At the height of the[previous?] Cold War the most obvious tool of international diplomacy were Giant Pandas which were loaned or given to Zoo’s in Britain the United States and Russia by the Beijing Government.  However, today it emerged that the British Museum has loaned something even rarer than the bamboo munching mammals-  a sculpture from the controversial Parthenon Freezes saved, or stolen if you prefer, from the Acropolis in Athens by British Ambassador Lord Elgin and kept in the British Museum since 1816.  The elegant marble sculpture of the reclining river god Ilissos will be on display at St Petersberg’s world famous Hermitage Museum until mid January 2015 as part of the Museum’s 250th anniversary celebration.

The loan to the Heritage was negotiated under conditions of extreme secrecy.  The Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor told the BBC “The Hermitage had been planning its 250 year anniversary for some time – and they are really the twin of the British Museum – so a couple of years ago the director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, asked if we might make one big loan to mark the fact we are both the great enlightenment museums.

“The trustees said ‘yes’ and the Hermitage decided what they wanted more than anything else was a symbol of the great shared European heritage and the greatest one of them is one of the Parthenon sculptures.”

Asked about the likely reaction to the loan of the Greek Government Mr MacGregor told the BBC’s Today Programme on Radio 4 “I hope that they’ll 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 to London will now here in Russia understand something of the great achievements of Greek civilisation.”

However, in public at least, the Greek Government is less than flattered.  The BBC later quoted the Greek Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras, as saying “The decision by the British Museum to give out on loan one of the Parthenon sculptures for exhibit in St Petersburg is an affront to the Greek people,” the Prime Minister’s statement continued  “The Parthenon and its Marbles have been looted. The sculptures are priceless.  We Greeks are one with our history and civilisation, which cannot be broken up, loaned out, or conceded.”

Mr Samaras added that one of the British Museum’s core reasons for keeping the marbles, the suggestion that they could not be moved, was now shown to be invalid.

The loan comes at an extremely sensitive time in terms of Russia’s relationship with the west.  Just this week Russian President Vladimir Putin accused western countries of trying to isolate Russia over issues such as the annexation of the Crimea and ongoing civil war in eastern Ukraine.  Therefore any action such as this high profile loan,  has political significance as well as significance in international museum relations and will be scrutinised with great care.  Indeed, the fact that the British Museum is willing to loan such an important and diplomatically sensitive item to a fellow Orthodox nation,  albeit for a short time and on the firm understanding that the sculpture will be returned, could be interpreted as sending a signal that, if the Greeks were prepared to open a dialogue, a similar arrangement might be possible for other parts of the Parthenon collection.  However, to date the Greeks have refused to countenance anything which suggests that they do not own the Parthenon marbles outright.

This is not the first time in recent years that a loan from the British Museum may have been used as a back channel to signal a willingness to engage with a power where bi-lateral relations are under strain.   In September 2010 the so called “Cyrus Cylinder”, was loaned to the National Museum of Iran.  The Cylinder was safely to London in April 2011.  However, in spite of written assurances that the Ilissos statue will remain under the care of the Russian Federation, it remains to be seen whether any attempt will be made to take legal action in Russia to prevent the return of Ilissos to the British Museum, or even to repatriate it to Athens.

What is certain is that the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles debate has been re-opened and in a way that is not just down to the involvement of senior lawyer Amal Clooney who was taken on to represent the Greek Government in any legal moves relating to the issue in October this year.  A year earlier in October 2013 the Greeks also applied to UNESCO for mediation in the long running dispute.  A process which would require an agreement from the UK Government to take part which so far has not been forthcoming.

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