ARTICLE

Art & Antiques, April 2003

Culture Clash: An Interview with Neil MacGregor

LONDON - The Elgin Marbles, an ensemble of friezes and sculptures taken from the Parthenon by a British nobleman, have been displayed in the British Museum since 1816. Museum Director Neil MacGregor took office in August and now stands at the center of the world's most enduring conflict over cultural heritage. In a Q&A with Art & Antiques, MacGregor talks about Greece's demands that the marbles be returned in time for the 2004 Olympics. He also touches on the venerable institution's fiscal crisis.

A&A

About 40 percent [of the Parthenon sculptures] are in Athens, 50 percent are here, and the rest are scattered around museums all over Europe. You're an art historian. Wouldn't it be nice to have them all in one place? Don't the Greeks have a point on that?

NM

Of course they have a point, but half the marbles are lost forever. We're talking about the proportions of what remains. They can't get them up onto the Parthenon because it's a ruin, so the argument that one normally makes for gathering things together from the same ensemble, that you are restoring or recovering the work of art, doesn't apply here. One has got to recognize that their life as part of the Parthenon is over. It seems to me rather a fortunate accident of history that about half of what survived is in London.

A&A

Any murmurs among the museum's trustees about trying to find some agreement?

NM

No. It's the Greeks who decided to make this a foreign policy issue. We would expect among European countries to discuss this kind of question among museums. As for the trustees, they have always taken the view that the Parthenon sculptures are an essential part of the story that the museum exists to tell. It should stay together.

A&A

In your meetings with the Greek Minister of Culture in November 2002, did you detect any change in the Greek position? Are they interested in a loan for the 2004 Olympics in Athens?

NM

No. Greece's position is perpetual possession of all the Parthenon sculptures.

A&A

The idea that returning the Elgin Marbles would open the floodgates to more demands, do you believe that?

NM

I think everybody in the museum community feels that once you start un-picking museums because of political pressure, you set a very dangerous precedent. You are certainly going to stimulate pressures for other un-pickings.

A&A

A few days before you took office, a 6th century B.C. Greek marble head was stolen from the museum. How did this happen and has there been any progress in recovering it?

NM

There has been no progress. It's a very small head, about a foot high. It was attached to a metal rod and it was wrenched off when the guard was not looking, and it was small enough to be concealed to be carried off. It was rather a bashed head, so I think it would be an odd object for someone to plan to try to steal.

A&A

So someone walked into the museum and stole it?

NM

Well, I think it's unlikely to have been targeted as a desired object. I suppose more likely it was an opportunistic event.

A&A

This museum is having serious financial problems, and yet it does not charge admission. Are you receiving enough support from the British government to compensate?

NM

The government grant is certainly enough to fill the museum's main functions. It would always be nice to have more money but (government funding) will enable us to remain open and free, carry on research, carry on publishing, and carry on allowing the public to explore the collections. The museum has always been free, like the Smithsonian and the National Gallery in Washington, and that seems to us absolutely fundamental.

A&A

Are you finding you have to spend more time lobbying for money than you would have liked?

NM

Lobbying the government and beseeching the private benefactors are certainly large parts of the job description. But is it too much? No. All museum directors have to do that.

--Roger Atwood



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