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Repatriation of Historical Objects

Volume 507: debated on Wednesday 10 March 2010

I am grateful to have secured this debate, Mr. Benton, and I am pleased to see the Minister in attendance. A few weeks ago, when travelling from my constituency to London, I noticed something interesting at Paddington tube station, and other tube stations after that. It was a picture of a Lewis chessman on a poster. It was a welcome sight, but the caption said, “AD 1150-1200” and “Norway”. I was stunned, because there was no mention of the Isle of Lewis. It was as if the connection with Lewis had been airbrushed from history.

The chessmen are expertly crafted examples from the Viking civilisation in my constituency. We know two historical facts about them. They were made from walrus ivory, and they were found in Lewis in 1831. The director of the British Museum informed me that most scholars believe that the chessmen were crafted in Norway, because a piece of a queen that was found in Trondheim resembled the Lewis chessmen. That does not change the fact that they were found in, and are important to my constituency, and they could have been manufactured in Lewis, Ireland or elsewhere in the area of Viking civilisation and then traded. The only geographical location linked to the chess pieces is the Isle of Lewis, where they were buried for hundreds of years.

I would love to know what incontrovertible evidence the British Museum has to assert in its poster campaign that Norway was the place of origin of the Lewis chess pieces. The museum’s defence in The Times was that the Hebrides were then under the rule of a Norwegian king. However, when England was under French rule, it was not France. Is airbrushing the future of historical objects found in the United Kingdom and retained by the British Museum? There are other places where historical objects have been deleted from history. Is that what the people of the midlands should expect for its magnificent Staffordshire hoard? I certainly hope not.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. We talk about the Elgin marbles and so on, but an artefact from north Wales—a famous early Welsh gold cape—is in the British Museum and will not be released back to Wales. Such artefacts are part of our collective national memory. They are important, and should be returned.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The matter affects not just the Outer Hebrides, Scotland or Wales, but England. Perhaps in time the museum will have a more enlightened understanding. Surely it is best if historical artefacts are retained in the area where they are found. Whether by Act of Parliament or an alteration in museum policy, something must change because what made sense in the 19th century may now be a dated approach. Why must everything be in London? It seems to be historical centralisation and imperialism.

Since their sale to the British Museum in 1831 for £30, the chessmen were lent to the islands in 1995, and are expected to return in 2011. When visitors arrive at Stornoway by ferry or plane, they are greeted at the airport and the ferry terminal by huge wooden figures modelled on the chessmen, such is our pride in them. Why the British Museum has a colonial attitude of keeping artefacts that belong to another place and another people is beyond me.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He referred to people arriving at the airport, and it strikes me that some of them will be tourists. Does he think the boost to tourism of having the Lewis chessmen in Lewis would be greater than the loss to tourism in London from not having them? The effect would be much greater in Lewis, and London could probably cope without devastation if it lost such a high-profile item.

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and it is obvious that Lewis is bringing culture to London. London could live without the chessmen, but the effect on Lewis would be immeasurable. I am impressed that the Kelvingrove museum in Glasgow returned a ghost dance shirt belonging to the Oglala Sioux after their repeated attempts to have it repatriated.

The British Museum holds 82 of the 93 chess pieces in London, leaving only 11 for Scotland and none for the Isle of Lewis. Such is the museum’s perceived intransigence that we have none locally, a minimal number in our national capital, Edinburgh, and the majority in the state capital, London. In Lewis, they would be in their own cultural and historic setting. In Lewis, they would be a year-round tourist attraction to add to the splendid scenery of the Hebrides, which is arguably a more weather-dependent asset.

The museum’s high-handed attitude does not end with the chessmen. We have already heard about artefacts from Wales being held in London. The Fishpool hoard is not in Ravenshead; the 8,500 pieces of the Cuerdale hoard are not in Lancashire; and the Hoxne hoard is not in Suffolk. The arguments for the chessmen being held in Lewis have been stated time and again. Bonnie Greer, deputy chair of the board of trustees of the museum said:

“As far as I'm concerned on a personal level, they”—

the chessmen—

“will always remain at the British Museum.”

As a Hebridean defending our indigenous rights, I did not expect the stiletto of Bonnie Greer to trample all over our hopes. I am sure that she did not want to seem like a queen from a position of power, disregarding pawns in a game of machismo.

The Minister asserted in The Scotsman on the 30 January 2008 that the chessmen’s home is in London “Today and forever”. That was a bold statement, and disappointing from a Labour Government—[Interruption.] I hope that that telephone call is from the British Museum with news that it is listening to our debate, and that the chessmen will go to Lewis.

