§ 5.49 p.m.
§ Lord Jenkins of Putney
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. A little time ago—indeed, it seems quite a long time ago—on another measure the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, was enunciating from the Government Front Bench the general proposition, to which the Government are devoted, that wherever possible powers shall be exercised by bodies other than the Government. As this is a measure which seeks to do just that, I am hopeful for a smile from the Government Front Bench from the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, in accordance with the views expressed by his colleague on the previous measure. I see that we have a smile to start with; let us hope that it will continue throughout the proceedings.
This Bill seeks to amend the British Museum Act 1963 to extend the powers of the trustees of the British Museum so that international resolutions and obligations may be complied with. In pursuance of that object it amends Section 5 of the Act—which deals with the question of disposal of objects—to extend the powers of the trustees in this fashion. It adds an additional power to dispose of an object; that is to say, let it go from the collection, if—and I quote from the Bill—in the opinion of the Trustees it is desirable that, in fulfilment of international obligations, an object shall be returned to its country of origin".It gives the trustees this extra responsibility.
Section 5 of the Act lays down the existing powers of the trustees in relation to disposal of objects. They may dispose of a duplicate. Now with modern methods of reproduction an object can be produced which only an expert can distinguish from the original. Therefore, one might say that they could reproduce the Elgin Marbles, and then send either the original or the reproduction to Greece, or perhaps some of each and no one would know—but I would wager that there would be an unholy row, so that is really no solution.
It works, however, in the case of the famous head of Queen Nefertiti, which is exchanged regularly between Berlin and Cairo, and substituted when absent by a reproduction. Even to carry out such an exchange convincingly the trustees would need to have the 400 power to do it, whether or not they exercised it. Whether they exercised it fully, partially, or not at all they would need to have that power, and it is precisely that power which at the moment they do not possess. This Bill is intended to give them that power.
At present the trustees can only dispose of old printed matter of which they hold a copy. They also dispose of coins, although there may be some slight doubt as to whether they are in breach of the law in doing so. But they may dispose of nothing else other than objects unfit to be retained in their collection. They are hardly trustees at all in this respect, but mere appointees of the Government. This Bill frees the trustees. It gives them extra dignity and extra responsibility. That is why I originally wanted to call it the British Museum Trustees Liberation Bill, but I was told that a less dramatic title might be more appropriate, and so it is the rather prosaic measure now before us, but the contents are the same.
It may be argued in this discussion that the trustees do not want to be liberated. Certainly the director, Dr. Wilson, might perhaps be described as an old lag who clings to his legislative prisonwalls and dreads the fresh air of freedom. When he was before the Public Accounts Committee two years ago he brandished his shackles. Before the Public Accounts Committee on 18th March 1981, Dr. Wilson said:We are strictly forbidden by Act of Parliament from disposing of anything but duplicate material".He was pressed a little by a member of the committee:Is it that Act of Parliament which prevents the Elgin marbles from being restored to Greece'?Dr. Wilson answered:I do not know whether it is that Act of Parliament".He said:I think the answer is that it is a very useful thing in our negotiations with foreign countries".One can understand that, but it might be thought that it is not particularly noble.
In the post-war years, if I may fill a little background, newly independent and liberated countries developed an understandable passion to establish, or to re-establish, their own cultural heritage. But it was not until 1976 that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation decided to set up an inter-governmental committee to seek ways and means of restoring cultural property to countries of origin.
In 1977 UNESCO appealed to the International Council of Museums to help in the task. An ICOM sub-committee examined the subject exhaustively, and referred to,The reassembly of dispersed heritage through restitution or return of objects which are of major importance for the cultural identity and history of countries having been deprived thereof"—and those words are extremely important, because I think they remove the fears which have been expressed that once one returns one thing one has to return everything. It applies only to objects which are ofmajor importance for the cultural identity and history of countries having been deprived thereof [which] is now considered to be an ethical principle recognised and affirmed by the major international organisations. This principle will soon become an element in the jus cogens of international relations".That is not a body which knows nothing about it. It is the International Council of Museums. It is they 401 who are saying, "We think that this is right. These adjustments must be made. This restoration, this redistribution, this return must be carried out".
In 1979 the General Assembly of the United Nations gave the go ahead to UNESCO, and in the following year the inter-governmental committee held its first session. In 1981 the General Assembly received a UNESCO report that the work was actively in hand. The convention prohibiting illicit traffic in cultural property has now been ratified by 50 countries, and a beginning was being made in trying to create a more informed public. Among other things, the committee approved the return to Yemen by the Wellcome Institute of London of a collection of archaeological items. The committee also recognised the importance of adequate museum facilities in countries requesting the return of cultural property.
Historically, although plunder has commonly been practised it has often been condemned right from Polybius through Cicero, Charlemagne and Richelieu right up to Napoleon, who broke the generally good record of the French, who were forced at the Congress of Vienna to put into effect a massive restitution. This policy was also enforced against Germany in both world wars. In 1943 the declaration included not only plunder but "apparently legal transactions".
It is important to emphasise that we are not here concerned with things which have been stolen, although we are able to say that we alone of all countries have never plundered another country in the course of our history. In the natural course of events of course we have, but many of the objects we now possess have been legitimately acquired. Sometimes they have been partly legitimately acquired. Therefore, we are not concerned only with plunder, and certainly we are not concerned with plunder if we are thinking at the moment of the Elgin Marbles. But Britain, not having been conquered and occupied since 1066, has never been the subject of compulsory restitution. Therefore, we probably have more objects from other parts of the world than any other country.
Recent developments include, as I have said, an agreement for the celebrated masterpiece, the head of Queen Nefertiti, to be shown in turn in Berlin and Cairo, and for reproductions to replace it while it is away. The efforts of Nigeria to secure the return of the famous Benin works from Britain and elsewhere have been less successful. Similarly, while some important pieces have been returned to Sri Lanka, much of the cultural heritage of that country remains in London and in other Western capitals. Australia, on the other hand, has returned many works to Papua New Guinea and other Pacific islands; Belgium has concluded a restitution agreement with Zaire, which includes generous aid; Holland has made similar arrangements with Indonesia, and France with India and Thailand. In the United States individual agreements have been made by United States museums with Latin American countries for the restitution and exchange of objects.
In all this Britain has given the impression of dragging her feet, to say the least, and the Greek Government's request for the return of the Elgin Marbles should be seen against this background. One of our problems is that the fact that the British Museum can return nothing has set the general pattern 402 for us. Other museums, which are not under a similar prohibition, are disposed to take their pattern and their behaviour in this matter from our premier museum—I hardly dare call it that, but I will risk it.
