28.07.2009 Feature Article

The Amazing Director Of The British Museum: Gratuitous Insults As Currency Of Cultural Diplomacy?

The Amazing Director Of The British Museum: Gratuitous Insults As Currency Of Cultural Diplomacy?
28.07.2009 LISTEN

It seems there is nobody in the whole of Great Britain who can persuade the Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, to refrain from making atrocious statements about cultural matters, especially about cultural objects of others which have been looted or removed under dubious circumstance and brought to the British Museum. Apart from his equally offensive theory that the cultures of others can only be properly understood in the British Museum which has many other looted objects, he recently argued that the Benin bronzes were made from materials produced in Europe and that this somehow gives the British Museum legitimacy to hold the looted bronzes. The following insulting statement, made recently, is in line with his usual disrespect for others “The Greek government has simply continued Elgin's practice and removed the rest [of the Parthenon Marbles] now from the building, because you can't see them on the building. When those sculptures came to London, for the first time they were at a height where people could see them and they were in a place where tens, hundreds of thousands of people could see these were great objects.” (1)

With all due respect, given the background of the dispute concerning the Elgin/Parthenon Marbles, this is an unacceptable insult not only to the Greeks and their Government but also to the British public which has repeatedly and overwhelmingly spoken in favour of returning the Marbles to Athens. (2) The United Nations, UNESCO and countless international organizations have also called for the return of cultural objects such as the Parthenon Marbles to their countries of origin.(3)

One may take whichever side is deemed reasonable in this debate which has been going on for some several decades but must one insult the opposing side? MacGregor knows very well that the name of Elgin has become synonymous with vandalism following the brutal removal of the Marbles from Athens by Elgin.(4)That a Director of the British Museum can speak in this fashion is a sad commentary on the state of affairs regarding the restitution of cultural objects. Since the British Museum does not have any more valid arguments against the return of the Marbles, it appears the tactic now is to insult the Greeks to such an extent that any civil discussion will soon be impossible. In the meanwhile, the Marbles can remain where they are: in the British Museum. But this is a cheap strategy which can buy the British Museum only some breathing space until the majority of the British decide that their long-term interests are not best served by museums with such an unhelpful approach.

How can a University-educated person declare that the fact that artefacts have been removed from elsewhere and brought to the British Museum must mean that they were legally removed, given the history of long disputes regarding many objects in the British Museum?

“…there's no question it was legal because you can't move those things without the approval of the power of the day. It was clearly allowed, or it wouldn't have happened.”

On MacGregor's line of reasoning, all artefacts which have been looted or stolen in the colonial period, irrespective of their individual histories and circumstances, must have been legally removed since they were successfully removed. So what have all the debates concerning restitution been about in the last hundred or so years?

The Director of the British Museum gives the impression that the Greeks have not been willing to talk about the various issues surrounding the Marbles:

” We have been disappointed that we have never had that conversation with the Greek government....The trustees [of the British Museum] have made it clear many times that that's a conversation they would like to have”. The impression conveyed by this statement is, to put it very mildly, very misleading. Those who were not born yesterday may remember that the charismatic Greek Minister of Culture, Melina Mercouri, even came to London to discuss these issues and this gave the then director of the British Museum, David Wilson, the opportunity to describe as cultural fascists all who advocated the return of the Marbles to Athens(5). It seems to becoming a habit of some museum directors to insult all those who seek to retrieve their looted or stolen cultural artefacts from the imperial museum. Would anyone blame the Greeks if they did not want to discuss with those who have taken their cultural objects and insult them whenever they put in a demand for restitution?

After the Greeks have built an ultra-modern museum, New Acropolis Museum, to respond to the long-standing British argument that there was no suitable place in Athens for the Parthenon Marbles, MacGregor, who did not even bother to attend the opening of the New Acropolis Museum, is now saying that the argument on location is now a question of the past and was never an important British contention. (6) He must credit all of us with very short memories and very little intelligence.

