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Elgin Marbles

Volume 834: debated on Thursday 14 December 2023

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of proposals to loan the Elgin Marbles to Greece.

My Lords, the Elgin marbles—or Parthenon sculptures, as some prefer—are famous for two reasons. The first reason is of course because they are magnificent treasures of civilization, part of the heritage of our world. The second reason that they are famous is as regrettable as it is persistent. These great treasures have an almost infinite capacity to provoke heated arguments about their ownership and their location. It is almost impossible to mention them in everyday conversation without instigating a dispute on these points.

This has not always been the case. The sculptures were brought to our country between 1801 and 1812 by the 7th Earl of Elgin, about whom many unkind things are said. They were placed in the possession of the British Museum by Act of Parliament in 1816. For the next 165 years, there was scarcely a peep of protest from anyone in Greece—which had become an independent country in 1832—about their residence in one of the world’s greatest museums. During this long period, the idea that the British Museum’s possession was permanent became a settled conviction in Britain.

The peace was shattered some 40 years ago. Since then, politicians and other leading figures in Greece, a country whose friendship has always been greatly valued in Britain, have repeatedly demanded that the treasures should be installed once again on the Acropolis, from which, in the Greek view, they were illegally removed by the much-criticised Lord Elgin. No one, I think, can doubt the strength of feeling that exists in Greece. It has the power to damage and blight good relations between our two countries, particularly at official and diplomatic levels. People of good will, in both Greece and Britain, must surely seek to diminish the acrimony with which the heated and recurrent arguments, engendered by dispute over ownership and location, have invested the great and famous sculptures.

Those seeking to understand the issues more fully will be greatly assisted by a recent detailed study by one of our leading scholars, Sir Noel Malcolm, a most distinguished historian of international standing with a particular interest in the Balkans, a fellow of the British Academy and of All Souls, Oxford. Sir Noel Malcolm’s meticulous scholarly study was published earlier this year by Policy Exchange, an organisation of enormous value in promoting debate on political and public affairs. Not all scholars reach clear conclusions. Sir Noel Malcolm does so. He finds the claim that the removal of the treasures was illegal to be false. He finds the claim that Elgin saved the treasures from serious damage, dispersal and destruction to be true. The central point is this: the British Museum has full legal entitlement to the treasures which Elgin saved for posterity.

It should perhaps be noted that no Greek Government have ever sought any form of legal judgment on the question of ownership, yet the words “theft” and “robbery” are freely bandied about on the Greek side.

The absence of serious doubt on the question of legal ownership is immensely important, but it does not settle definitively an issue of this kind. I sought the view of a retired Conservative Minister, an academic philosopher well-known for his careful consideration of all sides of highly contested issues. He told me that, in his view, the Elgin marbles have a special and disproportionate importance for the Greeks which sets them apart from almost anything else that has ended up outside their mother country. Should not that view incline us to consider sympathetically the Greek demand for the transfer of the sculptures from London to Athens?

However, must not great weight also be given to the fact that, in over more than 200 years, the Elgin marbles have become part of Britain’s cultural heritage? Some assert that a mere 200 years are of no significance in a roughly 2,500-year-long history of the sculptures, but that is to ignore the important fact that these 200 years constitute the great majority of the period during which, in post-classical times, the sculptures have been seriously valued as works of art.

Professor Mary Beard, who has done so much to extend our understanding of the ancient world, has said that

“after 200 years the Elgin Marbles have a history that roots them in the British Museum as well as in Athens”.

Surely such a statement confers great merit on the suggestion, which has been given wide publicity, that some form of loan arrangement might be instituted between the British Museum and the Greek Government. Mr George Osborne, the current chairman of the British Museum trustees, has become the principal champion of that idea. He tells us, not infrequently, that he is exploring the ways in which a loan scheme might be agreed with the Greek Government, with, as he put it recently,

“Greek treasures coming our way in return”.

At present, a loan is the only basis on which any of the Elgin marbles could go to Greece. They are the property of the museum, which is prohibited by an Act of Parliament from selling them or giving them to anyone else. A loan would be wholly compatible with the British Museum Act 1963, which states:

“The Trustees of the British museum may lend for public exhibition”.

It is a power that the trustees have not in the past been reluctant to use. The 1963 Act goes on to state that

“in deciding whether or not to lend any such object, and in determining the time for which, and the conditions subject to which, any such objects is to be lent, the Trustees shall have regard to the interests of students and other persons visiting the Museum”.

This surely rules out open-ended and potentially permanent arrangements.

