Well, perhaps we are; and we must all hope that there is a sensible solution in the Ukraine. But how exactly does it constitute “putting pressure” on Putin to send him a masterpiece of Phidian sculpture? The British Museum is one of the very greatest in the world (if not the greatest, as I am sure its director, Neil MacGregor, would attest). The Duveen Galleries are the holy of holies, the innermost shrine of that cultural temple; and the river god Ilissus is one of the most fluid and extraordinary pieces of 5th-century Athenian sculpture.
Why send it abroad now? Why to Russia? Why Putin? The French have just decided not to send the Russians the warships they have built for them; and here we are, despatching a portion of the Elgin Marbles. It is hard, on the face of it, to see why there should be one rule for oil and gas companies, which are private businesses, and one for a museum that receives – rightly – substantial support from the taxpayer. If you were Putin, you might feel that this was a decidedly friendly gesture from the British Government – a calculated thawing in relations, an olive branch.
And there, I think, Putin would be completely wrong. I don’t believe for a minute that the Government plotted to send Ilissus to Russia. This is not an act of state; this is not some serpentine piece of British diplomacy, a surreptitious little bit of détente. This is what it looks like – a moderate shambles, in which the trustees of a national museum have taken a decision, at the urging of their flamboyant and enterprising director, which simply does not cohere with British foreign policy. And the decision, therefore, is all the more glorious – and all the more correct.
The idea of sending a piece of the Elgin Marbles to the Hermitage did not need to be cleared by government. The British Museum did not obtain prior government approval – and in that simple fact you have the difference between Britain and so many other countries on earth, and especially Russia. This is not a tyranny. We do not have power located in one place. We have and we protect an idea of cultural, artistic and intellectual freedom – and that is of immense economic value to this country.
We have more live-music venues in London than any other city on earth; we have twice as many theatres as Paris, and we will soon produce more TV and feature films than New York or even Los Angeles. One of the reasons for that global success is that politicians, by and large, do not interfere – except to encourage.
Can you imagine any other country where a national museum could take such a politically charged decision, without government knowledge and acquiescence? Greece? France? Russia? Don’t make me laugh. That is why good old George Clooney is so wrong in his plan to restore the marbles to the “Pantheon”, as he puts it (I think even M Vipsanius Agrippa would have had some trouble with that project, since the Pantheon is the wrong temple, in the wrong city, with the wrong architectural order).
That is why it is entirely fitting that the owl of Pallas should still haunt the squares of Bloomsbury. It is the British Museum’s freedom to loan Ilissus to Russia – even in this wretched period – that shows exactly why the Elgin Marbles belong and shall remain in London.