We thought for a long time that a notable characteristic of British officials was a certain diplomatic approach but on hearing MacGregor and his associates, we start thinking that this assessment perhaps requires a drastic revision, if not, a total reverse. The recent statements of the British Museum director are not exactly calculated to foster harmonious relations with the Greeks and the Greek government. But who ever said that museums are there, among other things, to foster good relations between nations and cultures?

MacGregor put forward a diversionary argument in the following statement:

“The real question is about how the Greek and British governments can work together so that the sculptures can be seen in China and Africa”.

Who told MacGregor that Africans are dying to see the Parthenon Marbles?

We would be happy if the British Museum could return some of the looted African artefacts like the Benin bronzes. He should not underestimate the intelligence of mankind. Everybody can see how the British Museum Director and his supporters are now lost for argument. Whatever else the British Museum and its officials do in this matter, I plead fervently that they leave the Chinese and the Africans out of this matter. Our peoples have always, through the United Nations and UNESCO supported the Greeks on this issue just as the majority of the British people are in favour of returning the Marbles. The Scottish Parliament has also spoken in favour of the Greeks.

It has become very clear for all those who follow cultural affairs that there is no serious intention on the part of the British Museum to discuss the question of the Elgin/Parthenon Marbles.(7) This is doing an enormous damage to the reputation of the British in the world of culture.

These insulting statements were delivered by MacGregor from the respectable London School of Economics, University of London. The LSE has always had a solid reputation abroad even during the worst periods of British colonialism and imperialism. Could we plead with MacGregor and others not to drag the reputation of the respectable institution into the mud by preaching and expounding unfounded arguments there?

Kwame Opoku.
1. Culturegrrl MacGregor Whopper: Greek Government "Simply Continued Elgin's Practice"

MacGregor's colleague, James Cuno, Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, shares the disrespect for others. Cuno declared publicly his readiness to consider demands for restitution at the opening of the recent Benin exhibition which his institute had organized with the Benin Royal Family, among others. The Royal Family sent a request in 2008 for the restitution of Benin bronzes to the Art Institute of Chicago but up to now, Cuno has not even bothered to acknowledge receipt of the request. Would he have acted in this fashion if the request came from a European Royalty? The general disrespect of many Western museum directors towards African will surely not go unnoticed.

K. Opoku, “Benin Exhibition in Chicago: Cuno Agrees to Consider Request for Restitution of Benin Bronzes”,
K. Opoku, “Formal Demand for the Return of Benin Bronzes: Will Western Museums now Return Some of the Looted/Stolen Benin Bronzes? “
2. Recent polls by the Guardian have confirmed this 94.8 5% were in favour of returning the Marbles to Athens and only 5.2% were against. . Aida Edemariam “How G2's Parthenon marbles poll went global”,

3. See the Conclusions of the Athens International Conference

on the Return of Cultural Objects to their Countries of Origin

Athens, 17-18 March 2008,

4. “What is elginism?”

Lord Elgin's name has become synonymous with vandalism.

“The practice of plundering artifacts from their original setting is sometimes referred to as 'elginism', while the claim, sometimes used by looters and collectors, that they are trying to rescue the artifacts they recover has become known as the "Elgin Excuse". Wikipedia,

What is elginism? An act of cultural vandalism.
elginism) n. 1801. An act of cultural vandalism
Elginism (ĕl'gĭnĭz'əm) n. 1801. [f. the name of Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin (1766-1841); see —ISM. Cf. Fr. elginisme & Sp. elginismo.]

An act of cultural vandalism. A term coined by the destructive actions of Lord Elgin who illegally transported the Parthenon Marbles from Greece to London between 1801 and 1805. Now also applies to other cultural objects. Usually refers to artefacts taken from poorer nations to richer ones.

