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Elgin campaign hits at statue loan

Campaigners for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece have criticised the British Museum's decision to lend one of the priceless sculptures to Russia.

The statue of the river god Ilissos has been lent to the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg for an exhibition until mid-January.

It is the first time one of the 2,500-year-old Marbles has been removed from the museum - except in wartime - since they were presented to the London institution almost 200 years ago after being removed from the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis by Lord Elgin.

Greece maintains they were taken illegally during the country's Turkish occupation and should be returned for display in Athens, which the British Museum and the Government reject.

The British Museum's director indicated that he would be willing to consider a similar loan of a statue to Greece - but only if the authorities there promised to return it to London.

Neil MacGregor said the museum's trustees would "consider any request from anyone who is prepared to return the object".

In a blog on the museum's website, Mr MacGregor said: "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."

But the chairman of the Marbles Reunited campaign, Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George, said the trustees were wrong to snub the Greek request for the return of the sculptures and to lend them instead "to a country which has backed rebels who kill British citizens".

"Neil MacGregor justifies his decision by claiming that these sculptures should be 'shared and enjoyed by as many people...as possible'. But these sculptures have not been 'shared and enjoyed' by the Greeks for over 200 years, since they were purloined in a dodgy deal by Lord Elgin during a period when Greece was occupied by the Ottomans," said Mr George.

"I sense that the British Museum's grip on the sculptures is weakening. If Britain did the decent and gracious thing and returned the sculptures, the Greeks have made clear that they would willingly loan many other Greek artefacts and great works to Britain so that they could be 'shared and enjoyed by as many people...as possible'."

The headless marble statue of Ilissos is one of a number of sculptures on a frieze that once decorated the Parthenon, around half of which were removed by Scottish nobleman Lord Elgin and transported to London.

The sculptures were presented to the trustees by Parliament in 1816 and were a major event in the museum's early development as a display of world civilisations.

In October a team of London lawyers, including Amal Clooney, were involved in talks with the Greek government about a potential legal bid for the works.

Her husband, actor George Clooney said it was "probably a good idea" for them to be returned, in response to a question during a press conference to promote The Monuments Men earlier this year.

On BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr MacGregor said he hoped the Greek government would be "delighted" that the sculpture would be on display to a new audience.

"I hope that they will be very pleased that a huge new public can engage with the great achievements of ancient Greece. People who will never be able to come to Athens or London will now, here in Russia, understand something of those great achievements in Greek civilisation."

Asked if the sculpture could be loaned to a Greek museum, Mr MacGregor said: "The trustees have always been perfectly clear that they are willing to lend anything in the collection, provided it's fit to travel and there's a serious reason, to a place where it could be safe and where it would be returned.

"The Greek government has always refused to borrow, to date, but the trustees' position is very clear that they will consider any request from anyone who is prepared to return the object."

Explaining the loan to the Hermitage at a time of tension between the West and Vladimir Putin, Mr MacGregor said in his blog: "The trustees have always believed that such loans must continue between museums in spite of political disagreements between governments."

He said the sculpture was a "stone ambassador of the Greek golden age and European ideals" and added: " 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."

The reclining statue will go on public display tomorrow in the world-renowned museum, founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great as part of the European Enlightenment.

Sir Richard Lambert, chairman of the trustees of the British Museum, said: "The trustees of the British Museum hold its collection in trust and believe that the great things of the world should be shared and enjoyed by the people of the world.

"The duty of the trustees is to allow citizens in as many countries as possible to share in their common inheritance. The trustees are delighted that this beautiful object will be enjoyed by the people of Russia."

It is the latest example of a long working relationship between heritage and arts bodies in the two countries, which have included British Museum exhibitions on Ice Age art and the Vikings, which featured Russian loans.

Downing Street indicated that David Cameron was not involved in the decision to loan the sculpture.

"This is something the British Museum have been working on," said a No 10 spokeswoman. "It was a decision of their trustees. We recognise that this will be a really interesting exhibition for the people of Russia.

"Our view is clear that it is property of the British Museum and it is up to the trustees to decide how they exhibit it and where they exhibit it."

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