There is another crucial issue. In any agreement with Greece, the museum would need to be certain that it will get its property back. The current policy on loans makes clear:

“The Trustees of the British Museum will lend only in circumstances when the perceived risk to the object is considered reasonable and when the borrower guarantees that the object will be returned to the Museum at the end of the loan period”.

If proposals for a loan, the subject of this debate, are to succeed, two essential preconditions would surely have to be met. First, the Greek Government would need to give a binding, legally enforceable commitment to restore the sculptures to their owner at the end of the loan period. Secondly, the length of the loan period would need to be firmly established. On the latter, various possibilities have been mentioned, ranging, I think, from five to 15 years. Can my noble friend the Minister say whether the Government have a view on the maximum time the sculptures should be on loan from the British Museum? Would the Government seek to ensure that a loan agreement fully respected the British Museum’s ownership of the Elgin marbles?

Would it not be wholly wrong, in seeking an agreement with Greece, to jeopardise the interests of the British people? Although the British Museum may have its difficulties at present, which will keep Mr Osborne busy, it has never failed in its duty to hold the Elgin marbles securely, in its own words,

“for the benefit of the world public, present and future”.

My Lords, for the benefit of the House I tell noble Lords that two noble Lords have given notice that they wish to speak in the gap. It is an incredibly tight debate and I am sure we want to hear from everyone and the Minister’s reply in full, so I implore all noble Lords to stick to the speaking time.

My Lords, not for the first time I find myself congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, on bringing such an important and timely debate. I am afraid I will disagree with much of what he said, including on matters of history. I say that with some trepidation to such an established historian, but there are different views about matters that have already been cited in your Lordships’ House.

The Prime Minister’s recent snub of the Greek premier, for even discussing his country’s well-known and long-established claim for the reunification of the Parthenon sculptures in their Athenian home, was more worthy of a sulking adolescent than an aspiring statesman. I slightly balk at the idea of the recipient of stolen goods agonising about their possible loan to the rightful owner. Whatever Policy Exchange may say, and perhaps legislate for with the flick of a pen, there are other views. I do not currently accept that Lord Elgin had permission from the Ottoman Empire to hack away at the marbles with crowbars and take them for the adornment of his Scottish mansion. He was authorised, I believe, only to take impressions. He sold them to the British Museum only after his subsequent bankruptcy. There, like much of our imperial history, they were scrubbed with wire wool, which did lasting damage.

I will not fast forward to recent governance troubles at the British Museum and the still unresolved systematic thefts from its mostly undisplayed treasures, but we might observe that the right to call itself “the museum of the world” et cetera is wearing extremely thin.

Regardless of arguments about legality, past or present, the British people know better than too many of their leaders how to make friends by being the bigger person. Most of them support returning the artefacts to the people to whom they mean so much more. A few minutes, let alone hours, at the Acropolis Museum in Athens would lead any noble Lord to understand just how much these artefacts mean to the people of Greece. Few have been fooled by years of buck-passing between museum and government around this issue, when technological advancement should make sharing and return so much easier than ever before.

I fear the Government are taking the concept of culture war to new and ever more literal levels. They are prepared to legislate to change facts, as found by our highest court, so as to transport desperate human cargo to Rwanda. But they are not prepared to legislate to allow the British Museum and other important collections even to make their own decisions about co-operation and vision over world heritage. They want to stop the boats, stop the courts and burn the bridges, but the Government’s marbles are long since lost.

My Lords, I wanted to take part in this debate because I love ancient artefacts—so much so that my career began in ruins, working as a field archaeologist, trowel in hand. Please indulge me; it is panto season. Even now I feel a shiver of excitement at the memory of scraping back the dirt to reveal a sarcophagus lid and then lifting it to find the tomb still occupied in skeletal form. What is special about artefacts is that they conjure up stories when we see, touch or smell them. The sniffing part does not apply to skeletons—that would be weird—but there is nothing like a whiff of old alabaster. It is this story-telling function that I believe should be front of mind when we consider objects such as the Parthenon sculptures, recognising, as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, said, that location and context are important elements in how they speak to us.

As I have bounced between the British Museum and the new Acropolis Museum, each of which holds around half the surviving Parthenon sculptures, I have felt two quite different narratives emerge from these kindred objects. In London, the story is heavily weighted in favour of their recent history. They speak of 19th-century adventurers, of the neoclassical London architecture they influenced, of a Britain that prized Latin and Greek education above all else, and of a world of comparative cultural and artistic studies. In Athens, the story is very much one of them as integral architectural features of the Parthenon building that you can see from the gallery, of their position relative to other layers of Greek archaeology and of their representation of classical Athenian culture. One of the most powerful differences is in their positioning. The Duveen Gallery has them facing inwards while the new Acropolis Museum has them turned outwards, replicating their original arrangement on the Parthenon. They are, quite literally, introverted in London and extroverted in Athens.