What, then, should we do? It is not enough to say that the whole world can come to Britain and see its heritage cared for here, nor even to plead that, but for our ancestors, these precious objects might not now exist, though that may be true. If our Crown Jewels were located in a Greek or Sri Lankan museum gratitude would not be the first emotion to surge into British breasts. We should not be greatly mollified to be told that we could always pop over to have a look. "What we have we hold" was never a particularly noble sentiment and it is time that our authorities caught up with the more outstanding and generous attitude that many other countries are showing. Arguments about title are internationally discredited in a world in which the "haves" are generally behaving deplorably towards the "have-nots". Restitution of cultural property would feed no starving children, but it might point the way, for, as Oscar Wilde said, "life imitates art".
On 2nd August this year The Times reported:The International Council of Museums yesterday passed a resolution supporting the claim by the Greek Government for the return of the Elgin Marbles, which are in the British Museum.At its conference at the Barbican Centre in London, the council called for the return of cultural property to its countries of origin.Although no specific names or examples were mentioned in the gneral resolution, Dr. Yannis Tzedakis, director of the Department of Antiquities at the Ministry of Culture in Athens, described the decision as a 'moral victory for us'.The resolution was one of the few that were put to the conference which was attended by nearly 1,000 museum representatives from all over the world. It was the only one that generated any considerable discussion. When the vote was taken it was carried nemine contradicente, but the British representatives were among a handful who abstained. There were no votes against.
In spite of that this is not a Bill to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece. It is, perhaps, an enabling Bill. The standing of the Anglo-Saxon countries is not as high as it might be in the rest of the world. Here is an opportunity for us to abandon the role of international Scrooge. I ask your Lordships to give the Bill a Second Reading. Noble Lords may wish to discuss it further in the later stages of the Bill. Some may wish to strengthen it; others might wish to weaken it, but I ask your Lordships to give it a chance; and I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Jenkins of Putney.)
§ 6.6 p.m.
§ Lord Nugent of Guildford rose to move, as an amendment to the motion, That the Bill be now read a second time, to leave out ("now") and insert at the end ("this day six months"),
§ The noble lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the amendment in my name on the Order Paper. I begin by explaining to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, as he well knows, that the procedural device of an amendment in this form is no disrespect to him. Indeed, I have listened to his speech with great interest. 403 I congratulate him on the wide research he has made and the convincing manner in which he has put it to the House.
§ The Bill is of such simplicity. It is a Bill simply to give power to the British Museum trustees to return such objects as they think desirable to the countries of origin. It might be convenient to your Lordships if we were to deal with the main issue today. The matter has been discussed for some months now and there is some anxiety hanging over the trustees of the British Museum as to whether the Bill might proceed and go on the statute book. It would be the best thing for the trustees and the British Museum if that anxiety could be settled tonight, one way or the other.
§ I do not propose to take up more than one or two of the many important points which the noble Lord made. I am sure that the trustees, some of whom are noble Lords who will speak in the debate, will deal with such points as that which the noble Lord cleverly made about the exchange arrangements between Berlin and Cairo which the Germans have for the bust of Nefertiti, which sound very attractive. However there are considerable technical problems involved in moving these very precious objects of sculpture about from one part of the world to another, which might be seen as very objectionable. I shall do no more than say that I hope that noble Lords will feel it is reasonable, in view of the simplicity of the Bill, that we should try to deal with it tonight.
§ First, from myself and possibly from every noble Lord in the House, there is a great deal of sympathy for the Greek Government and people. Those of us who visit the country on holiday, and many noble Lords who had the advantage of a classical education, will know the sad history of Greece in latter centuries; how many of her treasures have been lost. One has to do no more than sail in a cruise ship along the Mediterranean coast of Turkey to see the remains of the magnificent Greek cities in the hands of Turkey and not in Greek possession. One feels great sympathy with the Greeks in their efforts to try to recover some of their great heritage. We acknowledge our debt to classical Greek culture, learning and art in the wonderful heritage they left for the world.
§ It is against that background that one looks at a measure such as this to see just what it would mean and whether it would be possible to do what the noble Lord's Bill asks for, to enable the Elgin Marbles, particularly, to be returned.
§ I shall make a short speech because no one wants long ones at this time of night. First I should like to deal with the legal ownership. The noble Lord wisely did not touch on that, but for the interest of the general public it should be set squarely on the record that Lord Elgin acquired the Marbles in the first place entirely legally. At that time, the Greek nation was part of the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, the Greeks were under the rule of the Turkish Government and the Turkish authorities ruled everything in Athens. It was from them that Lord Elgin obtained the necessary licence to acquire the Marbles. Lord Elgin shipped them to England. He sold them to the British Government, who gave them to the British Museum and, as a matter of historical interest, the House of Commons set up a 404 Select Committee in 1816 to investigate the acquisition of the Marbles and found that they had indeed been legitimately acquired. They advised the Government to pay Lord Elgin £35,000 for them—which is about half of what it had cost him to ship them to England, and he was very considerably out of pocket on it. But the point of it is that the legal ownership is beyond all doubt.
§ My Lords, I turn to the morality of the acquisition and the custody of the Elgin Marbles. The first point that must be made is that Lord Elgin's motive was, without any doubt, the preservation of the Elgin Marbles. In 1800, the Parthenon was a ruin. It had been mainly wrecked in the engagement by the Venetian Navy against the Ottoman Empire in 1687, when a shell hit the Parthenon, which was being used as a gunpowder magazine, and the whole thing was blown up. Nothing had been done to it since. The Turkish garrison occupied the Acropolis and the Marbles lay about and were completely unprotected. It was freely used by the Turks as a quarry for building materials, so that if Lord Elgin had not acquired the Marbles they might very well not exist at all today; and, if they did exist there would not be very much of them. So it is really a matter of fact that the Marbles exist today, and in good condition, because Lord Elgin rescued them from their precarious situation, since when the British Museum has cared for them with expert care for nearly two centuries.
§ In this context, there are two further points that I should make. The British Museum's conservation laboratory is foremost in the world in its techniques of protecting these ancient treasures against adverse environments and has played a major part in conserving the condition of the Elgin Marbles so significantly better than the Marbles which remain on the Acropolis. The second point that I must make—and it is really the main one; and I am sure that the trustees will refer to it—is the case for the existence of the great international museums. There are not many of them either in Europe or in America. They display works of art and learning and objects of archaeological interest collected from all over the world. There are very few such museums and galleries, as I say, and they perform a service to mankind of enlightenment and enjoyment of inestimable value.
§ In this context the British Museum is outstanding. Its exhibits are superbly shown, the Elgin Marbles in particular in the Duveen Gallery. They can be seen freely throughout the year and they are available at all times. It is a fact that the British Museum's collection of works of art and learning spans not only the geography of the world but literally the millennia of human civilisation, so that the scope for research work on art and matters of learning and for education, both directly and for comparative purposes, which is a vital aspect of it, is of unique value and is drawn upon by schools and students who come not only from here at home but from all over the world to study them.
