Magazine article The Spectator

Stop Being So Tight-Fisted

Magazine article The Spectator

Stop Being So Tight-Fisted

Article excerpt

Many years ago, some people I know took a long walk in Suffolk to the site of Sutton Hoo. At the end of their journey they hoped to find the celebrated Dark Age treasure once buried in that spot. Instead, they met a local who tersely informed them that what they sought was in the British Museum. But these days, of course, if they made the same journey, it would not be in vain. Instead of nothing at all, they would now find a visitor centre, plus some of the actual objects from the site and replicas of others. This archaeological repatriation from Bloomsbury to East Anglia has been, I hear, a great success.

There is a moral to the story. It is that these are changing times for museums. Once all that was of value or beauty was sucked into some vast porticoed receptacle in the capital city. Nowadays, just occasionally, items escape and return whence they had come. And, more and more, the possessions of the British Museum, the National Gallery, the V&A and the Tate wander the world in order to appear in the huge number of exhibitions that are an ever more frequent feature of the art-world calendar.

This is a period of a different kind of change at the great museums of London. Within 12 months just about all of them are going to acquire a new director. The big exception is the Tate empire where things look fairly settled (although eventually, I suppose, a successor to Lars Nittve as director of Tate Modern will be appointed). Otherwise, as has been widely publicised, Neil MacGregor will shift from the National Gallery to the BM, Charles Saumarez Smith will pop round the corner from the National Portrait Gallery to take over from him (and someone, as yet unknown, will succeed at the NPG). At the V&A, you will remember, a new director moved in last year.

What should all these new drivers do with the grand and - except for Tate Modern - venerable vehicles when they get their hands on the controls? Here are a few modest pieces of advice.

First of all, be less selfish and kinder to each other. The director who has the longest-standing and most widely publicised call on his generosity will be, of course, Neil MacGregor. It comes, as everyone knows, from Athens. Of course, the Greeks lost a lot of points by treating those poor plane-spotting anoraks so badly. But, still, they will continue to ask for their marbles back - and they've got a reasonable case.

It is true that the question of ownership - lucidly set out by William St Clair in his book Lord Elgin and The Marbles - is utterly ambiguous. But sculptures created for a specific building, which still exists, ought to be shown as close to their original location as possible. If bits of the Sutton Hoo treasure can go back to Suffolk, then some at least of the Parthenon Marbles can go back to the Acropolis.

I suspect that Neil MacGregor is farsighted enough to recognise the inevitable, and has the diplomatic skills to do the necessary deals. The obvious answer is the creation of a British Museum, Athens which would allow the Trustees to retain ownership - showing a selection of the sculptures (with generous reciprocal loans from the Greek collections). No doubt a grateful EU would fund the building, which would probably turn out, like most major projects these days, to be designed by Sir Norman Foster.

But the marbles are only one example in which our museums could lighten up and stop being so tight-fisted. Their collections, as I was remarking earlier in the year, represent a patchwork of ancestral territories that run higgledy-piggledy over art history. …

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