Under section 5(1) of the British Museum Act 1963, which was made in this place, the British Museum may not sell items that are believed to have been crafted before 1850, but under section 4 of the same act it is allowed to lend pieces of the collection. Perhaps it could do so permanently if there is no change in the law. Had the hand of fate turned up those pieces to daylight in 1931 or 2001 rather than 1831, I do not believe that our cultural heritage would have been sold for £30—a veritable 30 pieces of silver.

Today, in more enlightened times, the museum has been offered a good deal by the local council, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar. Its chief executive, Malcolm Burr, said that the chessmen could be housed in the museum nan Eilean Siar, and that finance for their security would not be a problem. He also suggested that the British Museum could open up an extension to its main campus in London in the museum nan Eilean Siar itself. This is just one idea to bring at least some of the chessmen back to their home.

The hon. Gentleman is reasonable in his acceptance that there should be a British museum in Lewis, which I tend to think of as a third country, separate from both Scotland and England. Could there not be some reciprocity in the process? Richard II’s remains are as yet undiscovered. Will the hon. Gentleman use his good offices to lobby the Scottish Government to make a contribution to analysing remains at the abbey to see whether they contain the DNA of Richard II, so that they can be returned to this country?

The hon. Gentleman is a fellow soul with an interest in his nation’s history. I am aware of the burial in 1419 of what could be Richard II’s remains, and it would be interesting to know whether that is so. We have the technology today to find out.

In 1685, a Northumbrian king was, sadly from the hon. Gentleman’s point of view, defeated at 3 o’clock on Saturday 20 May—I do not know the exact minute—and his body was subsequently taken to Iona, so there may be more than one English monarch interred in Scotland. We may not want to go into the details of why they are interred in Scotland.

The hon. Gentleman is making a compelling argument. I came here on the other side, but I am listening carefully, and he is making his points extremely well. I like the idea of an extension to the British Museum in Lewis. Will he tell the House how many of the chess pieces he would expect to be there, and will he confirm that their conservation and its funding in future would be secured?

Ultimately, I am looking for any mechanism whatsoever to get the chess pieces back to Lewis. From correspondence that we have had, the chief executive of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the local council, seems confident that it could cope with that. We could call the exhibition the British Museum or any other name, just as long as we get the chess pieces back to their natural home. Ideally, we want all the pieces, but we are ready to compromise in the beginning. That is just one of many ideas, and as I have said, to start with we could have a third of the pieces in the Outer Hebrides, a third in Edinburgh and a third in London.

Nearly 220,000 people visited my islands last year, and, with the introduction of the road equivalent tariff, it has never been easier to get to the Outer Hebrides. If you have any spare time this summer, Mr. Benton, I suggest that a visit to the Isle of Lewis might be well worth while. It could then be continued downwards through the Isle of Harris, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra. Who knows, perhaps if you do that in a few years’ time, you will be able to see the Lewis chessmen.

The chessmen would be a great draw. Perhaps there are more historical artefacts to be found. Perhaps in future we might see grandmasters playing chess with the Lewis chess pieces in Stornoway, or certainly have them placed in the vicinity of such a match.

As ever, my hon. Friend makes his case persuasively, which contrasts with the somewhat intransigent attitude hitherto of the British Museum. However, there is a general principle at stake, which is that artefacts that have a particular significance to a place, either culturally or historically, need to be returned to their place of origin. I cite the example of the so-called Lichfield gospels, which are currently in Lichfield cathedral. They are actually the Llandeilo gospels, which were produced in Wales in the eighth century and contain the earliest example of written Welsh. It is absolutely scandalous that the only gospels to have survived from Wales should be in an English cathedral. They should be taken home to my constituency.

As I have learned after being in this House for five years, the word of Plaid Cymru can often be taken as gospel. This time, a case is being made for the gospel.

My point is that we are willing to work hard to bring some, if not all, these historical artefacts back to their place of origin—the place where they were found. We are not an impediment to change. Perhaps in some ways we need a knight in shining ivory to help us, the underdogs, against the impediments of the British Museum.

As I am sure the Minister knows, when the Staffordshire hoard was on display in Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent, over 80,000 people queued for upwards of three hours to view it in those two different places. Put simply, the economic boon that such historical objects could generate is vast. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) said, we are asking for the opportunity to allow people to experience the chessmen in the place that they came from.