I hope we can recognise, as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, set out, that each of these stories is interesting and valuable, and do not allow a lack of imagination to cause us to dismiss either of them out of hand. My personal preference, as my tone may have given away, is for the Athenian story, so I wish to see the entire set of sculptures together in the new Acropolis Museum. But I recognise that this would represent a loss to those who favour the London narrative, if they can no longer drop into the British Museum for a fix of their own preferred kind of classical inspiration.

Artefacts also add new elements to their stories over time; this is especially true for the Parthenon sculptures. As well as Lord Elgin himself, their story now includes Melina Mercouri, who kicked off that campaign 40 years ago, and Eleni Cubitt, who ran the UK campaign for their return over many years. Our current Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has now become part of the story; George Osborne may be an even bigger figure if he leads the trustees to agree to some form of display in Athens. It is certainly my hope that we will find a way to have the entire set of sculptures singing their story out from the new Acropolis Museum, while the British Museum continues to tell its rich stories through other fabulous Greek objects from its own collection or from loans.

Our Prime Minister recently issued a clarion call for politicians not to feel bound by others’ past decisions, but rather to be willing to make

“long-term decisions for a brighter future”.

That question now sits in front of the British Museum trustees. If it seems better for the next chapter of the sculptures’ story to be set in Athens, I hope we can enable that to happen.

I invite the Minister to give an aesthetic opinion, as well as the legalistic ones that I suspect he has in his notes. It would be helpful for the House to know the personal preference of the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, for Parthenon placement.

My Lords, I join others in thanking my noble friend Lord Lexden for securing this debate. It is right that we should debate this subject because it cannot be left just to museums. There is obviously room to debate the legal case. I think Lord Elgin’s actions were possibly a little murky; nevertheless, our legal case is good. I also think that is not the point. The point is what we do now, rather than what happened in the past.

Personally, I have never been so convinced by the moral, artistic and cultural arguments for the position we take. The Parthenon marbles are a special situation and we should try to find a special solution. They are one of the supreme expressions of ancient Greek, hence western, art. They were created for a specific building and a specific cultural context. In contrast to much ancient sculpture, we know exactly what that context was and what the work of art was intended to signify. These are not just random museum exhibits and, for as long as they are not seen as a whole, they are less than the sum of their parts.

I was lucky enough to learn Greek in Greece, when the Foreign Office still invested in such things, and I have lived in Cyprus. I have no doubt been influenced by that experience, but it has also enabled me to see the argument from the Greek perspective. For us, the marbles are just one exhibit—albeit a very important one—in our national museums, but for Greece they are part of the national identity and a national cultural cause. As we saw from what was, I am afraid, the slightly dismissive treatment of Prime Minister Mitsotakis the other week, they have the capacity to disrupt a relationship that really ought to be a lot better than it is.

We should try to find a solution, but I also wonder whether a loan is the right way forward. I admit that I am slightly unconvinced by it. It seems like a solution that has been shaped by the existence of the 1963 Act, which rightly prohibits the museum from alienating its collections. I am afraid that is a very necessary protection nowadays against the tendencies of too many museum curators. The problem with a loan is that it keeps the issue and the arguments alive when we should try to settle this for good.

My personal view is that it is a time for a grand gesture, and only the Government can make it. It is to offer to return the marbles as a one-off gift to Greece from this country, but as part of and on condition of a new, wider Anglo-Greek cultural partnership. That partnership could have three elements, but many others. First, a museum partnership, high-quality reproductions of the marbles in London plus an agreement by Greece to loan some of its most famous works of art, temporarily, in return—perhaps beyond London as well. Secondly, a wider cultural partnership, perhaps a bilateral foundation, largely financed by the, I am sure, many wealthy private individuals with an interest in this question, to try to take academic and scholarly collaboration to a new level, and an agreement to relax or eliminate restrictions—because the barriers are much stronger on the Greek side than ours—on language teaching, cultural work, artistic performance by each other’s citizens and so on. Thirdly, and finally, a joint campaign to return to Greece those parts of the marbles that are in other museums globally, for it should not be forgotten that, although the British Museum has most of those that are not in Athens, it does not have them all.