§ All this would be set at risk if the British Museum were given the power to dispose of its major treasures like the Elgin Marbles. Here is my last point on this. If they had such a power, if the Elgin Marbles went back to Athens, that would be a precedent. Who would follow? Nobody can say how many other requests that they 405 would have from all over the world, and, in the process, this marvellous collection, which performs such a great service for the community as a whole, international as well as national, would be progressively dismantled—a loss which would be unsustainable. In passing, I should like to pay my tribute to the trustees, both the present and the past, for the really marvellous job they have done over the years and centuries in looking after their treasures in the way they do.
§ My Lords, I turn to my conclusion. I was going to mention the difficulty of the mechanics of dealing with other applications but I think that would really be inappropriate now. I have not argued that the rights of property are sacred and immutable. I am not one of those who thinks so and I think that between individuals we are free to give our property away if we feel like it; and occasionally there are acts of spontaneous generosity between individuals which I think are entirely praiseworthy. But the perspective changes in the case of a great national institution like the British Museum which has a responsibility to the general public, international as well as national. They cannot give away their treasures without injury to the viewing and studying public; and this is their trusteeship. Their long record of custody and conservation since the beginning of the century has provided education and enjoyment to millions of people of all nationalities. This must weigh heavily in the balance in favour of their continuing trusteeship. I would say that the balance of the moral argument is against disposal and therefore I invite noble Lords to support my amendment and reject the Bill. I beg to move the amendment standing my name.
§ Moved, as an amendment to the Motion, That the Bill be now read a second time, to leave out ("now") and insert at the end ("this day six months").—(Lord Nugent of Guildford.)
§ 6.18 p. m.
§ Lord Trend
My Lords, I realise that somebody who has spent the greater part of his professional life as virtually a Trappist has to seek a more than usual measure of indulgence when addressing your Lordships for the first time. I shall try not to detain the House for very long. I also realise that I must not be unduly controversial. I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if the odd note of controversy does creep in now and then because, speaking as the chairman of the trustees of the British Museum, I can hardly wholeheartedly commend the noble Lord's Bill; but I am very grateful to him nevertheless for giving me the chance to put on record the view of the trustees about this Bill.
It is of course that they oppose it and they oppose it because they regard it as potentially damaging, perhaps irreparably damaging, to their main function as they see it, the function of maintaining and enhancing a great universal museum—one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of the universal museums of the world. I emphasise the word "universal" because, although I think that there is no dispute about the excellence and the international reputation of the various individual collections in the museum—the Egyptian antiquities, the Classical antiquities, the mediaeval and modern collections, and so forth—and 406 although they have to be administered for obvious practical reasons as largely separate or self-contained collections, nevertheless the museum is more than the sum of those individual collections. It aims to present an integrated picture of the stages in the development of various civilisations of the world and their indebtedness one to another, and it has the kind of physical integrity which comes from that kind of concept of human history.
It is that concept, the integrity of the museum, of which the trustees are proud to be custodians. They bring to their task considerable qualifications of their own and I am very happy and very proud to be able to pay a tribute to them. They bring expert knowledge of their various fields of scholarship, great enthusiasm and great devotion to the public service of the museum. And there is one other thing, which I think is more important than all, and that is the kind of independent critical judgment which you can only form when you are not under any kind of extraneous pressure, when your judgment owes nothing to any other consideration save your own duty to do your best for the institution that you serve.
In that sense, the trustees, too, have their integrity—an integrity of purpose which is in a sense the obverse of the physical integrity of the museum. They are two sides of the one coin. But of course the integrity of purpose of the trustees is dependent, and critically dependent, on the legal provision which for more than 200 years has prohibited them from permanently disposing of any of the objects in their care except exact replicas. It is that provision which for more than two centuries has preserved them from the random caprice of aesthetic taste, of fashion, moralistic judgments and—even more important—the fluctuations of political pressure, unpredictable, random and varying from day to day. Without that protection the trustees could not maintain the integrity of the museum; and if the integrity of the British Museum goes what will happen to other great collections in this country? I beg your Lordships to remember that it is no use saying that it is only in the most exceptional circumstances that the trustees would be expected to avail themselves of this new discretion that this Bill would give them. As we all know, it is the exception which proves the rule, and under the pressure of being proved the rule can break.
It seems particularly unfortunate and particularly untimely that this proposal should be made at this moment, just when the pressure for what is called the restitution of cultural objects is beginning to mount once again and when we have just had the latest example in the demand now officially made by the Greek Government for the return of the sculptures from the Parthenon which we popularly know as the Elgin Marbles.
The Elgin Marbles are I suppose one of the best known, the greatest and most widely loved of all the treasures in the museum; and in so far as they exemplify in a unique way the aesthetic genius of classical antiquity to which all subsequent civilisations have owed so much, one might have thought that it was particularly appropriate that they should be accommodated in a museum devoted to the history of humankind, in a gallery specially built for them and specially equipped to maintain the right conditions for 407 their conservation, and in a museum where, together with many other treasures, they are available without charge seven days a week, 52 weeks in the year to over 3 million visitors a year coming from all quarters of the globe and extending from, at one extreme, the scholar anxious to verify some abstruse academic point, to—at the other extreme—the ordinary member of the public anxious simply to know a little more about the roots from which he sprang and to gain pleasure and enjoyment in doing so.
Are we really to put all those treasures at risk? If so, why? The Bill, I see, speaks of "international obligations". It is not for me to comment on that point but I would only say that I am not conscious of any obligation accepted by Her Majesty's Government which would be binding on the trustees in this sense. On the contrary, so far as I know, the Government have always said that it is the maintenance of the great international collections of the world which does most to promote cultural understanding, and I hope they will continue to say so.
No, my Lords, I think it is something rather different which underlies this Bill. I think it is a feeling—not easy to define but one which we all recognise—that in some mysterious way the great cultural objects of the world belong, necessarily and properly, where they began. I think that the imagination—at least my imagination—boggles if I contemplate the probable practical results if that kind of historicism were pressed to its logical conclusion. But whatever one thinks of the practical consequences, the argument seems to me to ignore the changes which history itself has wrought since the objects began their life—changes in the territorial boundaries of the countries concerned, in the ethnic composition of their populations and in the whole concept of legal entitlement and ownership. You cannot unravel history in that way with any prospect of a result which would be accepted as just and right.
But the argument seems to me to ignore something else even more fundamental. It ignores the whole ethos of the British Museum and the spirit in which its trustees administer it. It is I think a little ironical that if I search round for words in which to summarise that ethos I cannot think of any words better than those which Pericles himself used, just about the time when the sculptures were newly shown on the Acropolis, when he reminded the Athenians in his great funeral oration that they should not grieve for their dead too deeply because the whole world is the tomb of famous men.
