The director of the British Museum has caused controversy and is facing an international backlash after defending the removal of the Parthenon marbles from Greece in the early 1800’s as “a creative act”.
In an interview with the Greek daily newspaper Ta Nea, Hartwig Fischer ruled out the repatriation of the 2,500 year old sculptures which many people consider as stolen or looted artefacts and call for their rightful return to Athens.
In the interview, Fischer said that when museums offer a new context to engage with cultural heritage, they are acting in a creative way. “When you move cultural heritage into a museum, you move it out of context. Yet that displacement is also a creative act,” Fishcer said.
He went further to say that the sculptures “tell different stories” about the Parthenon, which at varying points throughout history served different purposes like a temple of Athena, a church and even a mosque. It was rediscovered after years of neglect following bombings in 1687. “The rediscovery is obviously part of European history,” Fishcer said, adding that the museum shows the sculptures in a context of world cultures.
Originally constructed by the fifth-century sculptor Phidias, the marbles were only later added to the Parthenon and other structures on the Acropolis. The collection on permanent display at the British Museum in London are commonly referred to as the Elgin Marbles, after British nobleman Lord Elgin removed them from Athens.
George Vardas, the secretary of the international association for reunification of Parthenon Sculptures, tweeted: “What was so creative in the destruction of the temple and looting and pillage of a nation’s keys to its ancient history?” He referred to Fischer’s comments “astonishing historical revisionism and arrogance”, and further added that “the imperial condescension of the British Museum knows no bounds.
Further into the interview, Fischer rejected the idea that Greece was the rightful owner of the marbles. “The objects in the collection of the British Museum are owned by the museum’s commissioners,” he said. When asked about the possibility loaning the marbles to Greece, Fischer said it would only be possible if Greece were to recognise the British Museum’s legitimate ownership of the marbles.
“Since the beginning of the 19th century, the monument’s history is enriched by the fact that some parts of it are in Athens and some are in London where six million people see them every year,” Fischer said.
When asked to consider their return to Athens, he said that the sculptures were no more made for the Acropolis Museum than they were for the British Museum as neither institutions are their “original context”. He also said that the government would have to rewrite laws for them to be able to return the sculptures as the legal owners are the British Museum’s trustees, whose responsibility to preserve the museum’s collection for future generations is legally bound by the British Parliament.
Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the UK’s Labour Party, has famously promised to oversee their repatriation if he were elected prime minister. Fischer disregarded Corbyn’s comments as his “personal view”, and one that does not reflect the opinions of the museum’s trustees.
A spokesperson for the British Museum said: “Hartwig Fischer was stating the longstanding position of the British Museum. We believe there is a great public benefit in being able to see these wonderful objects in the context of a world collection. The museum lends extensively across the world, and some loans are long-term but not indefinite.”