Such a partnership would have to definitively set aside for good the rights and wrongs of the original acquisition. It would also have to be clear that it was not a precedent for restitution demands for any other museum exhibit. But it would show that we actually mean it when we see the marbles as part of our common inheritance, and that we can move beyond the “What we have, we hold” approach we take on so many occasions. Perhaps we could rise to the occasion this time and make a deal.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Frost, and entirely agree with everything that he said. I think he said that the Parthenon sculptures sitting in the British Museum are less than the sum of their parts that they would be if they were together in their original context with their original structure. That reflects a recent article in the Times that talked about going into the Parthenon sculptures gallery and feeling the melancholy of exile. These marbles have been deprived of the charisma that ancient objects can have when they are in the place where they were made, created and lived with for thousands of years.

I was a volunteer at the British Museum for many years, and I am a passionate lover of the place. One thing I did as a volunteer was to stand in the galleries with ancient objects and give visitors the chance to hold them. One such object was a 350,000 year-old hand-axe from Kent. That was a magic object when you felt it in your hand, but it was a magic object in its place and time. You could feel the connection to the people—probably homo heidelbergensis, or possibly early Neanderthals—who lived before us on this island and whom you were experiencing in that moment. That is something that we are depriving the world—anyone who visits Athens—of, by taking the Parthenon sculptures away.

Like others, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for the chance to have this debate, and the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, who set out the case very well—I am not going to repeat it. I disagree with the noble Lord’s conclusions, which are very much contested. I am, perhaps typically as a Green, going to take this as a chance to think a bit more broadly. This is a chance to reassess the position of many objects in the British Museum—the Benin Bronzes are another very obvious example. Let us think about our museums, galleries and collections, and place this in the context of Britain’s place in the world. We hear a great deal of talk of Britain wishing to be world-leading in standing up for human rights and the rule of law, doing the right thing and promoting a proper international order. Let us think about that and about what we could actually do. I am no legal draftperson, but I am sure the Table Office could come up with a Bill that would see the Government directing museums, galleries and other institutions to make, over time, an assessment of their entire collections to see whether they have fair, just and rightful title to the objects in those collections.

I would ask the Government to provide some modest ongoing funding; I am not saying this is something that would happen in a year or even a decade. It could be an ongoing programme—and we can already identify some of the objects that would clearly be a problem.

Noble Lords may ask what this would achieve. I pick up the point the noble Lord, Lord Allan, made about how the sculptures here in London send out a message of celebration, still, of that period of colonialism, exploitation, extraction and straight-out theft. We would be saying, “That’s not the kind of world we want to live in”. We want to build and create a new and different future that respects the rule of law and different cultures all around the world and that seeks to work with them to celebrate together the wonderful creativity of humans. That is a global tradition that belongs to everyone that should be all in its rightful place.

My Lords, I am sure I am not the only Member of this House who was embarrassed when our Prime Minister said he would not meet the Greek Prime Minister because of an argument about the Parthenon marbles. Whatever the rights and wrongs, if the British Government said to the Greek Prime Minister, “It’s a condition of our meeting you that you don’t mention the marbles”, that is simply quite absurd. This is not how we deal with friends, fellow NATO members and a fellow European country with which we have had a long period of friendship. I find that very embarrassing; we must restore our relations with Greece, because they have taken a bit of a knock. The Greek Prime Minister appeared on television and gave a very dignified response in impeccable English—I think that is how we should have behaved.

People say we cannot return the marbles to Athens because it would set a precedent—I do not agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett—and therefore we must not do it because there would be demands for everything to be returned. I argue emphatically that the argument in favour of returning the marbles to Greece is that they are unique and so it would not set a precedent.

They are unique for a number of reasons. One is the unity of a great work of art. It is not a matter of returning the odd French impressionist to Paris; nor do we want to, and neither are the French asking us to. It should be a unified work of art, and therefore there is a case for it all to be together in its original home. Secondly, some other countries have already done this. I understand that there are parts of the Parthenon marbles that have been returned to Athens—I think the Austrians are considering doing the same thing. Then, of course, we have the precedent of the Benin Bronzes. But, above all—as I learned some years ago when I was discussing this with people in Greece—there is the significance of the Parthenon marbles in terms of culture and traditions. It is so important to the people of Greece; it matters so much to them; and we should respect their wish and their desire.

Then there is the argument about loaning or returning them. I appreciate that there is a difficulty because of the 1963 Act. Nevertheless, I think the right answer, in the fullness of time, will be to return the marbles to their rightful place in Athens. If it needs a change in legislation, that could be achieved—but, for heaven’s sake, we cannot forever fall out with our Greek friends on this issue. We can have replicas created and put in the British Museum, so if people want to see them without going to Athens they can do so. But the importance to the Greeks is something that I did not understand until I was in Athens and began talking to people. It is overwhelmingly significant for them, and we should respect that—it is the best way forward. They are our friends, they are fellow NATO members, and we need all the friends we have got as a country. The Greeks have been excellent friends, and they would be even better friends if we returned the marbles to them.

