The Elgin Marbles are staying put in London
Athens would be better advised to preserve its own historic treasures
In 2003 the British Museum will celebrate its 250th anniversary. Though the museum has undergone many changes, there remains a single presiding purpose, namely to provide knowledge freely to any that seek it. Many millions of people from all over the world have found enjoyment and meaning in the galleries and study rooms of the museum, and many generations have been privileged to serve them.

The unique experience that the British Museum can offer depends on the diversity of the cultures, ancient and modern, it represents. The British Museum transcends national boundaries. It has never been, in spite of its name, a museum of British culture; it is a museum of the world, and its purpose is to display the works of mankind of all periods and of all places. The idea of cultural restitution is the anathema of this principle.

The British Museum holds no place for nationalism. In any case, today’s national boundaries and cultural mixes bear little relation to the ancient past. The restitutionist premise, that whatever was made in a country must return to an original geographical site, would empty both the British Museum and the other great museums of the world.

The idea of a universal museum is the outcome of the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment when curiosity was fostered in all branches of art and science. The collections of the British Museum were often assembled by talented individuals who saw the value of the objects they acquired before others appreciated them.

These men include Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, who has been unjustly defamed by the campaign for the restitution of the Elgin Marbles, but who deserves his place in history along with other diplomats whose collections came to the museum. Such men saw their embassies abroad as opportunities to promote public understanding at home of the ancient and modern cultures they encountered on their travels.

The Parthenon known to Elgin had been turned into a ruin at the end of the 17th century by an explosion caused by a Venetian shell. We are indebted to Elgin for having rescued the Parthenon sculptures and others from the Acropolis from the destruction they were suffering, as well as damage that the Acropolis monuments, including the sculptures that he did not remove, have suffered since.

The Parthenon sculptures are now one of the greatest treasures of the British Museum and they have been at the heart of its classical collections since they were acquired in 1816. The gallery in which they are housed has been described as “one of the central places of earth”. They are among a select number of objects in the museum that are intrinsic to its identity.

Inevitably, there are occasional requests to lend some of these objects to exhibitions abroad. The museum has a very generous loans policy, but the trustees are determined that such loans should not deprive visitors of the chance to see objects that are famously part of the museum’s collections, which they may reasonably expect to see on display when they come, and which offer the public an overall sense of the past.

There has been speculation recently as to whether for the Olympic year of 2004, the museum might agree to lend the Parthenon sculptures for exhibition in Athens. It is normal courtesy that such loan requests are addressed first to the Museum Director, but so far no such request has been received. Instead, there are press reports that a museum is being constructed in Athens, designed especially to house the British Museum’s own sculptures.

No mention is made in these reports of the urgent need in Athens of a proper building for displaying the many sculptures of the Parthenon and other treasures that are currently lumbered in store-rooms. These include 14 blocks of the west frieze that were removed, much damaged by weathering, from the Parthenon in 1993 and have not been seen by the public since then. Other sculptures are currently left on the building and suffer the same damage. If symbolic gestures for 2004 are called for, there could be none better than Greece making sure that it properly displays what it already has.

Meanwhile, the British Museum’s sculptures are where they will remain, in the museum’s own purpose-built gallery, where they are displayed free for all. The museum has always regarded it as a privilege to display some of the finest artworks known to mankind and it has a responsibility to promote public understanding of them through exhibitions and publications. The first responsibility of the museum is, however, to keep the objects safe for present and future generations.

The collections of the museum are safeguarded against any attempt to dispose of them by far-sighted legislation. This affects not only items of the first significance such as the Parthenon sculptures, but every object that is registered as part of the collection. The museum owns the collections, but its trustees are not empowered to dispose of them. This limit on their powers extends to loans, where there can be no guarantee of an object being returned.

Greece has given up previous attempts to challenge the British Museum’s legal ownership, which is in any case unassailable, but still seeks possession of them by attempting to pressure the museum into agreeing to a loan. The museum has neither the power to assent to such a loan nor does it wish to offer its agreement to a proposal which is transparently against the interests of the many visitors who flock to the British Museum from all over the world and is contrary to the liberal principles which the museum serves.

The author is the Director of the British Museum.