HC Deb 29 October 2003 vol 412 cc406-14

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn— [Margaret Moran.]

6.59 pm
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

This debate is entitled "The Return of Cultural Artefacts Held in National Collections", and in many ways the Government have a good record in this matter, given what has happened in connection with the return of works of art looted by the Nazis, or the return of ethnographic and anthropological remains. However, there is a glaring exception to the generous approach adopted by the Government—the Parthenon sculptures. I make no excuse for the fact that my speech will focus on them.

I should like to express my thanks to the staff in the Library, who have given me a lot of assistance in preparing for this debate.

The Parthenon sculptures, sometimes known as the Elgin marbles, are part of Greece's national identity. I have travelled in Greece over many years. Anyone with any knowledge of Greece, when asked to conjure up a mental image of the country or of Athens, will think of the Parthenon. That image of Greece's national identity is known world wide.

I am pleased that the new approach of the PASOK Government has got away from some of the old and sterile arguments over the Parthenon sculptures. The argument is not now about how Lord Elgin obtained the marbles, although the method was obviously dubious, neither is it about how they came to be in the possession of the British Museum. The issue is not now the sculptures' ownership, but their location so far from their original home. The Greek Government have waived all claims in relation to other cultural objects held in national collections here, but from their point of view, the Parthenon sculptures are not negotiable and should return to their home in Athens.

The archaeological case is very strong. Reunification of the sculptures in their original topographic, historical and cultural context would mean that they could be understood much more easily by the general public and by scholars. It must be borne in mind that not all the sculptures involved are in the British Museum. The frieze originally consisted of 111 panels, of which about 97 survive; 56 are in the British Museum, 40 remain in situ on the Parthenon or in the Acropolis museum, one is in the Louvre, and there are fragments in one or two other museums around Europe. Of the original metopes, 39 remain in situ or in the Acropolis museum, and only 15 are in the British Museum.

Some of the sculptures are broken, with heads in one museum and torsos in another. Some fragments are in Athens, and others in London. A good example is the torso of Poseidon: the front the six pack, as it were—is in Athens, but the rear—the shoulders and back—is in London. The sculpture has literally been split in two, with the front separated from the back, top to bottom. To view the sculptures as a whole, or to see the separate parts of the same item, it is necessary to travel the 1, 500 miles between London and Athens, as 98 per cent. of the remaining sculptures are split between those two museums.

The Parthenon cannot come to London, so the sculptures must be reunited near the Parthenon, in Athens. It is for that purpose that the Greek Government are building the new Acropolis museum. They have made it clear that reunification will happen as a result of a voluntary effort on the part of Britain. It would not entail ceding any legal title of ownership, or any rights in connection with the sculptures.

The new museum is being built on the same alignment as the Parthenon, a little lower on the Acropolis. It will contain a shell of the same dimensions as the Parthenon, which will allow the sculptures to be displayed looking outwards. At present, in the Duveen galleries, the sculptures look inwards. The sculptures would be presented in their proper relationship to the Parthenon, and the views from the galleries would look out towards the Parthenon, allowing people to make that spatial connection.

The sculptures would be viewed in the proper light, which can never be recreated inside the British Museum. I visited the Acropolis curator, Professor Pandermelis, and he showed me how the Parthenon was lit originally. Direct light was not used: instead, Mediterranean sunlight bounced off the polished marble pavements, lighting up the sculptures from below. We could never hope to recreate that effect in London.

The new museum does not even have to be called the Athens museum, or the new Acropolis museum. The Greek Government have made it clear that they would be prepared to let the museum be known as the British Museum in Athens. Evangelos Venizelos, the Greek Culture Minister, said on 11 August that the Greek Government were looking at "either a long-term loan" or something that might take the form of an annexe of the British Museum in the New Acropolis Museum. The sculptures would not be going back to the slightly scruffy city that people over the years might have perceived Athens to be. Athens is being transformed. I am a regular visitor, and I am astounded at the progress that is being made in cleaning the city up and in making the monuments there more accessible.

