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House of Commons Hansard
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02 March 2020
Volume 672

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Leo Docherty.)

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Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to debate a subject that has long been of historical interest but has taken on new significance in the current political climate.

The Elgin, or Parthenon, marbles are one of the British Museum’s most notorious artefacts. In the early 1800s, Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, gained access to the temple of the Parthenon and other buildings that comprise the Acropolis in Athens. With a team of assistants, Thomas Bruce removed many items of significant cultural interest, including 57 slabs from the frieze of the Parthenon. The excavation was completed in 1812, and the marbles were eventually sold to the British Government in 1816 and placed in the British Museum.

The legality of the excavations that Elgin performed remains fraught with controversy to this day. At the time of the excavations, Greece was ruled by the Ottoman empire, and the Parthenon itself was used as a military fort by the Ottomans. The vulnerable position that that imperial occupation placed on Greece, coupled with Elgin’s privileged position, made it easier for him take the action that he took in removing the figures, metopes and frieze panels from the Parthenon. Elgin claim to have obtained a firman, or written permit, from the sultan to access the Acropolis in carrying out the removal of sections of the Parthenon frieze, as well as other parts of the Acropolis. Some allege that Elgin bribed the Turkish authorities to obtain permission to enter the Acropolis, while others suggest that the exchange of gifts between Elgin and the sultan was customary at the time, given Elgin’s position as British ambassador to Constantinople.

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I thank the hon. Lady for giving way; I asked before the debate for her permission to intervene. Does she not agree that the significance of having the Elgin marbles in situ in the British Museum is that that gives a taste of, and indeed encourages people to make the journey to, historically and culturally rich Greece, particularly Athens, to see more, and that this must be part of any discussions regarding any return of the Elgin marbles to the people there?

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I agree that many visitors will have enjoyed a visit to the British Museum and marvelled at these fantastic sculptures, but the hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to discover that I believe they should actually be repatriated to Athens where they could be appreciated in full in their original context. However, I thank him for his intervention.

The only record of the firman that we have is an Italian translation of the document, and the veracity of the document remains heavily disputed. Although a Select Committee of the House of Commons eventually voted to purchase the marbles from Elgin in 1816, the stand-out feature of the Committee’s questioning of Elgin was the vagueness of his responses regarding the permission given to take the Parthenon sculptures. According to Geoffrey Robertson QC’s excellent book, “Who Owns History?”, Elgin was unable to produce the firman during the Committee’s consideration of the purchase of the marbles and, astonishingly, told the Committee that he never kept his own personal copy of the permissions he was given.

Those admissions by Elgin himself led many people to denounce his actions in taking the marbles, even among those who supported their purchase by the British Government. Lord Byron was one of the most vociferous critics of Elgin, denouncing his actions in the strongest terms:

“Dull is the eye that will not weep to see

Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed

By British hands, which it had best behoved

To guard those relics ne’er to be restored”.

Elgin’s actions were not the only source of controversy at the time of the sale of the marbles to the British Government. The public’s reaction to Elgin receiving £35,000 from the Government—around £3.5 million in today’s money—was understandably angry. In the same year that the British Government purchased the marbles, a cartoon by George Cruikshank depicted a satirical figure of John Bull purchasing the marbles while his children cried out for bread. That is not the first time that the House of Commons has made decisions that benefit the privileged few at the expense of the many.

Whether or not the firman is authentic and the means used to obtain it were dubious or illegal, the legal position on the marbles has, to date, favoured their retention in the UK. The British Museum Act 1963 is the primary piece of legislation here, and it makes it clear that the objects and collections of the British Museum are held by its trustees. Disposal or selling of objects in the British Museum collection is forbidden except in limited circumstances, which include printed materials where duplicates exist or objects that were illegally looted by the Nazis.

The general principle of that legislation and subsequent amendments to it is designed to protect cultural assets and provide the proper independence between Government and museum trustees. Because the legislation is drawn up in that manner, the Greek Government have been disinclined to put the legal position to the test in international courts. However, there is scope for the British Museum Act to be amended to cover the specific circumstances of the repatriation of the Parthenon marbles. I believe that potential amendments to legislation should form part of a process of mediation and dialogue between the Greek Government and the UK Government regarding the future of the Parthenon sculptures.

I turn to some of the other arguments that are often used to justify the Elgin marbles staying in Britain. Those who argue for retention of the marbles use cultural preservation as a key support. Their argument, encapsulated in the universal museum declaration, effectively places immediate cultural preservation above considerations of the circumstances in which treasures and other artefacts of major cultural significance were acquired. Some go as far as to suggest that Elgin’s actions were heroic and that the marbles would have been destroyed had he not acted in the way that he did by bringing them to Britain.

