If you happen to be in St. Petersburg between now and Jan. 18 and visit the State Hermitage Museum, you can take the opportunity to admire a magnificent example of ancient Greek art: the 5th-century B.C. marble statue of the river god Ilissos from the Parthenon in Athens is currently on loan to Russia from the British Museum.
The surprising loan has caused an uproar, and not only because some wonder if the statue may be held hostage were tense relations between Russian and the West over Ukraine to suddenly deteriorate. British Museum general director Neil MacGregor, who has close relations with his St. Petersburg colleagues, is convinced there is no risk that he wouldn't get the statue back. The big question, however, is whether it is his to lend in the first place.
The headless figure of Ilissos is, of course, one of those artifacts that the British Museum no longer calls the Elgin marbles, and the loan has provided fresh fuel to the always smouldering debate as to whether Britain should return the Parthenon marbles to Greece. Justifying the loan marking the Hermitage's 250th anniversary, MacGregor has pointed out that the British Museum is the biggest lender of artifacts in the international museum community and has a proud tradition of maintaining those cultural exchanges despite political disagreements between states. Nonetheless, Greece, which has demanded return since the 1980s, sees the loan to Russia as a provocation. Public opinion is shifting to the Greeks, and that trip to the Hermitage may yet be remembered as the turning point in the Parthenon marbles debate.
It certainly weakens claims that the British Museum is somehow the only safe and rightful place for the statuary. The British Museum argues that the marbles were removed from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (which included Greece) in the early 19th century, with approval of the authorities at a time when half of the statues were already missing. The suggestion (and the most common argument you hear in favour of the British Museum position) is that the foresighted Lord Elgin saved the marbles for posterity. The Greeks, on the other hand, now call it looting.
The British Museum's current position is that its collection of marbles allows an international audience to see these Greek antiquities in the context of world culture while the marbles that remain in Greece, on display in the Acropolis museum at the foot of the Parthenon, let visitors see them in their original context. The Greeks, on the other hand, want all the statuary in one place, the museum they opened for that purpose in 2009.
The two sides even disagree on whether they are willing to discuss a loan to the Greeks: The British say the Greeks won't consider it; the Greeks say they are open to any form of negotiation.
The Parthenon marbles debate has often made the museum world very nervous: Collections are filled with objects whose acquisition histories would not pass a contemporary smell test. A 2000 study by two British archaeologists of more than 1,000 objects from important international collections of Greek and Roman antiquities revealed that about 75 per cent could not show a reliable provenance history. Pressed by the newspaper Der Spiegel last week, a German government museum executive discovered his own institutions had been acquiring objects through the often-dubious antiquities trade as recently as the mid-1980s. Der Spiegel was on the case because the German government was hosting a conference on the issue as concerns mount about the trade in artifacts looted from Iraq in 2003 and now Syria. Paradoxically, the alarm over looting in the Middle East means the principle of returning objects to their original countries is becoming increasingly well established in the international community.
All debates about the correct custodianship of contested art objects, from the European paintings that belonged to Holocaust victims to the First Nations religious objects in many North American collections, are filled with shades of grey; in the case of the Parthenon marbles, you can probably judge the British Museum to be a pretty dark colour and the Greek government to be a rather dirty white.
What's politically important is that the British public increasingly thinks the marbles should be returned: Various opinion polls show more Britons support return than don't. And the number who support return appears to be rising, their conviction no doubt solidified by such high-profile campaigners for the Greek side as human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin Clooney. So, the British Museum's rather patronizing position that it remains the best place for the marbles to be exhibited to the world looks increasingly out of step with pluralist times.
It won't be in 2015, it wouldn't be in 2016, but the day will come when there will be only one place you can see the headless Ilissos, and that won't be London or St. Petersburg.