|Picture: British Museum|
The British Museum is lending a statue from the Parthenon to the Hermitage. It's not for an exhibition that will show it in a different context or add to our understanding. It's simply a tokenistic gesture, a single stand-alone loan for the Hermitage's birthday. Neil MacGregor writes about grand universal values, but he trivialises them by sending arbitrary loans on foreign holidays.
But it's not quite arbitrary. There is an obvious reason for MacGregor to mention a loan of an ancient tablet to Tehran alongside a loan a work from the classic age of Greek democracy to Russia. It's a profoundly patronising gesture about civilizing 'bad' regimes. MacGregor pretentiously and wrongly describes the statue as a "stone ambassador of the Greek golden age and European ideals". Respectfully Neil, that's bollocks. It's a chance for the apparatchiks at the Hermitage to crow about their cleverness in getting the BM to hand over one of its masterpieces, but it's not going to change the course of Russian politics. The statue is a towering work of art, but it doesn't carry a message, however much you seek to impose one upon it. Describing the Cyrus Cylinder as a document "setting out the humane ideals of the ancient Persian empire" is even more willfully inaccurate and anachronistic, as if it were The Guardian avant la lettre.
There seem to be more and more loans of the most priceless objects that are most important to museums' permanent collections, often at the expense of smaller and smarter shows of less well know works that deserve more attention. Museums have learned that one of the best ways to generate publicity is to talk about objects that have 'never before been lent', even to the point of dishonesty in the case of the National Gallery's much-vaunted loan of Rembrandt's Claudius Civilis, which has been lent more often than stated in their press release. It's especially crazy to loan one part from what should be a single work of art. The worst possible resolution of the debate about ownership of the Elgin Marbles would be to see them circulating perpetually, different bits flown off to different countries where MacGregor feels they'd benefit from the messages he'd like to send.
And more of these loans are made without meaning or context - simply 'highlight' displays that take works away from places that people expect to be able to see them without any compensating benefit of seeing them in new light. Shows of 'treasures from x collection' are now commonplace, simply taking the best pieces from museums like the National Gallery of Scotland or the Rijksmuseum and sending them on tour. The Louvre no longer exists as a single encyclopaedic museums; it's a central repository that moves masterpieces between Paris, Lens and Abu Dhabi (so far...). The point about these loans is that they have no meaning or purpose. Exhibitions should enlarge our understanding, but simply throwing together the best things that happen to have ended up in a particular place is actually impoverishing. It impoverishes the lending institution by taking its best things, and it gives a one-sided view of the collection by showing only the 'greatest hits', encouraging a mentality that values only supreme masterpieces.
This announcement encapsulates all that's worst about our culture of exhibitions today, lending a fragile object without good justification, shorn of context, on a diplomatic rather than artistic mission that will glorify the curators rather than the creators of the work of art.