Hon. Members have mentioned the Staffordshire hoard and Lichfield cathedral, and both of those are close to my Staffordshire constituency. I have considerable sympathy with the idea that there should be some return, perhaps on the basis of a loan. In the enlightened view taken by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil), there could be a re-siting under the auspices of the British Museum itself. The situation seems extraordinary, and there should be some recognition and an opportunity for people who come from a specific area to have access to artefacts in the way that the hon. Gentleman describes. There are similar arguments across Europe. However, I am not quite sure how to get that into the framework of the British Museum Act 1963.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his sympathy, and I am glad that we are building consensus across several parties this afternoon. As I said, we are asking for people to have the opportunity to experience the chessmen in the place where they came from. Therefore, I reiterate my request to move the chessmen permanently—under whatever label is chosen to describe that movement—back to the Outer Hebrides.

Historical objects are not just pieces of art, gold or jewellery, but gateways to the past. Such gateways are accentuated by the landscape, scenery and the society that created them. Perhaps such a move will help people connect in a better way with the chessmen and the civilisation that produced them if they are viewed in Lewis, rather than in a glass case in the middle of London.

I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) on securing this opportunity for us to debate the repatriation of historical objects yet again. He knows my views, because I have expressed them a number of times in the Scottish press.

I will start by saying something about the objects in our museums, the importance of national collections, and the pleasure and knowledge that they bring to us all. Museums collect and display the greatest achievements of humankind. However, they are not just a visual record of our past. Modern museums are now worldwide centres of learning and interpretation, enabling us to make sense of what our ancestors experienced, challenging our perceptions and changing the way we look at the world.

Our national museums are centres of excellence and scholarship and part of a wider international web of information sharing—a great collection in most of our great museums. It is not about promoting nationalism; the focus is on promoting an understanding of our shared past so that we can better deal with the present and tackle the problems of the future.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I profoundly disagree with the underlying premise of his argument that culture is to be enjoyed only by the nation most closely identified with it. Indeed, it is through understanding each other’s cultures and sharing the fine artefacts, great literature and important works of art that are produced by individuals in countries across the world, that we start building a shared identity, tolerant understanding, and all those things that are so essential for peace and cohesion throughout the world.

Furthermore, if beautiful artefacts are created, they should be enjoyed as widely as possible, not just in one nation. They do not enhance the lives of just one community, but of all of us in all our communities. The advent of digitisation enables us to share more widely the wonderful treasures that we are privileged to enjoy in our great national museums.

I completely agree with the point of sharing culture widely and seeing artefacts and so on. However, does the Minister accept that historically, the sharing has not been very even? Perhaps those countries that used to have an empire, or were powerful for whatever reason, have tended to suck-in worldwide artefacts and such things. I accept that in Glasgow that was the case. We felt that the shirt that was mentioned earlier should go back to North America, as that is where it would be better placed, and I give respect to Glasgow city council for that.

If the hon. Gentleman is arguing about how we came to have historical connections in one place, I have sympathy with his argument. However, things are where they are, and if we wish them to be shared, the British Museum has an excellent, first-class record in both collaboration and giving out loans. The British Museum is a worldwide brand in the way that it shows its artefacts online. There are ways of sharing that do not necessarily reside in ownership. I think that the British Museum excels in its record of trying to ensure that it shares its wonders with as wide an audience as possible.

The British Museum was one of the first institutions in this country to be named “British”, but its objective is to have collections representing the whole world under its roof, so as to enable everyone to enjoy its experiences which, of course, are free of charge. The museum is what so many people come to London to see. The First Emperor exhibition was the biggest exhibition mounted by the British Museum since that of Tutankhamun in 1972 and it enjoyed 850,000 visitors. The British Museum is now more popular than Blackpool pleasure beach in attracting people to come here. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may not think so, but Blackpool is still an iconic and important attraction. Despite the difficulties it faces, Blackpool is still one of the most popular tourist destinations. The resources put into Blackpool by the Government have helped to restore it to its previous great strength as a tourist destination.

May I go back to what the Minister said about the successful Chinese exhibition? It was successful because the Chinese Government saw fit to provide those artefacts on a lengthy loan, which is exactly what is being asked for now.

The British Museum has made just such loan arrangements with a number of Scottish museums and institutions—I want to come to that, so I had better move on—so that exhibits can form a coherent part of the story that the British Museum tells of the history of the world and yet be enjoyed by the residents of Scotland. I shall give way, although I might not get to the point of my speech.

May I take the Minister back to her digitisation argument, which works in both directions? If the British Museum, for instance, were to move a third of the artefacts back to Lewis, digitisation would mean that there was no impediment to the scholarship of the museum and would increase world knowledge and access to those wonderful objects.

Although I respect the hon. Gentleman’s views, he perhaps does not appreciate my argument, which is that a coherent story about the history of the world is being told within the British Museum.