My Lords, if there were a way of returning the marbles to the Parthenon itself, there would be no debate. It would have happened years ago. What Byron called the “wanton and useless defacement” would have been undone. Who could resist seeing those magnificent artefacts in their proper place—their solidity combined with this ethereal feel of their bare, bleached, marmoreal splendour; their realism, the flowing robes and flared horses’ nostrils none the less combining with this idealised beauty? But the argument is about moving them from one museum to another, and therefore it seems that this debate turns on what a museum is for. The clue is in the etymology—museums are there to channel the Muses, to elevate and ennoble the condition of visitors. The most pertinent questions to ask, with the display of any artefacts, are: where will they best be looked after? Where will they be most accessible to specialists, scholars and students? Where will people most appreciate their cultural impact? Where will the greatest number of people get to see them?

I think that I am right in saying the British Museum was the first public institution to use “British” in its title, yet it never saw its aspiration as being national. It always saw its role as being encyclopaedic—a collection of curios from every continent. This is more unusual than you might think; if you go to the museums in Copenhagen, Budapest or Prague you will find museums that tell the story of a particular nation and people. If you go to the museums in Washington DC you find even more ethnic particularism—a Chinese American Museum, an African American museum, a Museum of the American Indian and so on—but the British Museum never saw itself in those terms. Confident, at least in the 18th century in its foundation, it saw itself as a repository for the greatest works of mankind. Neil MacGregor, the museum’s director between 2002 and 2015, put it like this:

“The museum remains a unique repository for the achievements of human endeavour, and there is no culture, past or present, that is not represented within its walls. It is truly the memory of mankind”.

What overrides that claim? The main argument that one hears, and we have heard it in the debate now, is one of, if you like, a communal cultural claim—“We live in a particular area and therefore we have a right”. That is a notion that is difficult to reconcile with ownership and contract. Even if it were true—and I actually do not think that we are remotely connected to whatever Neanderthal people made the hand-axe that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, was talking about; there was an ice age in between and the place was completely depopulated—I have no idea whether the Greeks of today are related to the Greeks of the time of the Parthenon. We are told by Constantine Porphyrogenitus that there was massive demographic displacement in the meantime, but even if they are—even if the Greek Prime Minister could claim personal lineal descent from Phidias—so what? If the noble Baroness’s great-grandmother had bought her house from mine I would not be able to turf her out because of some prior claim, because contract and ownership count for something.

I happen to agree with what my noble friend Lord Lexden quoted Professor Mary Beard as saying—that if you want to play the game of identity politics, then 200 years of being debated in this Chamber and revered, argued over, sketched and painted in this country also establishes some claim—but I do not think that is really the relevant criterion. The relevant criterion is one of ownership and if, as my noble friend Lord Frost says, these are the foundation of western art, then free contract is surely the foundation of western civilisation.

My Lords, and especially the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, I would like to welcome this excellent short debate on the Elgin marbles. I want to stand back from the specifics of the “to loan or not to loan” argument, and avoid the tit-for-tat row over ownership, because I fear that this technical approach can distract us from why these sculptures really matter. We should not lose sight of the marbles’ value as sublime works of art, the quality of their artistry and what Virginia Woolf described as their “immense and enduring beauty” after millennia. I urge that we refocus the public discussion to the sculptures’ significance in the history of the accomplishments of western civilisation.

I was reminded of this when rereading Tiffany Jenkins’s excellent Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums and Why They Should Stay There. I recommend that DMCS Ministers treat themselves to the book for Christmas. In it, Dr Jenkins details how the 1816 House of Commons Select Committee that investigated Lord Elgin’s proposed sale of the marbles to the nation not only found that he had acquired them legally, but broadened its deliberations to weigh up the sculptures’ aesthetic and cultural merits. It concluded that the marbles’ artistic magnificence was such that their presence in Britain had the potential to spark an artistic renaissance. The context for this appreciation, fuelled by Enlightenment values, was the 19th-century interest in ancient Greece and especially the inspiring classical model of Athenian democracy, which chimed with the democratic spirit of mass society emerging in Britain at the time.

What a contrast with 2023—anti-democratic trends are on the rise, and rather than publicly promoting these artefacts as inspiring embodiments of the world’s first democracy, policy retreats into uninspiring pedestrian legalese. Additionally, it has become fashionable not to celebrate but to demonise western civilisation. The Enlightenment and 19th-century cultural figures are routinely impugned as representing white supremacy, racist privilege, and so on.

