Artwatch UK

How Illissos (and Mr MacGregor) flew close to the Sun

In the new Art Newspaper it is reported that the free-standing Parthenon sculpture, Illissos, was flown by a “circuitous” route when loaned by the British Museum to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. It did so, it has been acknowledged by the Hermitage’s director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, to avoid possible Greek seizure through the E.U. courts.

The Hermitage Museum director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, and the British Museum’s (then) director, Neil MacGregor, at the press opening of the loaned Parthenon sculpture Illissos in St Petersburg in December 2014.

As the Art Newspaper reports:

‘Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage, tells us that to forestall any attempt to intercept the sculpture, it was flown from London to St Petersburg “circuitously”. He says: “It could not be transported through Europe, because Greece believe that it belongs to them and they could have attempted to seize it at some airport en route, and according to the laws of the European Union, this would have been legitimate.” The exact route it took is a mystery, however. Did it travel via the Arctic or over North Africa? Piotrovsky declines to say, and a spokeswoman for the British Museum will only say: “When flying any loan overseas, the British Museum chooses the most direct route possible. This was true for the loan of Ilissos to the Hermitage.”’

Previously, in a letter to the Times and in our Spring 2015 Journal (- see below), we attacked the fact of the profoundly politically provocative, insensitive and physically dangerous loan that was conducted in such secrecy that neither the UK Goverment nor any of its cultural agencies were informed of the loan. But we had not disclosed that the sculpture was, in truth, flown in two stages via a Middle-Eastern state, thereby subjecting the sculpture to additional risks and to four take-offs and four landings in addition to transportation by the usual lorries and fork-lift trucks.

“Where should the Elgin Marbles be housed?” – ArtWatch UK Letter to The Times, 9 December 2014:

“Sir, On balance, the case for the British Museum retaining the Elgin Marbles stands (reports, Dec 5 & 6), but it has been gravely weakened by the irresponsible and gratuitously provocative loan of one of the works to the Hermitage Museum.

The case for continuing to hold the Elgin Marbles in Bloomsbury after two centuries has rested in part on the physical safety of the collection and on permitting the illuminating artistic pre-eminence of the sculptures themselves to be best appreciated in the context of a multi-cultural, international ‘encyclopaedic’ museum.

That the present venture has exposed what is arguably the world’s supreme depiction of a nude male figure to serious and needless risks is confirmed by the museum’s defence of its own great secrecy. As you report, its registrar boasted that ‘museums are good at mitigating risk’; that the loan needed undisclosed insurance; and that, if intercepted by thieves, ‘they would be unable to sell it’.

Reducing risk is not the same as eliminating or declining to incur it. Positively embracing risk by placing the sculpture on a lorry, a passenger aircraft (months after another was brought down by Russian-armed separatists in Eastern Europe) and another lorry, on each leg of the journey, can only be seen as a failure of imagination and a dereliction of duty on the part of the museum’s trustees.”

ArtWatch UK Journal No. 29

In the introduction to Journal 29, (“Museums, Means and Menaces”) we noted that museums had once provided havens for art and solace to visitors; that they had been cherished for their distinctive historically-given holdings and that their staffs were (appropriately) answerable to trustees. Today, we complained, museums serve as platforms for conservators to strut their invasive stuff and as springboards for directors wishing to play impresario, broadcaster or global ambassador. Collections that constituted institutional raisons d’être, are now swappable, disrupt-able value-harvesting feasts. Trustees are reduced to helpmeet enablers of directorial “visions”. No longer content to hold, display and study, museums crave growth, action, crowds and corporately branded income-generation. For works of art, actions spell danger as directors compete to beg, bribe and cajole so as to borrow and swap great art for transient but lucrative “dream” compilations. Today, even architecturally integral medieval glass and gilded bronze Renaissance door panels get shuttled around the international museum loans circus (- see Chartres’ Flying Windows).

We had supported the British Museum’s retention of the so-called Elgin Marbles for over a decade, in print and in public debates in New York, Athens and Brussels (- see Journals 19, 20, 25 and 26).

We complained that the loan had breached a two-centuries long honouring of the original terms of purchase which had required that the Parthenon carvings collection be kept intact within the museum and that this state be regarded as inviolable. We had learned that the British Museum’s (supine) trustees, having already conferred an effective vote of confidence in Putin’s Russia just months after that country had annexed the Crimea, and Russian-armed separatists in eastern Ukraine had destroyed a Malaysian Airlines Boeing with a loss of 298 lives, including around 100 children (see Journal 29 cover above), were reportedly considering a further three loans to other “suitable” museums. This declared intention gave the lie to suggestions that the loan to St Petersburg had been an exceptional case made in celebration of the Hermitage Museum’s 250th anniversary. Given that a key consideration in ArtWatch UK’s support of the museum’s retention of the Parthenon carvings had been their relative safety in the museum, the undiscussed action and reversal of policy meant that it had become impossible for us to maintain that support. Now, in the light of Mikhail Piotrovksy’s disclosure, it is surely time for the Trustees of the British Museum to cease sheltering behind the unfounded statements of its spokespeople and disclose the route by which a manoeuvre to evade the possible processes of European law was made. The Trustees might also make clear whether the provocative Parthenon loans policy initiated by the previous director is to be maintained under the new director.

Michael Daley, 9 March 2016

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