The headless statue of a Greek river-god, Ilissos, which is part of the Parthenon marbles, has been allowed to leave Britain for the first time through a loan of a sculpture to a Russian museum. The work will go on display in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg on today to help celebrate the institution’s 250th anniversary.
The marbles have been held by the British Museum since Lord Elgin, removed them from the Parthenon in Athens in the 19th century. Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, said it opened its doors five years before the Hermitage and that the two institutions were “almost twins, they are the first great museums of the European Enlightenment”.
He added in a statement to the Guardian: “The British Museum is a museum of the world, for the world and nothing demonstrates this more than the loan of a Parthenon sculpture to the State Hermitage.”
The decision to loan the work is likely to cause controversy due to the current bad relations between Russia and the west in the wake of the invasion of eastern Ukraine earlier this year and the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in July, killing all 298 people on board.
MacGregor went on to telll the Times: “The politics of both museums have been that the more chilly the politics between governments, the more important the relationship between museums.”
The two-month loan will likely continue the debate of whether the marbles should be returned to Greece. The Greek government has argued for the past four decades that the 2,500-year-old sculptures belong in a museum in Athens. The British Museum is the most generous lender in the world, MacGregor added. The loan of the sculpture was only agreed a fortnight ago. Sir Richard Lambert, the chairman of the British Museum’s trustees, said to the Guardian that they wanted to “leave room for flexibility if the political relationship between western Europe and Russia changed”.
However, the repatriation of the Parthenon marbles, the director concluded: “To date they have always made it clear that they would not return them. That rather puts the conversation on pause.”