New vistas of the Parthenon itself have been opened up from central Athens. All the advertising hoardings have been taken down in Syntagma square, revealing a view of the Parthenon in the heart of Athens that had been hidden for many years. The archaeological sites have been pedestrianised to link all the different sites and enable people to move around them more freely. That includes, as a centrepiece, the new Acropolis museum, currently under construction.

The Acropolis itself has been undergoing major restoration. The Parthenon has, in large part, been taken down and put together again to remedy some of the mistakes made in previous restoration efforts. It has been possible to restore it with many more slabs than was possible before. The Erecthion has been restored, and is now a wonderful building in its own right.

The rebuilding of the Parthenon has been carried out in an incredibly sensitive way, involving complicated computer modelling. For example, it has been possible to match the stains in stones to make them fit together.

The rebuilding has involved not just the frieze but parts of the Parthenon's physical structure: for example, one of the drums from one of the columns has been restored and is in the British Museum. Even if all the other arguments fell, it could surely be argued that that at least should be returned.

Over the years, we have heard many arguments against the return of the artefacts. We have heard, for instance, the "floodgates" argument. Greece has already said that it will waive all other claims. The fact is that the Parthenon sculptures are a unique special case: they are part of Greece's national identity. With the assistance of the Library, I have examined claims from Egypt, China and many other parts of the world. They do not have that essential quality of national identity. As I said earlier, we are already considering the return of human remains, most of which were taken during the imperial years of the 19th century.

Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the power of his argument. Does he agree that the Parthenon and the other Acropolis sculptures are not just symbolic of Greek national identity but have an enormous symbolic significance for the whole of western civilisation?

Mr. Dismore

My hon. Friend makes his point well. I know that he has been campaigning on this for many years, and feels very strongly about it.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has set up a working group to consider the return of anthropological and ethnographic items, so no precedent is being set in that regard. The spoliation panel for the return of Nazi-looted items, for which I campaigned, has worked very effectively. Compensation has been arranged in respect of one work of art held in the Tate. I believe that there are six outstanding claims, including claims relating to four prints held by the British Museum in its print collection.

The only difference involved is in the time that has elapsed since the objects were appropriated—200 years or so in the case of the Parthenon sculptures, 100 years in the case of some of the ethnographic items and 50 or 60 years in the case of the second world war items. Such arguments could be dealt with by legal means. Some say that primary legislation would be needed, but that is not the case. The British Museum Act 1963 prohibits disposal of items in the collection except under sections 5 and 9, which clearly do not apply in this instance, or under section 6 of the Museums and Galleries Act 1992, which allows exchange or transfer to a number of listed institutions. The list could be extended by statutory instrument under the negative procedure, and could include the Acropolis museum in Athens.

Alternatively, the British Museum Act 1963 allows the keeping of objects in authorised repositories identified in section 10 and schedule 3. That list is also amendable through the negative statutory instrument procedure, and could include, for example, the British Museum annexe in Athens, as the Act does not require the trustees to be the owners of the repository or that the repository should be in the United Kingdom. The position could be made clear and watertight by primary legislation—by, for example, specifying sculptures referred to in section 5(1) of the 1963 Act. That, however, would be a belt-and-braces approach, and unnecessary in my view. There are plenty of easy ways in which the same end could be legally achieved.

There are wider cultural benefits too. In particular, there is the offer from the Greeks of return exhibitions. In his evidence to the Select Committee, George Papandreou said that he would not leave the galleries empty. On 11 August Evangelos Venizelos, the Greek Culture Minister, said: Our proposal includes the offer of a series of important temporary exhibitions of Greek antiquities in the British Museum as well as other regional museums in the United Kingdom. I am sure that hon. Members remember the Tutankhamen exhibition in the summer of 1972. In six months, 1.6 million visitors queued for up to eight hours to visit the British Museum, paying 50p for the privilege, which would be about £4 nowadays. Applying inflation to that earlier entry fee could raise £6 million for the finances of the museum. That exhibition was the most popular in the history of the museum.

