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Sarah Baxter on her British Museum Parthenon exclusive

Updated: Jan 25, 2023

Should the British Museum return the Parthenon Sculptures it has displayed for the past 200 years? It’s a question that has been debated for decades, and is, without a doubt, the most well-known museum ‘story’ in the world. It’s rarely out of the headlines, whether in the UK, in Greece, or around the globe.


Recently, the story took a leap forward thanks to an exclusive interview with the British Museum by Sarah Baxter in the Sunday Times Culture magazine. It made the magazines’s front cover, the newspaper’s front page, and it was picked up by numerous other media outlets.


It was because, for the first time, the British Museum was suggesting there was the possibility of a breakthrough in the stalemate with Athens, hinting that perhaps an arrangement could be made to allow the ancient sculptures to go back to Greece for the first time in two centuries. The Museum’s Deputy Director said they were sure “new ways of working together [with the Greeks]” could be found, and that they wanted “to change the temperature of the debate.” The British Museum was saying, on the record, it wanted “an active ‘Parthenon partnership’ with our friends and colleagues in Greece.”


What it all means in practice is yet to play out, but the dial has shifted. The narrative of the world’s biggest museum story has moved. So maxwell museums wanted to get the inside track by speaking to Sarah Baxter herself about her scoop.


Sarah has been a journalist for over three decades and worked for the Sunday Times for over 25 years in roles such as New York correspondent, Washington bureau chief, Sunday Times Magazine editor, and deputy editor from 2013 to 2020. She has just taken up the role of Director of the Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting at Stony Brook University, New York. The Center’s mission is to nurture and grow the next generation of overseas reporters and to raise public awareness about the need for robust international coverage.


Here she lifts the lid on this landmark interview, explaining how it came about, her thoughts when realising she was dealing with a game-changing news story, and crucially, whether she thinks the Sculptures will ever be seen in Greece again.


 

Sarah, hello. It's been three weeks since your exclusive interview with the British Museum. What's been the reaction?

The Sunday Times Culture magazine cover story has had a wonderful reaction in Britain and Greece. I was particularly thrilled by the results of the Times and Sunday Times poll. Readers voted by 78% to 22% in favour of returning the Parthenon sculptures to Greece. A highlight for me was going on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme with Ed Vaizey, a former Tory culture minister, and discovering that he had changed his view on hanging on to the sculptures. Like so many of us, including Victoria Hislop, who accompanied me on the story, he had originally been beguiled by former British Museum director Neil MacGregor’s stirring defence of the “universal” museum concept – an idea that does not hold up to scrutiny once you visit the Acropolis Museum and see how stunning it would be to see all the sculptures in a beautiful, light-filled museum with incredible views of the Parthenon.


How did the interview come about?

I had been invited to Athens by the Parthenon Project, a campaigning group supported by the Greek industrialist, John Lefas, the actor Stephen Fry and barrister Geoffrey Robertson (as I mentioned in my piece). This is because I had already written two op-ed columns in the Sunday Times about reunifying the sculptures that had caused quite a stir in Greece. For the past couple of years, I have been based in America, writing mainly about US politics and culture, but I was delighted to return to the subject. I pitched the story to the Sunday Times Culture magazine because I had excellent contacts there and knew they would do a terrific job. I had a strong hunch the Sunday Times would be interested because readers had been very engaged with my earlier columns and were becoming increasingly sympathetic to the case for their return.


When did you know you had a big news story on your hands and not just a regular interview?

I told the British Museum I was preparing a cover story for Culture magazine and asked for an interview with George Osborne, the chairman. I made it clear I was interested in the Museum saying something of “substance” on the issue, since Osborne had already said there was a “deal to be done”. I knew I was likely to have a news story (though I did not get Osborne) when I was offered an interview with Jonathan Williams, the deputy director. It was a sign the British Museum felt it had something important to say. When Williams told me he wanted a “positive Parthenon partnership” – a phrase he used repeatedly – it was clear the British Museum had decided to float an offer that Williams described as “qualitatively different” and not just “warm words”. Four days later I was in Athens and able to put his comments to the Greek Culture Minister, Lina Mendoni, and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotaki. This was thanks to my friend Victoria Hislop, who had been invited to an illustrious party in the gardens of the presidential palace in Athens celebrating the anniversary of the overthrow of the Greek junta. (Victoria’s novels are hugely popular in Greece!) I felt very privileged to be there, surrounded by so many Greek notables.


