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Repatriation of Cultural Objects

Volume 824: debated on Tuesday 6 September 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what further consideration they have given to the repatriation of cultural objects to their places of origin given the decision of the Horniman Museum to return its collection of Benin Bronzes to Nigeria.

My Lords, in begging leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, I declare my interest on the register as a trustee of the People’s History Museum and the Royal Pavilion and Museums Trust.

My Lords, museums and galleries in England operate independently of government. Some national museums are prevented by law from deaccessioning items in their collection, with some narrow exceptions. The Horniman Museum is not subject to such legislation so this was a decision for its trustees, but I know that they went about their decision with appropriate care and consideration. Arts Council England has published a practical guide for museums in England to help them in approaching this issue more generally.

My Lords, I congratulate the Horniman Museum on being made the Art Fund’s museum of the year back in July. The unanimous decision of the museum’s board to return ownership of 72 artefacts to Nigeria has been hailed as “immensely significant”—a view that I share. Given that the organisation receives DCMS funding, what discussions, if any, did the Horniman have with DCMS prior to making this decision, and should we take this as evidence of a shift in government policy on the future of cultural objects acquired through force? I note that George Osborne, chair of the British Museum, said recently in relation to the Parthenon sculptures that there was a “deal to be done”.

My Lords, I echo the noble Lord’s congratulations to the Horniman on its accolade as museum of the year and, indeed, to the People’s History Museum, which was shortlisted and narrowly lost out. As I said, the Horniman Museum is not prohibited in law from taking the decision. The trustees let us know that they had been approached with a request for restitution; I am satisfied that they went about it in a thoughtful manner, in accordance with their guidance. Separate guidance has been published by Arts Council England to inform deliberations by other museums but this does not have any implications for wider positions, particularly in relation to the barrier in law to deaccessioning.

My Lords, I do not wish to be churlish but I really must bring my noble friend’s attention to when this Question was raised previously and my own contribution. I asked at that time what negotiations or discussions were to take place between the Government represented by my noble friend and the Government of Denmark about the large amount of silver and other valuables that were looted, particularly from the east coast of this country, in history. Can he guarantee that, if discussions are to take place in this area, he will also be looking to bring back to this country that which is ours?

Again, my noble friend makes an important point. The reason that we have a legal bar on deaccessioning is to protect our national collection so that people—both those from the UK and the many visitors from around the world who come to our excellent museums—are able to see items from across human civilisation and see them in the great sweep of that wide context. Often, the debate about where things are physically located obstructs the more important purpose of museums, which is to continue to educate and inform people about items; that matters wherever they are. In the case of the Horniman Museum, the items that it has transferred legal title of will remain at the Horniman Museum for the foreseeable future.

My Lords, public opinion has changed considerably on this issue in the past few years. With regard to the national museums, should the Government not now consider it a duty to change the appropriate legislation—the British Museum Act and the National Heritage Act—to allow the British Museum in particular to come to a decision on these matters? Otherwise, its hands will remain tied, and that is surely unacceptable.

My Lords, I am mindful that I am as old as the National Heritage Act so I am always happy to discuss, as I do, with people in the sector their views on it. I do not think there is a case for further changes to the law. There are already exceptions to do with the spoliation of items acquired during the Third Reich and to deal with human remains that are less than 1,000 years old. I think the position that we have is the right one at the moment but I am always happy to hear representations.

My Lords, the Minister has twice cited those Acts in defence. Surely there is a case for looking at them and how restrictive they are in modern times. Of course, not all artefacts can be returned to their place of origin, but can your Lordships imagine the queues at the British Museum to look at a 3D replica of the Parthenon marbles, along with a history of where they came from and how they were looked after by the British Museum and then returned to their rightful place in Athens?

The British Museum has worked with the Acropolis Museum to allow for replicas to be made there and for the Acropolis Museum to show the sculptures. Of the half that remain in existence, half are in the Acropolis Museum, but there are also items in the Louvre, the Vatican and other museums around the world. The British Museum and many other museums work in partnership with museums around the world to lend items in order to extend our knowledge about them, and that is the purpose of our great museums.

My Lords, I cannot resist commenting on the Minister saying that old legislation prevents the Government doing anything. Surely we can change the legislation. Where there are important historical reasons and an artefact is particularly valuable to a country such as Greece, surely that is so exceptional that we should consider its return. Of course, we cannot return most artefacts but, where they are so significant and where they are part of an entity, surely we should think again.

The legislation does not prohibit museums such as the British Museum working in partnership with museums around the world. I note that it has talked about a Parthenon partnership with the Acropolis Museum, and we welcome the discussions that the British Museum wants to have there. It has always said that if the ownership of the sculptures was acknowledged. it would be willing to discuss loans, as it has loaned those items to other museums around the world in the past and does so with many other items to organisations around the world on a regular basis.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that many of us feel it would be wrong for the Government to usurp the function of trustees? In view of what Mr George Osborne has said recently, it seems that sensible discussions are taking place, but we should also not forget that the British Museum and all our great national museums regularly lend their objects and artefacts not only around the world but particularly within this country. We in Lincoln have been the beneficiary of many wonderful loans in recent years.

My noble friend makes an important point. I believe that before the pandemic the British Museum was loaning some 4,000 objects per year to museums around the world. They were also shared with people across the UK, which is exactly what we like to see.

My Lords, as an interim measure until we have some consensus on this issue, does the Minister agree that we should have a little plaque at the bottom of each article emphasising or explaining from where and how the item was looted?

My Lords, many museums do that; it is the job of museums to explain the context of items. In my experience, museums are very keen to continue filling in that, in all its complexity. In the case of the Benin bronzes, which were taken in a raid in February 1897, it points out the role of the British Empire at the time. I should also point out that that raid brought about the end of slavery in Benin, showing the full complexity of matters in the past.

My Lords, as an ex-archaeologist, I would like to point out that we do not own the Elgin marbles. I thought that Lord Elgin paid for them, but apparently there is no proof of that, so they are looted. It is a national embarrassment. I was in Greece this summer and saw the Parthenon and there is a vast gap where the marbles should be. It is time to send them back.

My Lords, as I have said in response to previous questions on the matter, the Acropolis Museum is a marvellous museum where you are able to see the Parthenon in the background. However, more people see the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum annually within a great sweep of human civilisation. They were legally acquired by the museum in 1801 and the trustees are right in their assertion of that fact.

My Lords, the Minister has rightly said that it is the job of museums to look after whatever is currently in their care, and to make sure that items are displayed appropriately and looked after for the future. Is he confident, given the parlous state of the finances of many of those museums, that they will in future be in a position to do what they are there to do?

My Lords, through things such as the museum estate and development fund and DCMS Wolfson grants, the Government provide grants to museums to ensure that they continue to be able to house, look after and share the items in their care with audiences not just in the UK but around the world.