I think perhaps the words are timely to remind us that there is a sense in which the British Museum is a microcosm of the whole world, and its great collections certainly recognise no arbitrary boundaries of time and space in their homage to the great achievements of the human spirit. It is for that reason that the trustees would regard it as nothing less than a betrayal of their trust to create a precedent for the piecemeal dismemberment of their collection, and it is for that reason that I must hope very much that your Lordships will reject the Bill.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Viscount Eccles
My Lords, as a former chairman of the trustees of the British Museum, I have an interest to declare and I am very glad of it, because it enables me to say with special warmth to the noble Lord, Lord Trend, that we found his speech moving and entirely convincing. The noble Lord described himself as a Trappist. He was secretary of the Cabinet when I had the honour of sitting there. He was not always a Trappist. But he rendered great service to his country in administration, afterwards at Lincoln College and at the British Museum. For all those reasons, we do not wish him to look upon himself as a Trappist, but to come here rather more often and make many more speeches like he made today.
I had some part in Section 5 of the 1963 Act and the restrictions on the disposal of the objects were very strictly drawn under the leadership of the late Lord Crawford and Balcarres. I think it is true to say that at that time and ever since the trustees have accepted those restrictions as something which, as the noble Lord, Lord Trend, himself said, define the character of their trust.
I shall not add anything to the story of the Elgin Marbles, nor will I follow the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, in his reference to the resolutions of UNESCO, which is the most wasteful and sloppy agency of the United Nations. I would rather direct my few remarks to the general question: should claims for the return of objects of art put forward by an international body, or for that matter by anybody else, be encouraged? Should there be some rule or convention which might lead to the success of such claims? No one would make such claims for music or literature. Mozart or Homer can be printed, translated and performed everywhere and anywhere. Ah! but it is said that the visual arts are different because they are physical objects. They can be in only one place at one time.
As your Lordships will have observed in the nursery, when children snatch each other's toys the change of ownership gives rise to strong feelings; and in the field which we are discussing these feelings are now sometimes of a rousing political nature. When that happens, reason flies out of the window and it is very easy to forget that the place where a great work of art is kept is less important than its careful preservation, its accessibility to a wide public and its immortal power to elevate the human spirit.
The popular campaigns which lie behind the Bill now before us are quite new. In classical times, it was taken for granted that the great works of Greece should be exported to Rome and the rest of the empire. In the Middle Ages, bishops and princes vied with each other to secure the best works of art from all Europe. The Church at that time recognised art as the most powerful communicator of her message and art was also seen, and it still is, to be an unrivalled source of prestige. The power to communicate and to glorify accounts for the continuing universal appeal of great works of art.
When I go round the Greek and Roman galleries at the British Museum I am always amazed at the way in which visitors, who appear not to know a single word of each other's language, are moved by the same work 409 of art and in the same way. You can feel that you belong—all of you—to one world and that is what art can do. As has been said, because art has this dual power of communicating and glorifying, one understands the distress of a country on losing objects which have meant much to it in its history. But all countries have histories. The rise and fall of empires fashions the rhythm of civilisation. Works of art always have moved and always will move, in step with that rhythm. It is not a crime that each succeeding centre of power should be passionate to possess rare and beautiful objects. Indeed, had this acquisitive instinct not been continually at work at different times and in different places, many a great painting or statue would have been lost, thrown on the scrap heap or damaged beyond recognition.
Your Lordships know that great collections are formed by great wealth,and wealth does not stay in the same place. Over the centuries, power has moved broadly speaking, from East to West, from Asia through Europe across the Channel to Great Britain and on over the Atlantic to North America, and there is no reason to suppose that the movement will stop there. The fact is that the tides of history are irreversible.
I ask your Lordships to consider for a moment a famous example in Europe—the still glorious but dilapidated city of Venice, once the Queen of the Sea. In the 9th century, the Venetians deliberately stole the body of St. Mark from Alexandria. Having secured their patron saint, they proceeded to loot or otherwise acquire from Byzantium marble lions, bronze horses and all kinds of precious stones and metals; and, let us be honest, none of us has ever deplored that great tale of smash and grab. We have never said that it was a blot on the history of mankind. Why now, then, should we approve if Egypt were to ask for the return of the saint's bones, or ought we go to UNESCO and make speeches, hands on hearts, asking the Turks to send an enchantress to Venice to plead for the return of the bronze horses?
The fact of the matter is that the movement of wealth from one country to another is something to be accepted with fewer regrets because it gives expression to the universality of art. It proves what all artists have said, that art knows no national boundaries. They have always wanted to learn from the art of all continents and all ages. Henry Moore tells us that as a young man he greatly profited from the study of Cycladic figures in the British Museum. If those figures had never been allowed out of Greece, he might never have seen them. Today we are proud that his works, inspired in many instances by the Greek examples, are treasured and collected all round the world. I hope that the time will never come when we ask for them back.
I am urging your Lordships to think of works of art as messengers of civilisation and friendship. Those great objectives, as we all know, are promoted when men and women can move about the world freely, getting to know each other and sharing each other's traditions and culture. It should be the same with works of art, for they are the expression of human personality. They extend our knowledge of each other and they bring us together. Passports, visas, export licences are the insignia of a divided world. This Bill is 410 reactionary because it would hold up the march of civilisation, which none of us can hope to do.
No doubt from time to time we can do a little to alter for the better the course of human affairs; but neither priests nor princes nor parliaments can ever diminish the universal appeal of art. Like others, I salute the ancient Greeks for their wonderful history, but the Greeks of the 20th century should know that we, too, have a history. Part of our history is expressed in our admiration for their art. We should not open the door to political campaigns for the return of works fairly acquired and now splendidly cared for. I hope your Lordships will support the amendment so ably moved by my noble friend who sits next to me.
§ 6.42 p.m.
§ Lord Adrian
My Lords, first I should very much like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Trend, and to congratulate him upon his splendid maiden speech. It was everything that we might have expected—and which I most certainly expected, having sat with very great enjoyment under his wise chairmanship of the British Museum Trustees. We are very lucky to have had the benefit of his speech this evening. I am sure that I express the view of the whole House when I say that we would wish to hear him again very soon. That he has chosen this debate in which to break his vow of silence indicates the seriousness of the issues that we are discussing.
Like several noble Lords who have spoken this evening and who are to speak, I have to declare at the outset that I am a trustee of the British Museum. I am appointed so, not by the Government—and therefore am not a Government lackey—but by the Royal Society. But that in itself is a limitation, for I fear that I shall not be able to beguile your Lordships with a learned speech, of the kind we have already heard. Nevertheless, I wish to say that I do not propose to support the Bill which is before the House, and I very much hope that the amendment to it will be supported.
I cannot attempt to repeat what has been said already, although it is obvious that I agree very largely with it. At this stage I merely wish to put on record my surprise that so very major a change in the nation's policy towards the great treasures of which it finds itself guardian should have been put in train with apparently so little consultaion. It is perhaps the more surprising that these proposals come to us from the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, who was himself at one time responsible for our national museums as Minister for the Arts, even though he has spoken so persuasively of his wider sympathies.
