.
“The British government and the British Museum will keep kicking this ball back and forth until they’re tired of it, and then they’ll give the marbles back. They’re playing games.”