Unsurprisingly, the dispute about the marbles has been dragged into the sordid anti-western discourse, and we are told that the return of the sculptures would be a positive act of decolonisation. But like so much of today’s philistine, politicised use of the past to score contemporary identitarian points, it bears little relation to historic facts. The notion that the return of the marbles would be reparation for what was stolen by British colonialists 200 years ago is misleading. When Lord Elgin acquired the marbles, Greece was under the thumb of the Ottoman Empire, not the British Empire. Indeed, the Ottomans were happy to sell them; they were indifferent to 19th-century Hellenism or democratic virtues of ancient Athens or anywhere else, and the Acropolis served as a garrison at the time.

Despite such inconvenient facts, there is growing pressure on all museums to repatriate their artefacts in general. Worse, too many who work in the sector behave as though their institutions are little more than repositories of ill-gotten gains of a shameful, colonial, slave-owning past. We should instead demand that they act as public servants, trusted by democratic society to curate the world’s treasures as guardians of historic scholarship and artistic appreciation.

In this context, it is crucial that the Government urge the British Museum not to fudge the issue in the name of political expediency or diplomatic niceties. I worry that talk of loans seems to do just that. Can the Minister promise to unapologetically defend housing Elgin’s precious marbles within London’s encyclopaedic collections, as an aid to a universal understanding of human culture?

My Lords, I am thankful for the opportunity to speak in the gap. The speech of my noble friend Lord Lexden was like a wonderful thriller; the conclusion was not clear until the end, but it was a marvellous conclusion to have and a wonderful narrative to get there. It is a great opportunity to speak in a debate called by my former boss, who is also the former boss of the chairman of the British Museum—so we know where the real power to make a decision lies.

It is also the first opportunity in my life—and probably the last—to say that I agreed with every word that my noble friend Lord Frost said. He got it precisely right. This is not about looking back; it is looking forward at an extraordinary opportunity. It is about reuniting a unique piece of art, and if you ask, “Where should that be housed: in the British Museum or in the shadow of the Parthenon?”, we all know what the answer is. It is a great opportunity to make an extraordinary gesture towards our friends and allies the Greek people, and a great opportunity to forge an enduring bond between the British Museum and the Greek people, which will see unbelievable and unique treasures come to the British Museum, maintaining its status as one of the pre-eminent Hellenic museums in the world.

My Lords, I also express my gratitude for the ability to speak in the gap, and thank my noble friend Lord Lexden for this debate. I also declare my interest as a supporter of the Parthenon Project, whose purpose is to share cultural and educational interests way beyond the marbles and much wider than is suggested even by George Osborne. I cannot deal with details in the time allowed, so I simply say that this is not about losing anything; this is potentially a win-win situation, if we can share. It is about the future, not the past.

I sometimes think this debate about the Elgin marbles is really—and I excuse everybody present today—like grumpy old men talking about teenage sex and merely the grubby bits. It misses the point. We are talking here about building relationships, about creating something that is bigger and better. It is called soft power. We keep talking about soft power, so why do we not do some of it? In this world where we see distortion, deceit and betrayal around us, is it not time for us to, for want of better words, fall in love again with our friends and allies and move on and create a brighter and better future filled with beauty for us all?

My Lords, it was a pleasure to pause and give room for the last two contributions. I will start with a message to the Minister which might help him in his reply. In December 2011, I was in his position replying to a debate about a pardon for Alan Turing. I stood up and gave the set government reply, which had also been the reply of the previous Labour Government. Two years later, in 2013, when I had left the ministry, the then Secretary of State stood up and announced a pardon for Alan Turning, and all the careful wording I had used in explaining why we could not go against previous legislation or previous decisions just went. The Government had decided that it was necessary in the spirit of the day to pardon Alan Turing. The only thing left of this is that if you look me up in any of the reference books you will find a very helpful line saying: “Lord McNally refused a pardon for Alan Turing in 2011”. No, I did not; I was reflecting the policy of the Government of the day, as the Minister will be in a few minutes.

In a way, a lot of the legal and historical arguments do not match the fact that we are changing our views of what museums are for and their role in their societies and the world. By God, it will keep me awake tonight, but I am fully in agreement with what the noble Lord, Lord Frost, said: this is a dilemma with a solution that is an opportunity. It a chance for us to play on the big stage in a confident way about how we see our heritage and our future.

Some of the ideas put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and the noble Lord, Lord Frost, I have put forward in previous debates. There is ample opportunity to have a permanent partnership between Greece and Britain, between the British Museum and the Acropolis Museum, which would be a world standard in co-operation and exchange. One thing I do know, coming into the early autumn of my career in politics, is that the idea that if you send the Parthenon marbles to Greece on loan, you will ever get them back is disappearing into fantasy. They are of such special and unique importance that the political craft is to set an agreement between our two Governments and two museums that will leave the marbles where they should be in Athens but also leave a legacy for both museums of co-operation and exchange which is far more to the credit of both countries than this sterile old argument.

