The British Museum will be proud and not embarrassed about its treasures from around the world, George Osborne, its new chairman, has said – after the Greek prime minister demanded the return of Elgin Marbles.
In his first public comments since taking up the unpaid role in June, Mr Osborne said that the museum would tell the story of its treasures “not from a position of embarrassment but of pride”.
The comments come 10 days after Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek prime minister, insisted the Marbles – which were taken from the Parthenon in Athens in the early 19th century by Lord Elgin and are housed in the museum – were “stolen”.
That prompted Downing Street to say that this matter was one for the trustees of the British Museum.
The British Museum’s permanent collection of eight million works is among the largest and most comprehensive in the world, including priceless artefacts such as the Rosetta Stone, mainly amassed at the height of the British Empire.
‘British Museum has never been more needed than now’
While not addressing the issue of the Marbles, Mr Osborne told the annual trustee dinner on Wednesday night, held in the museum’s Egyptian Sculpture Gallery: “How could a collection of this scale and scope have come together without controversy or conflict? That is part of our human story. Is this room a room of the British Empire? Or of the Egyptian empire?
“Or about how the empires and civilisations of the world have always collided, conflicted and collaborated with each other, and still do?
“We do not shy away from telling our own story – the whole story. We do so not from a position of embarrassment but of pride. We’re proud – so very proud – of what we do.
“Today, people rightly want all stories to be told. We call on the value sets of all cultures to be given equal weight.
“While at the same time we demand universal human rights, whose origins lie in the French and American revolutions and the European enlightenment which this museum epitomises.
“We alone cannot resolve all these contradictions of our age in this place – but we can do what we’ve always done – help inform and educate and engage. That critical examination of the truth starts with ourselves.
“There will always be those who say we should not exist – some said it in 1753 [at the museum’s foundation] and some say it again in 2021.
“But I would say this in response – the British Museum has never been more needed than now. There is no shortage of voices seeking to divide us.
“There is no lack of demand to push everyone back into silos, where the conversation is easy because we never meet anyone who disagrees with us.
“It is easier to break ties than to make them. In this fragmenting world, the British Museum is one the very few places that can remind us of what we share – of how all these civilisations and empires were connected.
“This is the place on earth to tell the story of our common humanity – and we will not shrink from doing that. The British Museum is back.”