A recent ‘World Exclusive’ on the front page of The Times caught my attention. It reported that the British Museum had allowed part of the Elgin (Parthenon) Marbles to leave London for the first time by lending one of the sculptures to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Further articles on successive pages explored the implications of the surprise appearance of the artwork in the museum founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great to enable Russia to participate in the European Enlightenment. Of course, the venue is highly symbolic at a time when there are growing fears of a new Cold War between the Kremlin and the West. Neil McGregor, the Director of the British Museum, believes strongly that the relationship between museums as an example of the power of culture to build bridges between nations is all the more important in times of political stress and rupture.
The god-like figure loaned to the Hermitage is thought to represent the River Ilissos, one of the streams that flowed near Athens in ancient times. It was here, according to Plato (as Macgregor describes) that ‘Socrates conversed with Phaedrus in the cool shade of the plane trees that grew along the banks, discussing the value of beauty and the morality of love.’ As such, ‘it embodies the central values of dialogue and discussion which underlie today’s ideals of intellectual inquiry and political freedom’, and is ‘an eloquent symbol of the key values of both Ancient Athens and of Enlightenment Europe.’