As the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar knows, a long-standing principle in the UK supported by successive Governments is that politicians do not interfere in the management of museum collections. I hope that all hon. Members participating in today’s debate continue to support the arm’s length principle, which means that museum trustees are responsible for managing the collections in their care. The Government have great faith in their ability. Changing that principle would be a dangerous and retrograde move, allowing cultural and artistic decisions to be determined by political views and prejudices.

Museum trustees have a statutory duty to protect the nation’s collections. Section 3 of the British Museum Act 1963 imposes a duty on the trustees of the British Museum:

“to keep the objects comprised in the collections of the Museum within the authorised repositories of the Museum, except in so far as they may consider it expedient to remove them temporarily for any purpose connected with the administration of the Museum and the care of its collections.”

The trustees of our national collections are thus legally responsible for their collections. Leaving the question of whether an object should be de-accessioned to the trustees’ discretion is consistent with those legal principles.

A further issue is that the legal position on restitution is that the British Museum Act prevents the museum from removing objects from its collections. Other national museums have similar statutory restrictions. We have looked at whether it would be appropriate to lift those statutory restrictions and under what circumstances. As hon. Members probably know, we have done so in two instances: the law was changed in 2005 to allow nine named national museums to de-accession human remains if they considered it appropriate to do so; and we had the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009, which allows 17 national collections to return items lost or stolen during the Nazi era following a recommendation by the Spoliation Advisory Panel. The latter was a private Member’s Bill, but the Government considered that allowing restitution to take place in those specific circumstances was supported by a strong moral case.

I now want to deal with the particular issues raised by the Lewis chessmen. As the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar knows, my views are clear. However, as my officials always remind me, decisions relating to the Lewis chessmen and other objects in the collection of the British Museum are a matter for the British Museum trustees and not for me as a politician.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider my next point. Nowadays, most scholars who have examined the chessmen generally agree that the most likely place of manufacture was Trondheim in Norway. The closest stylistic links for the decoration of the chessmen are to be found in the art and architecture of 12th century Trondheim and Scandinavia. In the 19th century, part of a queen, similar in style to the Lewis pieces, was discovered in Trondheim. Dr. David Caldwell, who is the keeper of Scotland and Europe at the National Museum of Scotland, visited Lewis recently with a team of researchers in preparation for the touring exhibition of the chessmen in 2011. He said publicly:

“We certainly…believe the pieces are Scandinavian in origin, perhaps made in a workshop by several masters in a city like Trondheim.”

On that analogy, the Minister might be arguing that the Bayeux tapestry should be returned to the United Kingdom on the grounds that it was made by nuns in England—so we are told. Does she realise that there is a certain inconsistency in enlarging the issue into a European or even a global dimension?

I do not agree at all, but I was dealing with a separate argument about a particular historical link based on where the Lewis chessmen were made. All I am saying is that most of those with a much greater knowledge than I have on the origins of the chessmen think that the pieces did not originate in Lewis but in Norway. I hold by my main argument that the British Museum contains, in its artefacts, the history of Britain and the world. As such, it is important that the whole collection should be held together and not pulled apart.

I asserted what the chessmen were made of, where they were found and where they were most likely buried for hundreds of years previously—we know nothing else. I note caveats of “most likely” and “believe”, but the Lewis chessmen were found in Lewis and we know nothing else for certain.

With the greatest respect, such caveats are usually put in because establishing such details is difficult. However, those with much better archaeological knowledge than either of us believe that the chessmen were Scandinavian in origin.

Is such displacement of chessmen recognition, in many ways, of the decline of the economy of Trondheim in that part of the middle ages? After all, that part of Scotland has Scandinavian connections. Most importantly, would the Minister accept the rationality of arguing for the exceptional support for the local economy if people were travelling to see the chessmen? Leaving aside issues of origin and nationality, would that not be a strong argument for at least some of the pieces to be placed in Lewis?

The chessmen legally came into the possession of the British Museum. That is an important point. They form a key part of the British Museum collection—hence they were used recently in the radio programme “A History of the World in 100 Objects”. The chessmen are important. Would they be a tourist attraction if relocated? Probably, yes, but that is dealt with sensitively by the British Museum through its loans policy.

In the minute that I have left, I emphasise that the British Museum has close relations with National Museums Scotland and the National Galleries of Scotland, frequently lending material to Edinburgh. I am delighted that, in 2010 and 2011, the British Museum will be partnering National Museums Scotland in a Scotland-wide tour of the chessmen, supported by the Scottish Government. Twenty-four pieces from the British Museum will join six from the Edinburgh collections to be seen in four venues in Scotland.

I hope that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar will continue to work with the British Museum in the interests of the people in his constituency, to ensure co-operation between the British Museum and museums in Scotland, so that the wonderful Lewis chessmen can be enjoyed by all.