British Museum blog

Loan of a Parthenon sculpture to the Hermitage: a marble ambassador of a European ideal

Neil MacGregor, Director, British Museum

The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

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 Museum in St Petersburg to celebrate its 250th anniversary.

The river-god Ilissos. Marble statue from the West pediment of the Parthenon.

The river-god Ilissos. Marble statue from the West pediment of the Parthenon, Athens, Greece, 438–432 BC (British Museum 1816,0610.99)

The British Museum opened its doors in 1759, just five years before the Hermitage. Sisters, almost twins, they are the first great museums of the European Enlightenment. But they were never just about Europe. The Trustees of the British Museum were set up by Parliament to hold their collection to benefit not only the citizens of Great Britain, but ‘all studious and curious persons’ everywhere. The Museum today is the most generous lender in the world, sending great Assyrian objects to China, Egyptian objects to India and Iranian objects to the United States – making a reality of the Enlightenment ideal that the greatest things in the world should be seen and studied, shared and enjoyed by as many people in as many countries as possible.

The Trustees have always believed that such loans must continue between museums in spite of political disagreements between governments. That is why in 2011 they lent the Cyrus Cylinder, the document setting out the humane ideals of the ancient Persian Empire, to Tehran. It is a position energetically shared by our counterparts in Russia. Last year, the Hermitage lent the spectacular collection of paintings, formed by Sir Robert Walpole and sold to Catherine the Great, back to his country house, Houghton Hall, for the summer. Loans from Russian museums enriched the recent exhibition Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind and the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend both at the British Museum, and Malevich at Tate Modern earlier this year was an outstanding act of Russian generosity, enjoyed by thousands of visitors. Both Tate and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts are in return lending works to the exhibition Francis Bacon and the Art of the Past which opens at the Hermitage this weekend.

So, when our colleagues at the Hermitage asked if we might also make an important loan to celebrate their 250th anniversary, the Trustees immediately answered yes. And no loan could more fittingly mark the long friendship of our two houses, or the period of their founding, than a sculpture from the Parthenon.

Sculptures from the West pediment on display in the Parthenon Galleries (Room 18)

Sculptures from the West pediment on display in Room 18

The great leader of Athens, and the visionary spokesman for its exemplary status for all humanity, was Pericles. In 431 BC, in his famous funeral oration for the heroic Athenian dead, he proclaimed the world-wide renown to which destiny had summoned both them, and their city:

For glorious men like them, the whole earth is their sepulchre. And their memorial is carved not only on a headstone by their home, but far away in foreign lands, unwritten, in the minds of every man…

Marble portrait bust of Pericles. Roman copy of a Greek original (British Museum GR 1805.0703.91)

Marble portrait bust of Pericles. Roman copy of a Greek original (British Museum GR 1805.0703.91)

Two and a half thousand years later, I hope that Pericles would applaud the journey of Ilissos to Russia, where ‘far away in foreign lands’, this stone ambassador of the Greek golden age and European ideals will write ancient Athens’s achievements – aesthetic, moral and political – in ‘the minds of every man’. It is a message that Russia, and the whole world, need to hear and I am delighted that the British Museum has been able to lend such a remarkable object.

This post is based on the text of an article by Neil MacGregor for The Times, 5 December 2014.

Press release – British Museum loan of Parthenon Sculpture to State Hermitage Museum

The river-god Ilissos from the West pediment of the Parthenon is on display at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, from Saturday 6 December 2014 until 18 January 2015.

More about the Parthenon sculptures on the British Museum website

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Facing Enlightenment – reflecting after the event

Facing Enlightenment event
Peter Sheppard Skӕrved wrote a post in November about his then upcoming performance in the Enlightenment Gallery. Here he reflects on the event.

On 13 December, I returned to the British Museum for the next stage of my adventure with the wonderful Enlightenment Gallery. A joy of this unique room is that it is not only an exhibit concerning the histories of ideas, but a place in which to have ideas. As a musician, I well know that until I spend time in a space, I cannot predict what will emerge. Nowhere is this more the case than with ‘Room 1’.

Every time I work here, I am struck how the Enlightenment Gallery quietly shifts its visitors into a salon environment, whether they are expecting it or not! I decided to begin my salon alone. I arrived early, before opening, to sit with my violin, to play, watch and listen, to see what new ideas began to flow. At various points during the day, there were changes of pace: my harpsichordist, Julian Perkins came to hang out and play a little in the morning and it was a fantastic chance to watch him respond to the architecture, the sounds (this is, after all, a room which is about people), and the objects in close proximity. We worked on the 17th-century works by Walther and Matteis, and they began to change, in tangible and intangible ways, finding their way as the room found its way to them.

