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Parthenon Marbles

Volume 818: debated on Tuesday 8 February 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what recent discussions they have had, if any, with the government of Greece about returning the Parthenon marbles to Athens.

My Lords, the Greek Prime Minister raised this issue with our Prime Minister when they met last November. Our Prime Minister emphasised the UK’s longstanding position that this is a matter for the trustees of the British Museum, who legally own the sculptures. Her Majesty’s ambassador in Athens has also discussed this issue with Greece’s Minister for Culture, most recently in January. The British Museum operates independently of the Government, meaning that decisions relating to the care and management of its collections are a matter for its trustees. The Government fully support the position taken by the trustees. The Prime Minister made these points clear to the Greek Prime Minister when they met. Both agreed that the issue in no way affects the strength of the UK-Greece partnership.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, in the British Museum, there are more than 108,000 Greek artefacts, of which 6,500 are currently on display? More importantly, will he accept that my plea that we should consider returning the marbles is based on the fact that they are a unique piece of art, they belong together and they have a proud history in terms of the Greek historical traditions? Surely we should think again.

My Lords, the British Museum has more than 4.5 million objects from its collection that are available to study online. It is visited by 6 million people a year, and its fantastic collection from across human history is admired by people from around the world. Sadly, half of the original sculptures on the Parthenon are no longer with us, mostly destroyed by the turn of the 19th century, not least in the appalling tragedies sustained in 1687 when the Venetian army hit the Parthenon, which was being used as an armament store by the Ottoman Empire at the time. Of the half that remain, around half are in the British Museum, where they can be admired as part of the sweep of human civilisation, and about half can be admired in the Acropolis Museum, seen alongside the building which they once adorned.

My Lords, human society rests on the principles of private property, of free contract and of the elevation of the individual above the collective. Will my noble friend confirm that these precepts are incompatible with the concept of a collective claim based purely on geography?

My noble friend makes an important point. The Parthenon sculptures were acquired by the late noble Earl, Lord Elgin, legally, with the consent of the then Ottoman Empire. The British Museum is always happy—and the trustees have made this clear—to consider loans to museums that recognise its legal ownership of the items. That is the stumbling-block in this instance.

My Lords, the British Museum Act has a provision that Nazi-looted art can be sent back, as can human remains within 1,000 years. Would the Government consider revising the Act to consider the return of other looted artefacts from wheresoever they came?

The noble Baroness makes an important point about two decisions that Parliament has taken in relation to items plundered under the Third Reich and human remains which are less than 1,000 years old. These were decisions taken by Parliament, just as was the passage of the British Museum Act, and just as was the decision, following the Select Committee that looked at this in 1816, to acquire the objects at the time. It was looked at again by a parliamentary committee in 2000 under the chairmanship of the late Sir Gerald Kaufman. The Government have no plans to change the law.

My Lords, would it not be a helpful step for the Government to set up an independent expert panel to deal with such concerns across all our national museums, to establish an ethical framework in which guidance can be given and decisions made?

The noble Earl makes an important point. We are working with Arts Council England to look at the guidance available generally to museums in considering questions of restitution and repatriation. I have had some fruitful and interesting discussions with museums, including, most recently, the Great North Museum in Newcastle, which is considering items in its collection. I will continue to have those conversations with museums with a range of views, but it is important that we get that guidance right. It is possible to add further grievance —I have been following the issue of the return of the Benin bronzes by Jesus College, Cambridge, which has caused some disagreement between the current Oba of Benin and the Legacy Restoration Trust in Nigeria. We must get this right and act considerately.

My Lords, it is the turn of the Labour Benches, and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, wishes to speak virtually. This is a convenient point for me to call him.

My Lords, how does the Minister respond to Boris Johnson’s earlier elegant words of wisdom, when he wrote, in more romantic times:

“The Elgin marbles should leave this northern whisky-drinking guilt-culture, and be displayed where they belong: in a country of bright sunshine and the landscape of Achilles, ‘the shadowy mountains and the echoing sea’”?

Would it not be a generous act in his final days, before —if I can possibly say this—being sacked, to arrange for their return? We could retain replicas.

My Lords, fortunately for all Ministers, government policy is not made by the things that Ministers wrote when we were undergraduates. The Prime Minister has made the long-standing position of Her Majesty’s Government clear to the Greek Prime Minister, most recently when they met in November.

My Lords, as a former trustee of the British Museum, may I ask my noble friend the Minister if he agrees with me not only, as he said, that the British Museum is prepared to lend objects—and is at this point lending objects to many countries generously on a long and short-term basis—but that this requires an acknowledgement of the good title that the British Museum has to those objects?

I congratulate my noble friend on his recent appointment as chairman of Sir John Soane’s Museum. He is absolutely right that the British Museum is indeed a very generous lender, both overseas and within the United Kingdom. Before the pandemic, the British Museum normally loaned over 2,000 objects to around 100 venues outside the UK every year. In addition, as I say, many millions of people come to see the items in its global collection in Bloomsbury. The British Museum will consider any request for part of its collection to be borrowed, but that requires its legal ownership of those items to be recognised.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether Her Majesty’s Government are facing the issue of repatriating ancient treasures by themselves? I note that many European capitals are affected. For instance, the Louvre is home to the “Winged Victory of Samothrace” and the “Venus de Milo”.

I think it is important that we look at this on a case-by-case basis. There are a number of national museums which are prohibited by law from deaccessioning items, and then there are others which are able to make a decision. That is where the guidance of the Arts Council will be important. The noble Lord mentioned the Louvre, which also contains one of the Parthenon sculptures—indeed, these wonderful items are to be found in museums in six countries across the world.

My Lords, the UK has the world’s largest horde of culturally significant stolen artefacts, including the Ethiopian manuscripts, the Benin bronzes, the Rosetta Stone, the ring of Tipu Sultan and much more. These items matter to the places from which they were taken, often by force. Could the Minister please consider publishing a timetable for returning these items to their rightful place?

I am afraid I cannot agree with the noble Lord, nor indeed in completeness with the list that he cited. That is why, as I say, it is important that we approach this on a case- by-case basis, looking at the items, how they came to be in the United Kingdom, how they were acquired, whether they are—as in the case of the Parthenon sculptures—legally owned by the museums, and to look at these matters considerately.

My Lords, the task of a museum is to preserve, educate and inspire. In an era where we can now make extraordinarily accurate copies— down to the tiniest chisel mark and chip—could we not argue that we would be fulfilling our duties to protect and educate if we were to reunite the Elgin marbles and send them back to their birthplace, that wonderful museum by the Acropolis? Could we not also argue that this would be an act of historic inspiration which would make—how can I put this?—the Greek gods, as well as our Prime Minister, weep with gratitude?

My Lords, the Acropolis Museum is indeed remarkable. I had the pleasure of visiting some years ago, and I greatly enjoyed it—just as I have enjoyed visiting the British Museum, where, in the Duveen Gallery, the Parthenon sculptures there can be admired. They have been admired down the centuries by people including Keats, Wordsworth and Auguste Rodin, who have been inspired into making new works of art as a result. Sadly, it is impossible to reunite the Parthenon sculptures. Half of them have been lost over the last two and a half millennia. At the moment, around half of those that remain are in the British Museum, where they can be admired in the great sweep of human civilisation, and around half can be admired at the Acropolis.