As has been said, for nearly 230 years—and the position was confirmed in the 1963 Bill—it was the nation's policy that objects in the British Museum were vested in the trustees, and the trustees were quite explicitly denied the right to give away the objects in their trust. Now the trustees are to be invited to give them away when they feel like it and in accordance with international obligations—obligations, presumably, to be entered into by the Foreign Office. From being charged with the care of the nation's treasures we are being asked to become brokers in the international goodwill trade.
411 Whether we like it or not, if such is the nation's decision we shall, of course, have to implement it, but it seems to me that the trustees should be given more guidance as to how they should carry out this task of sending back so many of the finest things in the museum. Are we, for instance, to be encouraged to give away an object which comes to the museum as a specific bequest from a generous benefactor? Are we to give away an object which has been allotted to the museum in lieu of capital taxes? May we give away, if we think fit, an object whose purchase has been greatly assisted by the National Heritage Fund? Has the Treasury anything to say about the proposal to give away objects purchased with taxpayers' money, let alone with a special parliamentary grant? What shall we do if two nations claim the same object? One might, for instance, suggest sculpture imported from Italy but made in a Greek colony there. Are Hellenistic sculptures from Asia Minor to go to Greece or to Turkey?
The complexities inherent in what has become known as the return of cultural heritage are enormous. As has been mentioned, pressure on museums for return is undoubtedly mounting in UNESCO and in many countries. It seems to me that the present position of the British Museum is clear and that such returns are at the moment outside the law. The nation, through Parliament, may decide otherwise, but I do not believe it should do so without very carefully considering the consequences and the complexities. Until that has been done we should not encourage the pillaging of the world's great museums.
This brief but, for all its brevity, mischievous Bill would do just that and I hope that your Lordships will not give it your support.
§ 6.47 p.m.
§ Lord Windlesham
My Lords, my lack of enthusiasm for this Bill has been mitigated only by the fact that it has given us the opportunity to hear the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Trend. In his speech he displayed those qualities of wisdom and experience which have been so conspicuous to those who have worked with him at various times in his distinguished public career. I, like the noble Lord, Lord Adrian, share the privilege of serving under Lord Trend's chairmanship as a trustee of the British Museum. It is for that reason that I intervene, quite briefly, in the debate this evening.
I should like to say—and I believe this view will be shared by my present colleagues as well as by past trustees—that I have found it to be a most rewarding experience to be a trustee of the British Museum. Despite its outward appearance, the British Museum is not just a showcase for the display of an immense and varied collection of works of art and antiquity, gathered from all over the world. It is all that, and it is the aim to attract as many visitors as possible. Last year there were over 3 million visitors in total. The museum is open seven days a week, access is free, and great efforts are made to display the objects in the museum's collection in the most effective way and to make them known as widely as possible.
412 However, the museum is also a place of learning. It is a place where knowledge is acquired and where knowledge is disseminated: about how people lived in the past; what their values were; how cultures arose and declined. There is a universal quality to this learning, this tradition of enlightenment—the word used by my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford—which matches the contents of the collections upon which it is based. The two together do have an integrity. The expression of the noble Lord, Lord Trend, was exactly the right one. There is an integrity about the collection and the tradition of learning. The whole is greater than the individual parts.
For centuries, the British Museum has been a universal institution of the front rank and one in which successive generations have taken great pride. Moreover, it has been a peculiarly British growth, different from comparable institutions in other parts of the world, where indeed there are comparable institutions. It is a public institution funded out of general taxation, but it is not controlled by Ministers or by Whitehall departments. On the contrary, it is controlled by independent trustees; some appointed by the Prime Minister, some appointed by learned societies, and some co-opted by the trustees themselves—each of whom has a recognisable obligation to do what he believes is in the best interests of the museum.
It is not always as easy as it may sound to withstand pressures on any institution, and the British Museum is no exception. There will invariably be political or other pressures on the contents of the collection; pressures towards disposal for reasons which seem compelling to those who put them forward. Restitution is the pressure today. If I may say so, I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, spoke eloquently and put the case as effectively as it is possible to put it in favour of restitution. It is a case I do not accept, for reasons similar to those advanced by my noble friend Lord Eccles. But restitution is undoubtedly the pressure of today.
At other times pressures may exist to sell some parts of the collection. When money is short and is needed for buildings, maintenance or other purposes, voices may be raised to dispose of some objects which do not seem so important, and which may not be on public display. It is said they could be sold for large sums of money to be used for the purposes of the museum. Sometimes there may be pressures for objects to be given away for the purposes of the state. There are even voices heard from time to time in favour of destroying objects because they are regarded as being offensive to fashionable sentiment or opinion.
Against all these pressures, the trustees have since 1753 been protected by legislation which has prohibited them from permanently disposing of any objects in the collection, with one or two minor exceptions which have been mentioned already in this debate. That provision was re-enacted in the British Museum Act 1963. My noble friend Lord Eccles told us that some thought was given to this provision at the time, but it was concluded that it was an essential provision. Thus Parliament decided 20 years ago that this legislation was needed for the continued protection of the contents of the museum.
413 I fear that if this short amending Bill were to reach the statute book it would erode an essential provision which exists for the protection, maintenance and good health of the British Museum. Thus I do not feel able to support the Bill. My noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford in his amendment adopted an approach which is entirely proper for this House to follow.
There is no point in having a Committee stage of a one clause Bill with a single objective. Either the House agrees with the aim of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, or it does not. If it does not, it should vote for the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford as I intend to do. Those who agree with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, will vote against the amendment, and that will be the end of it. For this reason I agree with my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford that it is desirable to dispose of this issue by a vote this evening.
§ 6.55 p.m.
§ Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge
My Lords, I thought that the exposition of the trustees would be so well informed, so interesting and so moving, that it would not be necessary for me to add to it. I did make some notes, but they would not have enabled me to make comments so elegant as those we have already heard, and so I have thrown them away. I wish to make only two points. First, I believe it is desirable that someone who is not a trustee should speak as well in opposition to this Bill. I am by nature a consumer of art rather than an artist or a collector. Up until the age of about 68, that was all that I had ever been. Then I suddenly found myself in the important and interesting position of being an administrator who could hurt or help the arts. Obviously, I tried to help them.
One of the most agreeable and, to me, rather new elements I encountered was my position as the main administrator outside the trustees of the national institutions, whose business it was to know them, know about them, to go to them frequently to have meals with them, and to talk with them. I can only say that after three years I had totally fallen in love with them. I could not let this Bill be discussed in your Lordships' House without getting up and saying, from a very ignorant and rather philistine position, which is mine, how profoundly I disagree with this Bill, if only because there is not a single director or trustee of any national institution who does agree with it.