My Lords, I join others in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Lexden. I thank him for enabling this valuable debate to take place today. I reflect that the debate shows just how differently history can be interpreted by people with different views and perspectives, and those interpretations make for an interesting discussion.

Like the noble Lord, Lord McNally, I found some interesting points of coincidence of view with people that I would not necessarily have thought I would agree with. I found a lot to agree with in what the noble Lord, Lord Frost, said, particularly about the value and importance of museum partnerships.

Surely the point here is that this is very much a matter for the British Museum to sort out. George Osborne has been very vocal on this point. If the museum and the Greek Government feel that a loan deal is an appropriate way forward, why would we want to stand in the way? It seems to be a path that it would be wise to take to enable the sorts of things that the noble Lord, Lord Frost, was talking about to happen. It would form a valuable pathway to bringing back some sense and rationality to this debate.

If we want a good example of recent initiatives in that direction, we need to look no further than the Horniman Museum. Some say might say it was brave, but I think it took a sensible and well thought-through course of action in restoring the Benin bronzes and plaques to Nigeria. Of course the Horniman is not subject to any legislative constraints whereas the British Museum and other national museums are, but neither are regional museums. I talk regularly to the new director and chief executive of two museums as I am a board member of the Royal Pavilion and Museums Trust and the People’s History Museum. We have sensible policies that enable us to have a discourse with those who believe that artefacts should be returned. We operate within that framework, and good practice should rule the field.

The Prime Minister seemed shocked to discover that the Greek Prime Minister wanted the return of the marbles and, rather than have a grown-up conversation about it, he chose to throw his toys out of the pram. That is not national leadership, and it is not what the country needs at this time. George Osborne has been leading sensible discussions about this issue for a long period. As I have said, these are very much matters for the British Museum and the Greek Government to discuss, and we are not going to get involved in a legislative argument on this or spend the sort of government time that some wish to by having a dispute.

It is wrong that we have picked a fight with a NATO ally just for the sake of a headline. That shows how weak our Prime Minister has become. The Prime Minister should have been talking about things such as the economy, immigration and the Middle East. That is what the country should expect from a leader, but Rishi Sunak is no leader. When our leader met his Greek counterpart, he rightly focused on those very issues.

I am looking forward to what the Minister has to say to this. I suspect he will declare that it is not a matter of great interest to him directly, but maybe he will surprise us all.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lexden for securing today’s debate on what he rightly describes as magnificent treasures of civilisation, objects that, as he said in his opening, have long provoked lively debate in this country and elsewhere.

It is important to be clear that the UK and His Majesty’s Government do not own the Parthenon sculptures, which were lawfully acquired under the law pertaining at the time. They are legally owned by the trustees of the British Museum, which is independent of the Government.

My noble friend is right to take exception to some of the vitriol and ahistorical claims that have been levelled against the late Lord Elgin. As ambassador to the Sublime Porte of the Ottoman Empire, of which Athens, at the time when he acquired the marbles, had been a part for three and a half centuries, he acted with the permission of the Ottoman Empire and moved about half of the sculptures that remained from the ruins of the Parthenon in Athens. They were purchased by Lord Elgin, the Government purchased them from him and then Parliament made the decision—indeed, it passed an Act of Parliament—to give them to the British Museum in 1816.

I have referred to the ruins. Sadly, most of these exquisite objects have been damaged or lost to humanity, in particular as a result of the tragedy in 1687, when Venetian bombardment ignited the munitions that the Ottomans had stored in the Parthenon, blowing the roof off and doing irreparable damage to many of the marbles. Of those that survive today, about half remain in Athens. There is a roughly equal amount in London, but important pieces are also held by other European museums, including the Louvre, in Paris, and museums in Denmark, Austria and Germany.

As my noble friend and others noted, in the 1970s, the Greek Government began a programme of restoration of the Acropolis monuments. As part of that work, all the remaining sculptures from the Parthenon were removed to the Acropolis Museum; none can therefore be seen in their original setting. The first formal request for the removal of the Elgin marbles in the British Museum was made by the Greek Government in 1983 and was formally rejected by the UK Government in 1984. Neither Government’s position has significantly changed since then.

Unlike a number of other countries, museums in the UK are independent of the state; they are not run or owned by the Government. Museums are charitable institutions run for the benefit of the public, and responsibility for their collections rests with their trustees; the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, was right to say, in a variety of ways, that most are not covered by statute and that some are covered in differing ways.