I have some sympathy with the idea that, had they not been acquired by museums outwith their countries of origin, many of the world’s cultural treasures would have been lost. Sadly, we have seen some despicable acts of cultural vandalism in recent years. In Syria, we have seen Daesh’s wanton destruction of parts of Palmyra, the great mosque of Aleppo and the old city of Damascus, which are just a few of the culturally significant sites that have suffered in that brutal conflict. But to compare what has happened in Syria with the proposed repatriation of the Elgin marbles would be to compare apples and oranges. The parts of the Parthenon frieze that have been retained in Greece have survived two world wars, a civil war, a military dictatorship and bankruptcy of the Greek state.

Regardless of views on whether the marbles should be returned to Greece or remain in Britain, it is reasonable to suggest that they would be preserved and secured for many years to come. Both Greece and the UK can offer outstanding museum facilities to showcase the marbles, and the new Acropolis Museum has already demonstrated how that would work in practice. The argument on cultural preservation comes down to one question: artistically, does it make sense for the Parthenon marbles to be reunited, placing them in one location where they could be appreciated and admired the world over? That is not only the right thing to do; it would enable the marbles to be appreciated in the original context in which they were sculpted.

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I am enjoying the history lesson, 204 years after the Select Committee of this House thoroughly investigated the acquisition and found it to be totally legal. However, the hon. Lady says the marbles could be better appreciated in Athens. Why does she think they could be better appreciated in Athens? Last year, the British Museum had over 6 million visitors, viewing 50,000 items, including the Elgin marbles, out of a total collection of 8 million objects, for free, while the Parthenon Museum in Athens, which destroyed many layers of archaeology in its construction, attracted 1.8 million visitors at a cost. Those marbles are seen in an international, classical, archaic Hellenistic context in the British Museum that is just not available in Greece. They are possessions of the world, and the British Museum, as a world museum, is the best place for everyone to appreciate them, rather than this petty nationalism about sending them back to a city state that does not exist any more.

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Order. That is taking complete advantage, Mr Loughton, and you should know better, given how many years you have been here.

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I think the only answer to that is, how arrogant! How arrogant to feel that we are the only ones who can house the Parthenon sculptures. I am sure many Greeks will be listening to that this evening.

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Will my hon. Friend give way?

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I am sorry, but I need to make some progress.

As I said, this would enable the marbles to be appreciated in the original context in which they were sculpted. That is perhaps best summed up in the poetry of Constantine Cavafy:

“It is not dignified in a great nation to reap profit from half-truths and half-rights;

Honesty is the best policy, and honesty in the case of the Elgin Marbles means restitution.”

Campaigns to return the Elgin marbles to Greece have been a feature of the cultural landscape for many years, with many celebrities backing the campaign. Most memorably, the original host of “Fifteen to One”, the late William G. Stewart, delivered a speech in favour of their return in a 2001 episode, after all the contestants were eliminated in the first round of the competition. Although a popular teatime quiz show might not have been the best place to air his views, William G. Stewart’s actions highlighted people’s strength of feeling towards the acquisition of these incredible sculptures.

When public opinion on the return of the marbles has been tested, there has been consistent support for returning them to Greece. The most recent opinion poll by YouGov showed that more people in Britain favoured the return of the marbles than opposed it—by a margin of 37% to 23%. Proponents of the reunification of the marbles have rightly pointed out that there is a moral case for their return. In an Intelligence Squared television debate, which is available on YouTube for any hon. Members interested in the subject, both sides of the debate acknowledged that the circumstances in which the Elgin marbles were returned to Greece would be emblematic of Britain’s status in the world.

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This is ever so slightly tangential, but my hon. Friend mentioned Intelligence Squared, and it famously hosted a debate between Professor Mary Beard and the man who is now Prime Minister. Is she as perturbed as I am, given the important role that the British Museum has in this debate, by reports at the weekend that the Government are trying to keep Professor Beard off the board of the British Museum, perhaps because of her remain views? Does she agree that the Minister might want to respond to that in her closing remarks?

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It is very disappointing to hear of the treatment of Professor Mary Beard. It reveals a crucial flaw in the argument against the return of the marbles, but it would be entirely within the UK Government’s power to appoint trustees who supported repatriation. However, I understand that the British Museum is going to take matters into its own hands and appoint her anyway.