As someone who was in a sense their spokesman for quite a long time I felt that I had to speak for them now. I shall speak for them in only two ways. The first will be by saying that nobody could have spoken for them more eloquently, elegantly, or movingly than the noble Lord, Lord Trend. We have all said so and we all think so. I only hope that he can be persuaded to speak again—but not, I hope, against an attack on his museum. I do not want to add to the various artistic and historical arguments which have been ably made, but my second point is rather different, it relates to an adjective used by the noble Lord, Lord Trend, when he said that this Bill was "untimely". When one is faced with a demand of a fundamental kind, and when one knows that the people concerned in that demand are passionately opposed to it, and when one knows that 414 there has been no thorough discussion in this country as to whether the demand should be considered or not, then it is totally untimely to prejudge the issue by putting a key into a lock and opening a door.
My own view is not as extreme as that of some directors and trustees. My own view is that there must be in time certain occasions when the nation—not the museum—will say, "This demand from someone whose possession we have had for a long time is something we could reasonably meet". But I would wish for there to be national legislation on each occasion. It must be kept difficult, and there can be no question of opening the door so that this can be done at the whim of a future director, who might be sentimental, foolish, fashionable, or this, that or the other. Why should we give anyone that power? My view is that the law should remain as it is and that, if the nation ever decides that restitution of this kind should be made, such restitution should be the result of special legislation. I shall oppose this Bill by supporting the amendment.
§ 7 p.m.
§ Lord Strabolgi
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, that the law should really be left as it is and that these decisions should not be left to individual directors. I know this does not affect the British Museum, but I should not think there would be very many Victorian paintings left in our museums and galleries if the directors had been allowed to dispose of them in the 1930s, when in may cases the frames were worth more than the paintings. When I went to the Getty Museum this summer in California I found the most popular painting of all was an Alma-Tadema called "Spring"; a beautiful painting it is too, and that is the most popular painting in the whole of the museum. So the wheel always come full circle and it always will.
We are grateful to my noble friend for introducing this Private Member's Bill for the main reason I think that it has led to an interesting debate, and it has also provided an opportunity for the noble Lord, Lord Trend, to make, if I may say so, a most eloquent, lucid and moving maiden speech. I hope we shall have the pleasure of hearing from the noble Lord on many other occasions.
The Bill seeks to allow the trustees to return an object from the British Museum to its country of origin in fulfilment of what are described as international obligations, although this is not defined in the Bill. The Bill refers only to the British Museum and not to any other institution in the United Kingdom.
This may or may not be a laudable aim; I do not know; but I wonder if it is practicable or even desirable. Works of art have often changed hands, many times through the centuries as a result of wars and social upheavals, and indeed works of art have passed through many countries. Mention was made today by the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, of the four bronze horses in Venice. I do not know which is their country of origin.They are Hellenistic, as has been pointed out; they have nothing to do with the Ottoman Empire, but they came from Byzantium. They have been in Italy for several hundred years. Do they belong 415 to Italy, to Greece or to Turkey? I do not know and nor does anybody else.
As well as works of art from other continents, many European works of art are dispersed. One thinks of all those divided Renaissance altar pieces, the left-hand wing in one country, the right-hand wing in another, the central panel somewhere else, the predella panels scattered all over the place. Should they all be joined together, and in each case which country has the stronger claim? I do not know. There are often advantages in dispersal, too, as works of art have always exerted a tremendous cultural influence on other civilisations and countries through their circulation. As the leader of the British delegation to the UNESCO World Conference in Mexico said last year: "The maintenance of the great international collections with all their facilities for research and conservation is the right way to increase cultural understanding". With those words I fully agree.
The passing of this Bill would open the way for demands for the return of material from the British Museum—and from the British Museum alone, not from any other museum—that has been acquired over many years, and it could lead, as the noble Lord, Lord Trend, has said, to the eventual destruction of this great cultural institution. I would have thought that the provisions of this Bill would profoundly affect in particular the British Museum's Museum of Mankind that the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, had so much to do with setting up. I should imagine this ethnographical museum would be greatly affected if there were many demands for the return of much of the material. This would be a great loss to education, as the museum plays a leading role in teaching us all, adults and children alike, about other races and countries. I remember some of the important exhibitions that have been mounted there from the museum's collections, where the objects are shown against simulated natural backgrounds.
As the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, has said, it is clear that Lord Elgin's action saved the Parthenon Marbles. They had been much vandalised in the early Middle Ages when it was turned into a church, and then later on when it became a mosque. I understand he was so shocked by their condition that he decided to remove them. If they were to be returned to Athens in the future they would need to be kept in a museum under controlled atmospheric conditions, as in London, to protect them from the pollution in the atmosphere. So far we have heard of no plans to build such a museum in Athens. The Greek Minister of Culture has said she would like to have one, but it does not seem to have got any further than this. The idea that the marbles are going to be put back on the Parthenon is, of course, a romantic and naïve fantasy. They would go from one museum to another.
On the other hand, we understand the deep emotion—and I thought this was not sufficiently understood today in this debate, if I may say so— with which the Greeks today regard the Parthenon, and we know what an inspiration it was to them during the last war, when, as our allies, they were driving back Mussolini's armies so valiantly, and later suffering under Nazi occupation. I hope one day there may be 416 a solution which could be acceptable to both Britain and Greece.
My Lords, I do not know whether there will be a Division tonight or what the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, will decide to do with his amendment. I do not agree, if I may say so, with the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, about a Committe stage. Although the Bill is short, we have had quite a full Committee stage on short Bills before, and I think there would be advantages in discussing this in depth. I do not know what the noble Lord will do, or even what my noble friend will decide to do. All I can say is that from these Benches there is no Labour policy about this; there would be a free vote and my colleagues would be entitled to vote in any way they wished.
§ 7.8 p.m.
The Minister of State, Privy Council Office, and Minister for the Arts (The Earl of Gowrie)
My Lords, I certainly believe that this debate has been well worth while in order to listen to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Trend. When I was a young man, a distinguished figure, but not of the same sex as the noble Lord, Lord Trend, wrote a book called, I Leap over the Wall. I do hope that the noble Lord will continue to leap over the wall of his Trappist Monastery and treat us many times to the kind of cogency and wisdom we heard tonight. It is of course a convention in your Lordships' House to congratulate maiden speakers, but I can only say from the heart that that was the most distinguished such speech I have heard in recent years.
My Lords, I listened with great care and interest, of course, to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins. As one would expect from the noble Lord personally, and from a former holder of the office of Arts Minister, he spoke very eloquently, but in my view—perhaps a prejudiced one in favour of Arts Ministers—his eloquence did not conceal a confusion of intent and a misunderstanding of the historic functions and purposes of the British Museum collection. Perhaps I may deal first with the matter of intention. The Bill would give very ill-defined and also very wide powers to the trustees of the British Museum. They would be powers in respect of unspecified and undefined international obligations which it would be left to the trustees to interpret. This is not a proper function for the trustees, and we all know the pressure they would soon face for so-called international obligations, as defined by other people, to be honoured.