What is on offer from Greece could easily rival or even surpass that exhibition, as anybody who has visited Greek archaeological collections would know. It would also comply with the policy objectives that my right hon. Friend the Minister outlined recently. Such exhibitions would popularise the British Museum and open it to people who would not normally visit it. We already know from television programmes such as those presented by Tony Robinson how popular archaeology is becoming with children, young people and adults alike. The whole country could benefit not only from exhibitions at the British Museum but also from touring exhibitions. However, without the return of the Parthenon sculptures there is no prospect of such exchange exhibitions.

The money raised by such exhibitions could in large part be the answer to the BM's financial difficulties. There would be an income stream from special exhibitions and possibly, also, from exhibiting the Parthenon sculptures in Athens. In the museum's July 2003 accounts, it predicted staff reductions of 150 and cuts of £2 million by 2004–05. Gallery closures already occur constantly at the British Museum, including the gallery housing the Bassai sculptures from a temple, not dissimilar to the Parthenon, in the Peloponnese. All the sculptures are in good condition and much more accessible to the non-expert so it is a scandal that people cannot see them because of the museum's financial position. Exchange exhibitions could also support the BM's acquisitions fund.

There would be wider political benefits from the return of the sculptures—for example, for our Olympic bid. If we returned the sculptures this year, we would be seen to be helping another Olympic city in its Olympic year, especially by the International Olympic Committee, which is based in Athens for the games. What a boost it would give to our Olympic bid if we entered into the Olympic spirit in that way.

Britain's international reputation would be enhanced politically and culturally, throughout Europe, in UNESCO, which has raised the issue, and in the Commonwealth. The Prime Ministers of Australia and New Zealand have both written to support the case for return.

Germany has returned archaeological remains from the Philippeon, a temple at Olympia, which brought a wonderful international response and, in turn, the loan to Berlin of a magnificent touring sculpture exhibition. The catalogue itself was the same size as a telephone directory. At present, such an exhibition would never come to London.

There is popular support for the proposal. About 90 per cent. of the respondents in a Channel 4 poll were in favour of the return of the sculptures. In a poll of MPs, 66 per cent. of all Members and 88 per cent. of Labour Members supported the return. So far, there are 50 names on early-day motion 17.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister will reply that the matter is entirely for the British Museum trustees, although if she does I shall disagree. The refusal, so far, of the trustees to deal with the problem adversely affects their finances; it limits public access to their collections and the finance available to other institutions through the drain on national finances to support the British Museum and by depriving museums throughout the country of the income that they could generate through special exhibitions. The refusal affects our wider cultural life by preventing our citizens from seeing the popular and accessible exhibitions of artefacts that Greece would lend us. It has an impact on our Olympic bid, which could be enhanced by the generous gesture of the return. Furthermore, it has an impact on our international reputation, culturally and politically.

Mr. O'Hara

Does my hon. Friend agree that repatriation of the sculptures and sharing responsibility for them would be in accordance with the Museums and Galleries Commission guidelines on restitution and repatriation, which have been widely supported by the Museums Association and many museums both in this country and abroad?

Mr. Dismore

I am grateful to my hon. Friend because I was about to discuss that point. I think that the British Museum trustees have had a dog-in-the-manger approach, which is depriving museums throughout the country of the benefits that would flow from the return of the Parthenon sculptures.

Greece, under the enlightened approach of the PASOK Government, has made major concessions. It has made generous proposals, offering return exhibitions in return for the sculptures, mainly through the new museum in Athens, and it has made concessions relating to the claim for ownership. That is an offer that we cannot and should not refuse. Our Government should give a powerful steer to the British Museum trustees to stop this dog-in-the-manger approach and to allow return of the marbles to Athens for its Olympic year.