Those in favour of repatriation of the marbles suggested that returning the marbles to Greece would portray Britain as a benign influence in the world, keen to do right by others. Those in favour of retention said that their return would mark the decline of Britain’s status as a global power. Either way, repatriating them would mark a sea change in how Britain was viewed in the world, but handled correctly, it could demonstrate that Britain was willing to ditch the colonial mindset for good. For me, the most prescient comment in the debate came from the former Liberal Democrat Member for St Ives, Andrew George, who remarked:

“We can persist in clinging on to the Greek marbles, as excuses wear thin, until we’re forced in some kind of cringe-making and rather shameful climbdown to hand them over in some decades to come.”

That brings us to the twin questions, why hold this debate and why raise this issue now? Last week, the UK Government published their much-awaited mandate for trade negotiations with the EU. Like many of my colleagues on the SNP Benches, I fear the economic impact on my constituents of a future trade deal with the EU.

Brexit also reveals this Tory Government’s delusions of grandeur, as it will expose the power imbalance that we face in negotiations with the EU27. The EU’s negotiating mandate contains an additional clause that calls on both parties in the negotiations to

“address issues relating to the return or restitution of unlawfully removed cultural objects to their country of origin”.

It is utterly apparent to me that Brexit will fuel demands for Britain to return the Elgin marbles to Greece. Greece’s Culture Minister has left us in no doubt about their position on the marbles, saying that the

“right conditions have been created for their permanent return”.

Next year marks 200 years since the Greek uprising against Ottoman rule, so it should be of no surprise to Ministers that Athens will be stepping up its demands for the return of the marbles. No doubt the Minister will boast of the strength of the UK’s negotiating position in the talks to come with the EU. I also expect her to repeat the same intransigent rhetoric that has been a hallmark of the Government’s position on the status of the Parthenon sculptures. As we have seen from this Tory Government throughout the Brexit process, however, that novel imperialist mindset is akin to the emperor’s new clothes.

I fear that the UK Government are in for a nasty surprise when we get down to the nitty-gritty of trade talks, and calls for the Elgin marbles to return to Greece may prove irresistible as negotiations drag on throughout this year. Whether by intention or by accident, the UK Government might well lose their marbles much sooner than any of us anticipated.

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I thank the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) for securing this debate on an important topic. She has made a passionate case—I never anticipated for a second that the story of the Parthenon sculptures would take us as far as “Fifteen to One” and YouTube, and I congratulate her on the scope of her argument. The underlying question about where cultural objects belong is not only important but a highly complex issue.

In the UK, museums have a legal responsibility to care for their collections, and they operate independently from Government. It is therefore up to individual museums and their trustees how they respond to restitution claims. Legislation prevents our national museums from removing objects from the national collection, although as the hon. Lady articulated, there are two exceptions to that legal position. One such exemption is Nazi-looted art. In 2000, the Government established the Spoliation Advisory Panel to consider claims for the return of cultural objects lost during the Nazi era, and since then, 13 cultural objects have been returned to families. In 2009, legislation was introduced to allow national museums to return items in that way.

We also have legal measures in place so that human remains under 1,000 years old can be returned to their ancestors around the world. Since the introduction of that measure, there have been a number of successful repatriations of human remains from our national museums, notably from the Natural History Museum, which is in the process of returning the remains of 442 individuals to Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii. Recently, museums have explored other circumstances in which it may be necessary to return objects in their care. For example, at the end of last year, Manchester Museum, which is not subject to primary legislation on its collection, chose to return 43 sacred aboriginal objects to Australia.

I stress, however, that in all those cases, the long-standing principle and legal position in the UK, which has been supported by successive Governments, is that politicians do not interfere in the management of museum collections. That means that in the UK, all decisions related to the collection and the deaccessioning or restitution of artefacts are for each museum and its trustees, within their legal obligations.

We are none the less committed to supporting our museums across the sector in delivering their duties. For example, to further support museums on this particular matter, our national development agency for museums and cultural property, Arts Council England—it is sponsored by my Department—is working to refresh sector guidelines on the restitution of cultural property. It will create a comprehensive and practical recourse for museums to support them in dealing confidently and proactively with all aspects of restitution. It will also provide a signpost for support where necessary.

In the particular case of the Parthenon sculptures, which the hon. Lady raises today, I recognise the very strong desire of some, including the Greek Government, to see the sculptures reunified in the Acropolis Museum in Athens. There are extremely passionate views on both sides of the debate—we have seen examples of that in the Chamber this evening—and that demonstrates the cultural importance of these sculptures. They are currently on display in the British Museum. They were legally acquired under the laws pertaining at the time. As per the situation I have just set out, the trustees of the museum are legally responsible for managing the collections in their care. The Government have great faith in their ability to do so.

