HL Deb 13 April 1994 vol 553 cc1535-8

2.50 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will commemorate the late Miss Melina Mercouri by facilitating the return of the Elgin Marbles to Athens.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I pay tribute to Miss Mercouri for her work as Minister of Culture. But it is the view of Her Majesty's Government that the portions of the Parthenon known as the Elgin Marbles were legally obtained and that they should remain in the British Museum.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the question of whether or not they were legally obtained is debatable? Although I cannot hope at the moment that the Government will change their mind on the matter, will she agree to an amendment of the British Museum Act 1963? I am sure the noble Baroness is aware that under the Act the trustees of the British Museum cannot, even if they wished to, agree to anything being exchanged or moved anywhere. If the noble Baroness will agree to make that change, although the trustees may not change their mind at the moment it may become possible for a new set of trustees to agree to the view expressed by Mr. Neil Kinnock on behalf of the Labour Party when he said that a Labour government will return the Marbles to Greece.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, in answer to the noble Lord's first remarks, Lord Elgin removed the Marbles from the Parthenon and brought them to England with the permission of the Ottoman authorities. With regard to the latter part of his question, I say, "Goody, goody", that the statutes of the museums remain as they are.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, perhaps I should declare an interest as I am probably the only Member of your Lordships' House who was publicly embraced by the late Melina Mercouri. Does my noble friend agree that dissemination throughout the world of the objects of ancient Greek art and literature is an immense asset to Greece? Repatriation of all those objects would diminish her stature because at present they underline the great debt we all owe to Greece for her foundation of western culture.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I am sure that I echo the feelings of envy of the entire male section of this House. I can only agree with my noble and learned friend.

Lord Airedale

My Lords, while we are busy commemorating Lord Elgin and Melina Mercouri, are we not in danger of forgetting to commemorate poor old Pericles who started the whole thing off?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, what the noble Lord wants to do with Pericles is entirely his own affair.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is it not the fact that but for the action of a then Member of your Lordships' House—the late Lord Elgin —these lovely objects would have been destroyed? He rescued them from destruction.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I am not sure that "destruction" is the right word. I believe that neglect might well have occurred at that time and in the years following. Indeed, until recently the remaining Marbles suffered greatly from pollution.

Lord Monson

My Lords, will the noble Baroness agree that it would be quite wrong to return the Marbles to a country which is blockading its neighbour and which is in the process of depriving its former monarch of his citizenship and property, all quite contrary to the professed spirit of the European Community of which it happens to hold the presidency?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the noble Lord's remarks are somewhat wide of the actual Marbles.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, does not the noble Baroness accept that it is high time all the ex-colonial powers returned the loot that they acquired during the colonial period? If the so-called ownership of the Marbles is traced back to the original transaction, it will be found to be of extremely dubious legality. There are many other antiquities to which that argument applies. We discussed the Rosetta Stone the week before Easter. That was nicked by Napoleon, yet the noble Baroness asserted that the British Museum had a perfectly good legal title to it. Is it not high time to stop this nonsense: and return all these ill-gotten gains to the countries to which they belong?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord. In fact, his remarks rather bring into doubt his own marbles.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in Athens the Parthenon, the Acropolis and other ancient monuments have suffered and are still suffering badly from the pollution of the air in and around the city? If the Elgin Marbles were returned, they too might suffer.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I should perhaps tell my noble friend that the Greek Government are in the process of creating a large museum for many of their antiquities. They are well aware of the environmental dangers that may affect their precious treasures.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, we on these Benches believe that these matters are best approached internationally rather than bilaterally. Does the Minister agree that all international museums, such as the British Museum, contain treasures which originated outside their national boundaries? Does she further agree that were we to begin by making a special case of the Elgin Marbles, there would be a flood of more special cases from Asia, Africa, America and so forth? Would that not mean ultimately the dismemberment of all great international museums in Britain and elsewhere? Should not noble Lords beware of slippery slopes?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, there are fragments of the Parthenon in this country and also in Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy and the Vatican. The noble Lord makes an important point. Education, particularly from the point of view of culture for our children and our children's children, is helped by their being able to visit great museums whatever the country.

Earl Jellicoe

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham is wrong in thinking that he is the only Member of your Lordships' House to have had the privilege of being embraced, be it publicly or privately, by that very great lady and a very good and able Minister of Culture?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I am wondering whether those noble Lords should join "Keep Sunday Special".

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that there seems to be an extraordinary ignorance of the developments over the past 10 years which have taken place under the International Council of Museums? Is she aware also that a process of repatriation or return of objects, agreed between the two parties, is taking place all over the world? Australia has returned a great deal of material to Papua. I could go through a whole list of countries which are following that process. We alone internationally refuse to do anything at all. We are out of date. At some time the position must be changed. I hope that the two Front Benchers will study the matter, in which case they may both become a little wiser.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I hear the noble Lord.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Baroness prepared to consider that it could do our nation a world of good to return the Marbles to the place whence they came, irrespective of whether they were found or stolen? That would be the answer we could give to our children in the future when they ask how the Marbles arrived in this country or why they were returned. In an honourable moment we would repair the damage we did when we took them from their home.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, all the items in our museums were legally obtained. I should point out that museums and galleries are independent institutions. It is for the governing body of each institution to decide whether or not it wishes to return specific objects to specific countries. National museums and galleries are prevented under their governing statutes from disposing of objects in their collections unless they are duplicates or worthless.