The British Museum’s selective attitude towards loaning the Parthenon sculptures

In a recent interview Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, claimed that Greece had never in the past discussed the possibility of a loan. However, in November 2002 then Greek Culture Minister, Evangelos Venizelos, visited the British Museum and held talks with the trustees on a matter of subjects one of them being the possibility of a loan of the Parthenon sculptures to be exhibited in the new Acropolis Museum, which at the time was under construction.

Following his visit, Mr Venizelos was sent a letter by Sir John Boyd who at the time was the head of the trustees of the British Museum. In this letter the possibility of a loan is clearly rejected. Specifically, Sir John Boyd wrote:

Nevertheless, it remains the opinion of the Board of Trustees that the Parthenon sculptures in the collections of the British Museum cannot be lent to the new museum currently under development in Athens, whether in the manner you proposed or for a temporary period.


The original letter sent to the Greek Minister of Culture following his visit in 2002. Click on the image to view full size.

Sir John Boyd goes on to explain that the Parthenon sculptures are considered key items of the museum’s collections which the public would expect to see and would therefore not be in the museum’s interest to loan them:

While there is no list of objects that can never be lent, we do believe that there is a prima facie presumption against the lending of key objects in the Museum’s collections which are normally on display and which the public reasonably expect to see in the Museum. The Sculptures are precisely among the group of key objects, indispensable to the Museum’s essential, universal purpose, and thus fell within the category of objects that cannot be lent … I would not wish to leave you with the impression that any negotiation on the issue you raised is under way. This would be misleading. I am bound, in all frankness, to repeat that I cannot envisage the circumstances under which the Trustees would regard it as being in the Museum’s interest, or consistent with its duty, to endorse a loan, permanent or temporary, of the Parthenon sculptures in its collections.

In addition to the adamant refusal of a loan due to the importance of the Parthenon sculptures the British Museum has also frequently claimed that the Sculptures are too fragile to move and could therefore not be loaned. Given these past claims, it has come as a great surprise to the international community that the British Museum clandestinely arranged for one of the Parthenon sculptures to be loaned to the State Hermitage Museum in Russia for a two month exhibition. This action has enraged Greek officials and reunification campaigners alike. It even appears to have taken the Biritish government by surprise. With UNESCO recently having urged Britain to respond to the mediation request initiated by Greece within a six month deadline and with the British Museum clearly acting in contrast to their past claims, the matter of reunification of the Parthenon sculptures has come into the spotlight with the world waiting to see what the next move will be!




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.