7.15 pm
The Minister for the Arts (Estelle Morris)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing the debate and openly acknowledge his personal and professional interest in this matter. This is not the first time that he has raised the issue with Ministers—me and my predecessors—and no doubt it will not be the last. I also acknowledge the long-standing interest of my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara). I was pleased that he was able to intervene because it was right and proper, given the attention that he has paid to the issue in the past.

Rarely have I replied to an Adjournment debate in which the hon. Member who secured the debate had already guessed what I would say. At the point when I realised that that was the case, I almost gave my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon my 14 minutes, because he is right that I will say again that it is a matter for the British Museum. I want to expand on that and respond to some of the issues that he raised, but that essentially remains the United Kingdom Government's position.

I can unite with my hon. Friends in saying that the fact that this is such a long-standing debate, and the fact that it draws such passions from both the United Kingdom and Greece, shows the importance of artefacts and of national heritage to us all, in Europe and beyond. In some ways that proves the point that I am constantly trying to make in my current role: that our past and our history and how we use that to interpret our present and plan for our future is an important part of being a human being and an important part of civilisation. It is because of the importance of the Parthenon sculptures to that part of our national and international life that they create such a strong impression and give rise to such strong feelings.

I want to put it on the record that I entirely understand the case my hon. Friend makes. I entirely understand the passions of those in Greece who want the sculptures taken back to Greece, and who think that is a proper place for them to be shown, and I understand what that means to people who live there. However, I entirely understand the feelings of the trustees of the British Museum. At the British Museum, they are trying to show not just British history but world history, and they have 10, 000 artefacts there from all the continents of the planet. It is not a case of the Parthenon sculptures looking out of place among what are essentially British exhibits. It is a British Museum that gives a perspective on world development and world history for all visitors to the museum to see.

Mr. O'Hara

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Estelle Morris

I will give way, but possibly only once unless my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon wants to intervene once as well.

Both sides speak with passion and conviction. I acknowledge that both of them are sincere.

Mr. O'Hara

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that to the British Museum collection the Parthenon sculptures are exemplars of high Greek culture—supreme examples, yes, but exemplars, whereas in Athens they are regarded as absolutely essential exhibits in the wider archaeological context that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) described? The Greeks are prepared to give numerous other exemplars, which would encyclopaedically fulfil the same purpose in the British Museum collection.

Estelle Morris

In a way, my hon. Friend makes the case for me, but it is because they are so important, and such important exemplars, that the British Museum trustees think that the sculptures are such a fundamental part of their collection. There are artefacts, there are individual items and there are collections, and when it comes to the point of collections and how things are presented as a collection, it is the trustees' decision to keep them together, and keep them in the British Museum. In terms of interpreting world history, the museum feels that all the artefacts that it has from all the continents are important to the collection. If they were not there, an important part of that collection would be missing.

The director of the British Museum has said that he sees the aim of the museum to hold for the benefit of humanity a collection representative of world cultures and ensure that the collection is housed in safety, conserved, curated, researched, exhibited and made available to the widest possible public". In that sense, it is a universal museum

Mr. Dismore


Estelle Morris

I shall give way, but only once, otherwise I will not do justice to the many important matters that my hon. Friend raised.

Mr. Dismore

This is a brief point, which I made in my speech. How can the Parthenon sculptures be looked at properly when half are in one place and half in the other? Surely that is the judgment of Solomon, which is against the interests of any true academic.

Estelle Morris

As my hon. Friend pointed out in his speech, the sculptures are not complete. Some parts have been lost and those that remain are not all in the same place. The notion of bringing them together so that the sculpture looks as it did all those years ago is not an option.

I understand my hon. Friend's argument. His judgment and, clearly, that in parts of Greece is that the sculpture holds greater cultural and historical significance there than in the British Museum. That is the case that is put forward. The British Museum case is that the sculpture is an important part of a world collection that has a clear message about world development. Therein lies the huge difference of opinion, which has been argued over for many years.