The powers proposed for the trustees, moreover, are emphatically not ones they have sought. The noble Lord, Lord Trend, reminded us of that, and all other noble Lords who have spoken holding positions as trustees have reminded us of the fact as well. Indeed, we have been reminded that these proposed powers would run contrary to the purposes of the museum as an institution to preserve and make available to the whole world the heritage of man's past. The present powers of the trustees—that is to say, Section 5(1) of the 1963 Act—require them not to dispose of objects except in certain very limited and narrowly defined circumstances: for instance, where there are duplicates or the objects are of no value to the museum or, in the case of printed matter after 1850, where this can be 417 photocopied. This, surely, is a correct interpretation of the conservancy role of a great institution.
The Government are aware of no general wish to change these existing powers and they do not propose to seek authority from Parliament to do so. Moreover, in the Government's view, the trustees already have international obligations which they have fulfilled since the British Museum's inception as one of the world's great museums and these international obligations do reside in their existing powers. These are the true and real responsibilities of the museum to make its outstanding collection, one of the very greatest in the world, freely available for public viewing, research and scholarship. I could not countenance a new obligation which would potentially and substantially diminish that collection and thus the museum's ability to fulfil these same responsibilities.
Having dealt with the intention of the Bill, I now come quickly to the broader question of the desirability of a Bill on the lines suggested by the noble Lord. Lord Jenkins. Should the collection be subject to claims from other countries for the return of objects when requested, on the ground that there is some so-called international obligation to do so even although those objects were legally acquired? Let us be in no doubt about the consequences. It would open the door to a flood of claims for the return of cultural property to other countries on grounds that item after item was an inalienable component, as it would be called, of their cultural or historic heritage, often dating back to a period of years or centuries before the country in question might have existed in its present form.
I do so agree with what my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford said on this and, once again, with the noble Lord, Lord Trend, when he said that the museum is more than the sum of its individual collections. The effect would not be confined to giving back one or two items or one or two pieces. We should be encouraging the dismantling of an incomparable collection—and not merely the collection of the British Museum but those of other museums for which similar treatment would be proposed; and not merely museums in this country but museums throughout the whole world. There would be the nightmarish or farcical set of competitive bids to which my noble friend Lord Eccles, in a speech both trenchant and moving, rightly drew attention. There would be the legal and political jungle vividly painted by the noble Lord, Lord Adrian, and endorsed from the Labour Front Bench by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi.
It would be quite contrary to the policies of this Government to require or expect the independent trustees of the British Museum to act in the manner suggested. The museum is an important part of our national heritage and also a visible manifestation of the cultural heritage of mankind. As I have said precisely because it is a rich and comprehensive repository of archives, such collections are held in trust not just for this country but for the whole international community. I make no apology for saying that they are held in trust for this country first and they are held in trust, as my noble friend Lord Windlesham told us, against the vagaries of sentiment or fashion.
In sum, therefore, the fact that the Government oppose amending the powers of the British Museum 418 does not, of course, mean that we preclude useful discussion between the museum and other countries on various forms of international co-operation. This has always gone on and it will continue to go on. The record of the British Museum in helping to preserve the Hellenic heritage which underlies so much of Western civilisation—again, my noble friend Lord Eccles made this point—is, of course, a very proud one. It is, therefore, unnecessary to suggest that there should be new powers to undermine that record. It is inherently undesirable and a contradiction of the general powers of the trustees to give them any new power to return objects to countries of origin. This is the wrong approach to the complex problem of the best way of ensuring that the world as a whole benefits from the great works of art, culture and history. Surely the right way is to maintain the role of the institutions which safeguard those works of art and at the same time offer their own skills of conservation and research in co-operation with museums abroad. That has been the tradition of the British Museum all along and it is one that this Government fully intend to allow to continue.
I enjoy listening to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins. He can frequently bring, as he suggested, a smile to my face even if it is on occasion only the smile on the face of the tiger defending its young. All speakers in this debate have been against the noble Lord and I do hope that your Lordships will support my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford if this goes to a Division and that this misconceived and, indeed, mischievous Bill will be given a quiet burial tonight.
§ 7.18 p.m.
§ Lord Jenkins of Putney
My Lords, the distinction of the speakers in this debate has only been exceeded by their unanimity. However, it is to be reflected that unanimity is not the same thing as rectitude and this I think has been abundantly made clear in the course of this debate. Not of course that I do not believe that each speaker from his very profound knowledge and deep conviction is not absolutely satisfied that he has been uttering the milk of truth this evening in exactly the same manner as I am equally convinced that I have been doing precisely the same thing but from a different direction.
The noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, in referring to the intention of the Bill says that he does not like the wording. I should have thought his proper course is to support the Second Reading and amend the Bill in Committee if that is his only complaint. I think it is worth recalling that most other trustees in the world enjoy powers which the British Museum trustees are most anxious to have. It is always possible, since I think I happen to be right although being the odd man out, that they might be right in being the odd man out. But I suggest to your Lordships that there is an element of doubt in that conviction.
If the view that I am advocating could be shaken it would have been shaken by the noble Lord, Lord Trend. I join in the congratulations which have been delivered to him for a most distinguished maiden speech. He rightly said that it is not customary to be terribly controversial in a maiden speech. He is correct, and I thought that he expressed himself very properly and in no way exceeded the proper balance 419 appropriate to a maiden speech. In return I am sure he will not mind me saying that I felt he defined the word "integrity" a little too tightly for this Chamber. The integrity of the museum is important and I can understand that to him it is absolutely paramount. But the integrity of this country in the world is more important and it is that integrity which is in charge of your Lordships and it is that integrity which is being challenged in the world today.
I notice that hardly a speaker referred to the position that this country is being regarded, as I said earlier, as a Scrooge of the international museums world. May I remind the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, that, it is not only UNESCO which is concerned with this matter. The meeting which took place in the Barbican was a meeting of the International Council of Museums. What was the position of our people there? They did not vote against the resolution, which I shall place in the Library, in case noble Lords have not seen it. The resolution advocates precisely the kind of position that I have been advocating in my speech, and it is unanimous in the museum world. Our people did not have the integrity to vote against it. They abstained because they knew that in that context they would have been the odd men out as much as I have been the odd man out in this debate.
That is the position that we are in, and in my view it is not a position in which it is healthy for this country to occupy in the museum world. There is a movement all over the globe for countries which have acquired precious objects from different parts of the world to think kindly of those countries from which the objects have been taken.
Noble Lords are saying that we will not even take the minor step of allowing the trustees of the British Museum the power to make their own decisions on this point. They insist upon maintaining a legislative position in which they are unable to adopt that wider integrity, which I suggest is as much their duty as anyone else's. We must not confine ourselves. We, are, if I may suggest it, excessively inclined to be insular in this matter.