The British Museum’s governing legislation is the British Museum Act 1963. This prohibits the British Museum, along with a number of other national museums, deaccessioning objects in its collection except in certain circumstances, such as when there is a duplicate; when an item has significantly deteriorated; when, in the case of human remains, they are less than 1,000 years old; or when they are items that were spoliated during the German Third Reich. There are no plans to change this law, and I did not detect from the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, a clamouring for it from the Benches opposite.

The position of the trustees of the British Museum is that there is an advantage and a public benefit in having the sculptures divided between great museums, including the Acropolis Museum in Athens and the British Museum in London, each telling a complementary but different story. In the first half of this year, the British Museum had nearly 3.3 million visitors, so it is returning to pre-Covid levels, when it regularly saw 6 million visitors a year. Visitors to Bloomsbury can see the marbles in their full glory, free of charge. By way of comparison, the Acropolis Museum in Athens had 1.2 million visitors in the last year before the pandemic, and charged them €15 in the summer and €10 in the winter. The British Museum is glad to share its treasures with the world; people from all over the world come to see them.

The noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, asked what my view is. I think that that is a good position: people from around the world can see these exquisite objects in London, Athens and the other European countries I mentioned. On those that are in Bloomsbury, John Keats was moved to poetry on seeing them, while Auguste Rodin was inspired to create a sculpture. I have had the pleasure of seeing them in both the British Museum and the Acropolis Museum in Athens; both are superb institutions, and we learn a lot about these objects on visits to both.

Noble Lords are right to talk about the importance of loaning objects, which is fundamental to a museum’s purpose. Section 4 of the British Museum Act expressly allows the trustees of the British Museum to loan objects in the collection for public exhibition. Before lending any objects, the British Museum enters into legally binding agreements with the relevant borrowing institution. Those agreements contain various assurances and protections, including about the safety of the objects while on loan. The British Museum has said for many years that it would consider a loan of the sculptures to Greece as long as its normal conditions for loans were met. Indeed, it has loaned some of the Elgin marbles in the past. As noble Lords may know, the headless statue of the river god Ilissos was loaned to the Hermitage, in St Petersburg, as part of that museum’s 250th anniversary nine years ago.

The Acropolis Museum is an important partner for the British Museum. An exquisite object is on loan from the British Museum to the Acropolis Museum at the moment—the Meidias Hydria vase—and previous items have been loaned to the Acropolis Museum. A prerequisite for a loan is the acknowledgement of the borrowing institution that the British Museum owns the object on loan. Sadly, the Greek Culture Minister, Dr Lina Mendoni, in a recent response to a question from a Greek MP, acknowledged that the Meidias Hydria was acquired in 1772 by the British Museum and ownership is not disputed, but went on to say that that does not apply to the Parthenon marbles in her view and that there is no question of a lease or loan of these. It is very difficult therefore to see how a loan could be agreed between the British Museum and the Greek Government while that remains their position.

If the Greek Government changed their position—that seems like a big “if”; it has been their position for all of my life—it would require an open individual export licence, which allows museums to send an object on loan for up to a maximum of three years. Crucially, the open export licence can be used only if it is guaranteed that an object will return at the end of the loan.

My noble friend Lord Lexden asked about the reports made of loans of five or up to 15 years. As I said, the open export licence provides for a maximum of three years. Given the legitimate questions raised in this hypothetical scenario about the items being returned, I think it would be important that any loan not extend beyond the tenure of any of the trustees who agreed it. They should be in a position to ensure that the guarantee required in the open export licence is made.

I end by agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and many others, who spoke about the warm friendship between this Government and the Greek Government. The Greeks are good friends. I spoke last night at an event concerning some Greek marble in London, which both I and the Greek Government are very keen to see moved swiftly. In 1882, a splendid statue of Lord Byron was erected in Hyde Park by public subscription; it stands on 57 tonnes of beautiful red and white marble, which was donated by the Greek Government in appreciation and gratitude for Lord Byron’s support for Greek independence. For more than 60 years, it has been stranded on an island far less enticing and accessible than those of the Peloponnese, which Lord Byron frequented, because of the coming of Park Lane. I have been working with our colleagues at the Royal Parks and with the support of the Greek ambassador in London to try to have it moved into the park proper, so that it can be seen and enjoyed. I hope that can be done next year, which is the 200th anniversary year of the death of Lord Byron.

I wanted to end on that happy note, because, while this is a long-running debate, it does not get in the way of the great friendship and co-operation between the Greek people and the British people, nor of either of their Governments.