The Government's view remains that this is a decision for the British Museum and the trustees. Our relationship with the museum, as with all our national museums and galleries, is one of arm's length. In other circumstances, hon. Members would be standing here welcoming that and saying that it is right—that we do not want Governments to run national museums and galleries, and that there should be an arm's-length relationship with them under which they can take decisions about the collections and the future free from political interference. In this case, hon. Members ask for political direction, but that would be counter to the relationship that this Government and our predecessor Governments have built up with museums.

There is a general acknowledgement that, because of the deeds under which it was set up, the museum is not able to dispose of any of the artefacts to other countries or collections. That is because it rightly has an obligation to secure those artefacts and items for successive generations. I accept that museums in general can put exhibits on loan. I was at the British Museum recently and I heard of items that had been on loan to other museums in the United Kingdom. I accept that, in legal terms, museums can loan items, but they cannot dispose of them.

I cannot go into detail here, but I have had advice from lawyers in the Department. My hon. Friend quoted certain laws and although primary legislation might not be necessary, the House would certainly have to consider statutory instruments; but those laws cover only the United Kingdom. Lawyers tell us that under both the legislation on repositories and that to which he referred, the artefacts could not go beyond the UK. A statutory instrument could be used to extend the number of places in the UK that could act as repositories, but it would not be legally possible for such places to be outside the UK.

The position is not as clear cut as my hon. Friend would have us believe. There is not an easy way for legislation to be put before the House to allow the sculptures to be loaned abroad.

Mr. O'Hara

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Estelle Morris

No, I will come back to the matter if I find that I have time before 7.30 pm.

Even if the law allowed the sculptures to be loaned abroad, that decision is one for the British Museum. With any loan, it must take certain things into account. This is not a reflection on the work that Greece would do or the way that it would handle any artefacts on loan, and it ought not to be interpreted in that way, but the British Museum and any other institution would have to consider where the artefacts were going, who would have access to them, whether they would be curated properly, whether they would be safe and whether they would be returned. That is the proper process through which museums and galleries would need to go. That is not a slight on the Greek authorities. They have lovely institutions, given their history, and their plans for the Acropolis will be greatly admired. However, it is a matter for the British Museum and its trustees. By law they cannot dispose of items, but they can loan them.

The subject gets huge publicity in this country and in Greece. I understand its importance, but it sometimes hides the very good working relationship between the British Museum and its professional colleagues in Greece on other matters. Indeed, the British Museum is lending items and artefacts to be shown at the cultural Olympiad as part of the Olympic games in Athens. There are channels of communication; people do speak to each other. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon said, the debate is different now from 10 years ago. It has moved on from ownership, with the Greek authorities accepting loans in return for other artefacts. As a Minister, I will not comment on the nature of that relationship because it is a matter for the museum. We can all note, however, that the debate is moving on and taking place beyond the Chamber, among professional colleagues.

I suspect that this is not the last time the subject will be debated in the House. The nature of the debate is changing as the dialogue between our two countries changes. I am interested in that as a Minister and a citizen, and I am pleased that it takes place, but our position will remain as set out in statute. I do not want any Minister to be in the position of telling our museums and galleries what to do with their collections. They are precious and valuable. It is right that museums and galleries are guided by legislation and given direction by the Government of the day, but the arm's-length relationship is important.

Mr. O'Hara

I refer my right hon. Friend to the Museums and Galleries Bill, which I presented in February 2002. It provides an instrument for tidying up the problem encountered by museum trustees.

Estelle Morris

I shall pursue that as soon as the debate finishes and drop my hon. Friend a note because I have not perused his Bill. I suspect that if it did provide the solution, my officials would have told me about it. As I am not sure that I am giving a robust answer, I shall certainly look at it.

I understand the passions on both sides of the argument, and I applaud people who argue their case, but it is not as easy and straightforward as my hon. Friends intimate. I suspect, however, that the debate will continue. It is not the same debate as we had 10 years ago. No doubt the future debate will be different from tonight's debate. The Government's position is as I laid it out. I thank my hon. Friends for their contributions and rest my case.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Seven o'clock.