It has a profound negative effect on the art world because many artefacts are destroyed when they are torn out of their cultural & spatial context. Due to this, scholars are unable to retrieve valuable historical information because they can

only deal with fragmentary remains instead of a complete unified object. Decontextualised artefacts that end up in a museum or gallery are often given the name of the person who perpetrated their removal from their original setting (see Elgin Marbles). The French use the term elginisme to describe the practice of stealing antique fittings from old houses. The act of elginism has been going on for thousands of years, however the Elgin Marbles are now considered to be the classic case of elginism.

Christopher Hitchens, The Parthenon Marbles, Verso, London, 2008, pp. 17-18.:

“The Disdar, who beheld the mischief done to the building, took his pipe out of his mouth, dropped a tear, and in a supplicating tone of voice said to Lusieri, It is finished”.

Mary Beard, The Parthenon, Profile Books, London, 2004, p. 88:

The one clear fact about Elgin, interventions is that he did not ransack an “archaeological site” in any sense that we would recognise. He removed, more systematically-indeed more ruthlessly-than any of his predecessors, surviving sculptures of a precious remnant of classical antiquity that was standing (just about) in the middle of a rough-and-ready military base”

5. Christopher Hitchens, The Parthenon Marbles, pp. 97-99

I found in this useful book, a report on an interview said to have been given by David Wilson, then Director of the British Museum who threw the accusation of “nationalism” and “fascism” at the supporters of restitution. His statements are so remarkable in their violence and lack of logic that I feel everyone should read them:

“In a BBC television discussion on 15 June 1985, Sir David Wilson, Director of the British Museum, was invited to contrast his opinions with those of Melina Mersouri. Sir David had already exhibited a certain lack of gallantry when, on an earlier visit to London, Mrs. Mercouri had expressed a wish to visit the Museum and view the marbles. On that occasion he had said publicly that it was not usual to allow burglars 'to case the joint' in advance. But once before the cameras he easily improved on this ill-mannered exaggeration. 'To rip the Elgin Marbles from the walls of the British Museum' he said, 'is a much greater disaster than the threat of blowing up the Parthenon'. This might have been thought hyperbolic, if Sir David had not gone on to say, in response to a mild question about the feasibility of restitution:

Oh, anything can be done. That's what Hitler said, that's what Mussolini

said when he got Italian trains to run on time
The interviewer, David Lomax, broke in to say:
You are not seriously suggesting there's a parallel between…

Sir David was unrepentant:
Yes, I am. I think this is cultural fascism. It's nationalism and it's cultural danger. Enormous cultural danger. If you start to destroy great intellectual institutions, you are culturally fascist.

LOMAX: What do you mean by cultural fascist?
WILSON: You are destroying the whole fabric of intellectual achievement. You are starting to erode it. I can't say you are destroying, you are starting to erode. I think it's a very, very serious, thing to do. It's a thing you ought to think of very careful, it's like burning books. That's what Hitler did, I think you've to be very careful about that.

LOMAX: But are you seriously suggesting that the people who want the Elgin Marbles to go back to Greece, who feel there's an overwhelming moral case that they should go back, are guilty of cultural fascism?

WILSON: I think not the people who are wanting the Elgin Marbles to go back to Greece if they are Greek. But I think that the world opinion and the people in this country who want the Elgin Marbles to go back to Greece are actually guilty of something very much approaching it, it is censoring the British Museum. And I think that this is a bad thing to do. It is as bad as burning books”.

This is an extraordinary performance by a Director of the British Museum. One can sympathize with his desperation in face of the mounting pressure to return the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles to Athens and the great presence of the unforgettable Melina Mercouri in London. But can anyone excuse his shameful performance?

6. “UK representatives absent at New Acropolis Museum opening”,

Kerin Hope,” UK Asent from Greece's Acropolis Celebration”

7. Kwame Opoku, “Will the British Museum ever Modify its Claim to be Unquestionable Legal Owner of the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles and all Other Stolen Items in the Museum?”