What role do you think George Osborne has played in all this?

I definitely think that George Osborne has contributed to the change in temperature although I wish I could have asked him directly about this. In my view, he is a politician to his fingertips, who would like to be remembered for more than his role as the “austerity” Chancellor during the coalition government and for the referendum on Brexit (which, as a Remainer, he was not keen on holding in the first place). As Nikolaos Stampolidis, the director of the Acropolis Museum, told me, returning the sculptures offers the chance to be remembered in history for a wonderful act of international friendship and generosity. I think Osborne is tempted to seize that chance. He wouldn't want to blow it and let his successor get the glory.


You've been involved in the debate over the Parthenon Sculptures for some time. Why is this issue important to you?

When I was deputy editor of the Sunday Times, I used to write a weekly column on politics and social affairs. In 2018 Emmanuel Macron suddenly announced there was “no valid, lasting and unconditional justification” for French museums to hang on to certain African treasures in their possession. I felt the same way about the Parthenon sculptures. I was struck by the fact that a marble 3-D replica of the Palmyra arch destroyed by Isis in Syria had gone on display in Trafalgar Square. I wondered: did the British Museum really need to have the originals, given their huge emotional and symbolic importance to Greece? At the time, I was not particularly well-informed on the subject, although I felt strongly about the rights and wrongs of the matter. But as a result of my article, I was invited to a distinguished conference in Athens on the reunification of the sculptures, toured the beautiful Acropolis Museum and learned a lot more about Lord Elgin. That made me even more convinced that the sculptures belonged in Athens.


Visitors looking at the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum
"Phidias(?), Parthenon sculptures" by profzucker is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.


Do you see any value to the current status quo, of having some of the sculptures in London and some in Athens?

No. It is a preposterous situation to have, say, the head of a warrior in London, and the torso in Athens. You wouldn't want half the Mona Lisa in France and half in Italy. My Sunday Times colleague Christina Lamb recently tweeted about visiting the “incredible” Acropolis museum this summer and feeling “duly shamed over its top floor exhibition” of the sculptures. I feel exactly the same way. The Greek museum has done a fantastic job of assembling the fragments Elgin left behind but there are painfully large gaps. The British Museum likes to point out, somewhat cynically, that the sculptures can never be wholly reunited as only about 30% each are held in London and Athens. Most of the rest have been lost. But these days the British Museum is embarrassed to admit that it holds the pick of marbles. The Acropolis Museum has done the very best it can with the rest but could do so much more if they were displayed together.


Finally, your predictions: will the Sculptures ever go back to Athens?

I think it is inevitable that the sculptures will return to Athens, which is why the British Museum is feeling the heat right now. Its argument that the sculptures have been an integral part of the British Museum for 200 years sounds very hollow considering that they were an integral part of the Parthenon for nearly 2500 years. As I mentioned in my article, the path is already there. The Archeological Museum in Palermo has paved the way this year by returning the foot of a goddess on a four-year “loan” that has now been made permanent. I am convinced that sooner rather than later the British Museum’s “Parthenon partnership” will involve direct negotiations between the two museums. Differences will be diplomatically “parked” while talks get underway. The BM will ultimately agree to “loaning” certain marbles; the Acropolis Museum will accept them as a “deposit” pending their legal status (which requires a new act of parliament). The linguistic differences will be smoothed over by skilled negotiators. To my mind, the only question is whether certain sculptures will return ahead of others, but I’ll leave that to the museums to sort out.


Follow Sarah at @SarahbaxterSTM

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