I do not think that at this stage your Lordships will want me to comment on the various speeches which have been made. They were all in their different ways speeches delivered from knowledge. I believe that there is no real need for the trustees to be anxious. No compulsion is placed upon them by this measure. No slur has been cast by me, nor is it in my mind, as regards the activities of Lord Elgin. This is not a Bill which places upon the trustees of the British Museum a duty to do any of the things which my noble friend Lord Strabolgi in the course of his speech suggested that they might be doing. It is simply a Bill which enables the trustees to do what they want to do. But the trustees say, "No, we want the law of the land to prevent us from doing what most trustees in any other part of the world are entirely free to do."
Can we not trust the trustees to continue to operate in practice the kind of sentiments which they have been showering upon us this evening? I think it wrong that they should be legislatively prevented; and of course it is always possible that a future board of trustees might take a different view. At present that would not be possible.
420 The noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, suggested that there is not, and never has been, a case for the restitution of objects. I think that he has forgotten Polybius; Right from the beginning restitution has always gone hand in hand with acquisition. Let him look at Cicero, and he will find that the restitution of objects taken from different parts of the world has cultural value and a background equal to that of acquisition and display. I have quotations here, but I am not going to trouble the house with them at this time of night.
During the course of the debate we have almost been asked to believe that the retention of the Marbles will increase our friendship with the Greeks. Of course it will not. We should at least be able to be prepared to talk on the subject, and the iniquity of the current situation is that the legal position prevents the trustees from having any effective discussion on the issue. They can say, and do say, "There is nothing that we can do about it. We are prevented by law". So what is the use of talking to them when the law says that they must not do it?
What the Bill seeks to do for the trustees is to give them a degree of flexibility, and I believe that in the course of giving them that flexibility it gives them additional dignity and in no way detracts from them. The Bill is certainly not an attack on the British Museum. It is nothing of the sort; on the contrary. I should hardly wish to attack an institution which is responsible as much as any other for my own education.
In no other country in the world is there legislation to prevent museum trustees from using their own judgment; and that is what we have all these years insisted upon doing. That is what we are doing. We call them trustees, but we do not trust them; and they do not seem to want to be trusted.
I must wind up. I was just a little surprised to see the delaying amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford. If this were a Bill to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece, if that is what it said, one could understand the case for an amendment of this kind. Although I believe it to be a strong case, it is certainly a matter of controversy, as has been made clear to the House tonight. The view might reasonably be taken that a period should elapse for further discussion before proceeding to Second Reading. But the Bill proposes no such thing. It simply removes an impediment. It proposes to trust the British Museum trustees, and the trustees have made it absolutely clear to us all tonight that they have not the slightest intention whatever of returning the Marbles to Greece. Certainly there would be no change on that while the existing trustees remain.
What they would not be able to say after the passage of the Bill is that they would love to conform to the developing and now generally accepted international practice; that they would like to go along with the views of international gatherings where at present they are in a minority of one, but unhappily they are prevented from doing so because of this wicked Act. That position would be removed from them, and in removing it we should reduce the sum total of British hypocrisy by a small measure.
The Bill is a step to that end. What the trustees would have to say after the passage of the Bill would simply be, "We are not going to return your Marbles because we do not think it right to do so." That is all 421 that they would have to say. As I say, the Bill would make it possible for a future group of trustees to take a different view; no more than that.
Finally, I would urge the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, not to press his amendment, for what the Bill does is to take nothing away from the trustees; on the contrary, it expands their powers. At present they are not trusted enough. If they happen to think that an international resolution is right and they decide to vote for it, they are unable to act in accordance with their vote. If there is a single object in the museum that they would like to return to the country of origin, they have no power to do so.
In this day and age that cannot be right. I urge your Lordships when the matter goes to the vote to come in the Lobby and to exert your right, and indeed your duty, to consider yourselves the guardians of the integrity of this country in the international field, and not to take the narrow view which has been urged upon you with such eloquence and such distinction.
§ Lord Nugent of Guildford
My Lords, in speaking to my amendment in reply I should first like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Trend, on a maiden speech of such impressive authority and such very great interest. I think that to all of us and indeed to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, as well—but certainly to all supporters of the amendment who spoke—the noble Lord, Lord Trend, really did define the theme of the British Museum trustees, which is to defend the integrity of the museum. It is that integrity which makes the whole so much greater than the individual collections which the trustees, and I hope noble Lords generally, will agree should be preserved and which the Bill would inevitably progressively destroy.
I acknowledge the strength of the appeal and the sentiment of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney. I congratulate him on his romantic heart. We have all been arguing the most rational arguments and he has developed, with great skill, the irrational ones that do touch the heart. Undoubtedly the Greeks feel very strongly, but when the noble Lord says that the trustees ought to have this additional power so that they could use their judgment over what they would part with and what they would keep, he, as an expert politician, knows as well as I do myself that these decisions really are political.
On the tapis now is a formal request from the Greek Government. So what can the trustees do except take a decision, if they have to, in a political context? It is surely wiser, in the interests of the British Museum, with its great responsibility, not just to us in this country, but with its worldwide responsibility to humanity, to defend it against pressures that really would become irresistible at times. We would thus preserve the integrity of this wonderful museum for the benefit of all.
I am sorry that I must disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, who asked me not to propose my amendment, which, if carried, would stop the Committee stage. I feel that the issue is a simple one. I beg to move the amendment.
§ 7.32 p.m.
§ On Question, Whether the said amendment shall be agreed to?422
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 49. Not-Contents, 11.
|Division No. 1|
|Adrian, L.||Harvington, L.|
|Ampthill, L.||Hylton-Foster, B.|
|Aylestone, L.||Kilmarnock, L.|
|Barrington, V.||Kinnaird, L.|
|Belstead, L.||Long, V.|
|Blake, L.||Lucas of Chilworth, L.|
|Brougham and Vaux, L.||Lyell, L.|
|Cathcart, E.||Marley, L.|
|Cowley, E.||Mayhew, L.|
|De La Warr, E.||Milverton, L|
|Denham, L.||Monson, L.|
|Diamond, L.||Nugent of Guildford, L. [Teller.]|
|Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L.|
|Eccles, V.||Redesdale, L.|
|Elgin and Kincardine, E.||Rodney, L.|
|Elliot of Harwood, B.||St. Aldwyn, E.|
|Gainford, L.||Skelmersdale, L.|
|Garner, L.||Stanley of Alderley, L.|
|Glanusk, L.||Strathclyde, L.|
|Glenkinglas, L.||Thomas of Swynnerton, L.|
|Gowrie, E.||Trend, L.|
|Greenway, L.||Vaizey, L.|
|Haig, E.||Windlesham, L. [Teller.]|
|Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L.||Winterbottom, L.|
|Bishopston, L.||Pitt of Hampstead, L.|
|Fitt, L.||Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.|
|Jenkins of Putney, L.||Stoddart of Swindon, L. [Teller.]|
|Kilbracken, L. [Teller.]|
|Kirkhill, L.||Stone, L.|
|McCluskey, L.||Underbill, L.|
§ Resolved in the affirmative, and amendment agreed to accordingly.
§ House adjourned at twenty minutes before eight o'clock.