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved performing in the Enlightenment Gallery

Photo courtesy Benedict Johnson

Playing in this gallery informally affords me the opportunity to watch my audience: some people will, without doubt, find it a nuisance (they don’t want a violinist in a museum), and that’s their prerogative, which I respect. I watch others relishing a ‘counterpoint’ between objects and music – they’ll often talk to me about it; there was great excitement that the violin that I was holding was older than nearly all the objects in the cases, and even more that this 16th-century violin is a tool which can be used, and can continue to offer new sounds, new ideas, today. Many younger people have never been close to classical instruments played ‘live’. For generations brought up on digital recordings, there is a shock in the physical impact, the sheer quiddity (‘thing-ness’) of an ancient violin, or the excitement of a harpsichord, which clearly, for many people, is almost as weird a sound, and an object, as a UFO.

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved talking to the audience in the Enlightenment Gallery

Photo courtesy Benedict Johnson

A few hours into the day, filmmakers from The Economist appeared and talked to me about the excitement of the space, and my project. They filmed me playing Torelli, which became part of the opening sequence of a video, A world of new museums, about a new enlightenment spirit in today’s museums and museum goers.

Late in the afternoon, my string-playing colleagues arrived, and we played composer David Gorton’s new ‘transfigurations’ of Dowland, a few feet from Dr Dee’s ‘shew-stones’, with the box made for them by Horace Walpole. The trajectory of these objects – originally Aztec obsidian mirrors, re-imagined by Queen Elizabeth I’s geomancer, later treasured by the high-priest of the ‘gothick’, the coiner of the word ‘serendipity’ – epitomise the message of this room and the music we choose for it. How can we find our way to the future, through the many discoveries of the past? What tense do we choose to speak, to write in, and does it matter?

And then the chairs went in; the audience arrived. I looked out and saw, among all the new faces, filmmakers, craftspeople, writers, teachers and artists, a true salon, the essence of this marvellous room, and the kindly spirits who grace it – Merian, Hamilton, Delaney, Sloane, the whole crew – alive and inspiring us to creativity and optimism. After the concert, it dawned on me that I had played the violin, without stopping, for 7 hours. But I was not tired, but buoyed up, invigorated by the chance to practise my craft in such company.

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Facing Enlightenment: a musical conversation with the past

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved performing in the Enlightenment Gallery
Peter Sheppard Skӕrved, violinist

On Friday 13th December between 18.30 and 20.00, I am performing in a concert in the Enlightenment Gallery, setting up a musical conversation between past and present, one that is reflective of the ideas of renewal and rediscovery summed up in the word ‘Enlightenment’. Music of the 1600s and 1700s, by Giuseppe Torelli, Nicola Matteis, and Johann Jakob Walther will be played alongside brand new works, including one by leading composer David Gorton, responding to the challenge of the past.

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved performing in the Enlightenment Gallery

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved performing in the Enlightenment Gallery, 2006, photo courtsey of Richard Bram

David Gorton played a central role in my 2006 intervention in the Enlightenment Gallery, when 11 international composers created new work in conversation with my ideas about the space and the collection. Gorton’s new work takes a bold imaginative leap, inspired by the Enlightenment’s ‘discovery of the past’: how might we, in 2013, re-imagine musicians of the Enlightenment reviving, exploring, the music and the works of earlier epochs?

Gorton’s first work for the Enlightenment Gallery was inspired by the copy of the Rosetta Stone made for George III. The resulting Rosetta Caprice has been played hundreds of times worldwide, recorded and filmed, and most recently, I presented it at a TED Conference in Norway. Follow the link to see a short film of its first appearance in the British Museum, in 2006.

Some of the composers working with me were inspired by the layers of history, the ‘false leads’, overlaying some of the most ancient man-made objects in the Enlightenment Gallery. Nashville-based composer Michael Alec Rose was inspired by the Grays Inn Handaxe, at one time thought to have been a Roman weapon. The title, Palimpsest, is a reflection of these layerings.

The Enlightenment was as much a revolution of technology and science as ideas and discovery. One of its most enduring legacies proved to be the instruments of the violin family, pioneered and perfected in the Italian cities of Cremona and Brescia across this period. This concert will be performed on a beautiful early example by the ‘father of the violin’, Andrea Amati, whose grandson Niccolo, would later teach Antonio Stradivari.

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved is the dedicatee of over 400 works for violin, and has recorded over 70 critically acclaimed albums of works from the 17th century to the present day. He regularly performs in over 30 countries, and has a unique record of collaboration with museums, working regularly with the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Library of Congress, Washington DC and the National Portrait Gallery, where he curated a major exhibition, Only Connect, in 2011-12. To see more of his work, visit www.peter-sheppard-skaerved.com

The performance Facing Enlightenment is in the Enlightenment Gallery, Friday 13 December, 18.30–20.00, Free, just drop in.

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Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum In 2000, the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court designed by Foster and Partners transformed the Museum’s inner courtyard into the largest covered public square in Europe. We love this striking photo by @adders77 showing this incredible space at night #regram #repost
Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum This wonderful photo by @what_fran_saw captures the stunning Great Court #regram #repost
The two-acre space of the Great Court is enclosed by a spectacular glass roof made of 3,312 unique pieces!
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