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Does the Minister not agree that, notwithstanding the helpful context about how these decisions are taken and, crucially, without the interference of Government, that it was a black mark and a dark day when the British Museum refused to engage with UNESCO over a possible mediation on a location for these artefacts? Would it not be better, if such an opportunity arose again, for the museum to take a much more proactive and co-operative approach to any discussion?

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As I have set out, it is very much the responsibility of the museum to manage its collections as it sees fit. We have faith in its ability to do so and the trustees believe very strongly that the museum is the very best place for the sculptures to be seen. That is based on the context of their rich contribution to the history of humanity. The Government fully support the position they have taken.

The hon. Lady raised the speculation that the future of the Parthenon sculptures is implicated in our discussion with the EU on our future trade agreement. The UK’s position remains unchanged: the Parthenon sculptures are the legal responsibility of the British Museum. That is not up for discussion as part of our trade negotiations.

We are very proud of the achievements of our world-class national museums. They do a fantastic job of caring for their collections on behalf of the nation, and they ensure that they are seen by a wide and diverse audience for free. Four of our national museums are in the top 10 most visited in the world. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) mentioned, the British Museum alone welcomes over 6 million visitors a year. Those 6 million people see the Parthenon sculptures in an unparalleled world history context.

The public also benefit from the national collections beyond the walls of these historic institutions. In 2017-18, the UK’s national museums lent over 69,000 objects to over 2,000 venues around the world for exhibitions and displays. Those loans were seen by over 32 million people. Technology has also revolutionised the way in which the museum sector engages with the public. Through digitisation projects, much of our national collection is now available online, making it more widely accessible to communities everywhere. Our museums are dedicated to making their collections accessible, so that as many people as possible can experience and engage with them.

These collections are also the focus of scholarship and research, and the national museums are internationally recognised as leaders in their academic fields. They partner with experts from universities, museums and other organisations to advance our knowledge of history and science. In 2017-18, the national museums collaborated with over 1,000 UK and international academic and research institutions. It is not an exaggeration to say that this work can change the world, from significant scientific breakthroughs to conferences and exhibitions that share new knowledge. Much of that research is rightly focused on the provenance of museum collections. Some individual items have incredibly complicated histories and it is important that we do everything we can to understand that. Museums have rightly committed a lot of time to this type of research, and they take their due diligence in regard to their collections seriously.

The question of provenance, as the hon. Lady says, can be very complicated, but the Government take it very seriously and work with the police and relevant authorities to ensure that stolen or looted cultural objects do not enter the country in the first place. We are committed to combating the illicit trade of cultural property and to ensuring that objects of dubious provenance do not find their way into our museum collections. This is demonstrated through our international efforts to protect cultural heritage as a signatory of several international conventions.

The UK is a world leader in the fields of culture and heritage. Our museums co-operate extensively with partner institutions around the world on the promotion, protection and circulation of their collections. This sharing of knowledge and collections has enabled them to be proactive in international engagement and lead programmes that promote collaborative training, research and dialogue.

In the case of the British Museum and its wider relationship with its Greek counterparts, it continues a long tradition of fruitful collaboration. A curator from the Thessaloniki museum will join the museum’s annual global training programme this summer, and the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens will borrow a 15th-century print for an exhibition next year to mark the bicentenary of the Greek war of independence in 2021. Prior to that, the museum has lent several objects to an exhibition in the Acropolis Museum and presented a newly commissioned replica of a lion-head water spout from the Parthenon to the Acropolis Restoration Service. The museum has worked with Greek colleagues to research the Parthenon frieze, including through the use of 3D image scanning.

Visually impaired visitors to the British Museum can now enjoy a new touch-tour using casts of the Parthenon sculptures, and from March 2021, the museum will hold a free exhibition of historic drawings from its collection that illustrate the long and complex history of the Parthenon as a church, temple and mosque. The trustees have never been asked for a loan of the Parthenon sculptures by the Greek Government, only for their permanent transfer to Athens. As the museum has stated publicly, the trustees would of course consider any request for any part of the collection to be borrowed and then returned, provided that the borrowing institution acknowledges the British Museum’s ownership and that the normal loan conditions are satisfied.

The Government support the position that the Parthenon sculptures should remain in the British Museum, where they are accessible to millions of people for free in the context of world history.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.