Neil MacGregor, Director, British Museum
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 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.
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…
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.
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.