HL Deb 15 February 1982 vol 427 cc361-3

2.50 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the second Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will return the Elgin Marbles to Greece.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, no, it is not the Government's intention to do so. The ownership of the Elgin Marbles is vested in the Trustees of the British Museum under Act of Parliament, and my right honourable friend the Minister for the Arts sees no cause for amending legislation.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the Minister aware—and I am sure that he is aware—that what is called "return and restitution" of cultural property has engaged increasing attention in recent years, mainly at UNESCO; that many countries are asserting their right to have returned to them what they regard as part of their cultural heritage; and that several countries—for example, Australia to the Pacific islands, Belgium to Zaire and Holland to Indonesia—are concluding arrangements for the return of many objects? Will the noble Earl seek to ensure that the museum authorities in this country do not drag their feet in this matter, nor adopt an indefensible policy of "what we have, we hold"?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I am sure that our museums would not adopt an indefensible policy and would treat each case on its merits. The international collections in our museums and galleries are of great value to scholarship and a profound contribution to international cultural understanding. I do not believe that the break-up of such collections would be a desirable objective.

Lord Cottesloc

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that if it had not been for Lord Elgin, the Elgin Marbles probably would no longer exist?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I am indeed aware that in 1801 to 1804, when Lord Elgin saved the marbles from Greece, there was a question of them being irreparably damaged.

Lord Mischon

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that the marbles must have been removed while Homer was nodding and, therefore, is it not completely fair play?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I bow to the noble Lord's legal knowledge about fair play. It was, of course, at the time of the Ottoman Empire.

The Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair

My Lords, would it not be the case, if what the noble Lord has just said is true, that the marbles should go back to Turkey and not to Greece at all?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, the noble Marquess is underlining the problems in such a situation.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that the British Museum is just as much a part of world culture as the Parthenon?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I should not like to go into that particular argument with the noble Lord.

Lord Vernon

My Lords, is it not a fact that this country holds a completely disproportionate share of artistic treasures compared with other countries? Is there not a case for the Government having second thoughts on this in the interests of good international relations?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I think the fact that our ancestors had such an excellent record should not in any way be thrown away.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, if the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, was carried out, would it mean that London Bridge would have to be returned to us from America?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I leave it to the House whether they prefer to keep the Elgin Marbles or to have London Bridge back.

Lord Fletcher

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that, in view of the present conditions on the Acropolis in Athens, these marbles are much safer in London and are being preserved from further deterioration? Is the noble Earl also aware that if we were to part with the Elgin Marbles, it would lead to a great many demands by other countries for the return to those other countries of the invaluable collections in the British Museum?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. I am sure that the Minister of Culture in Greece, Madam Melina Mercouri, will bear his remarks in mind.

Viscount Daventry

My Lords, is this an appropriate moment to suggest that Mr. Jenkins's ear should be returned to the family which literally owned it?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I am not quite sure of the question of ownership.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that there was, indeed, a Captain Jenkins, and there is now a Lord Jenkins? As for a Mr. Jenkins, he belongs to a rapidly declining new party. More seriously, however, can the noble Earl say something about the Government's attitude to the UNESCO report, which has dealt widely, deeply and, I think, intelligently with the subject which I have sought to bring to public attention in this rather sharp fashion?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I shall, of course, bear the noble Lord's points in mind. I do not think that I can add anything to my opening remarks, where I said that I am sure museums should look at each case on its own particular merits; nor can I add anything to what I said about international collections. I shall, of course, bear in mind what the noble Lord says about his family.