Returning artefacts to their rightful owners shouldn’t be a controversial argument but somehow, when it comes to British cultural institutions, it isby Steve Bloomfield / June 11, 2018 / Leave a comment
Sat in a sun-drenched courtyard, a senior official at a British cultural institution was explaining with some excitement how the digitisation of their archives meant that thousands of artefacts could now be viewed all around in the world. “Including in the places we stole them from,” I added. There was a pause. “That’s not the word we use,” the official said.
No, it’s not. But it does accurately describe how so many of the paintings, statues, sculptures, shields, outfits, weapons and documents from elsewhere ended up here.
Returning artefacts to their rightful owners shouldn’t be a controversial argument but somehow, when it comes to British cultural institutions, it is.
Last weekend, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told a Greek newspaper that if he became prime minister his government would return what the UK calls the Elgin Marbles (in Greece, the country they were taken from, they’re known as Parthenon statues).
The Daily Mail—this won’t surprise you—wasn’t happy and wheeled out former culture minister Ed Vaizey to criticise Corbyn.
“The British Museum is independent of government and it is their decision what happens to the Elgin Marbles,” Vaizey said. “If Corbyn is saying a Labour government is going to ride roughshod over the independence of our museums then what will be next? Will he start dictating what plays can be put on at the National Theatre?”
Vaizey is not a stupid man, but this is a stupid quote. Suggesting that artefacts stolen from other countries should be returned is not the same as telling theatres which plays they can or cannot put on.
But it’s worth focusing on the first part of Vaizey’s quote which isn’t stupid, merely wrong. It is not up to the British Museum what happens to the Elgin Marbles—it’s the government.
Under the terms of the British Museum Act 1963, the museum, as well as other institutions like the V&A and the British Library, are prohibited from “permanently disposing” of objects. “Our hands are tied,” the institutions can say, “it’s against the law.”
That’s not the only excuse they wheel out, although that one does at least have the advantage of being true. “They won’t look after them properly,” is often cited, ignoring the fact that a) lots of countries now have museums of the highest quality and b) it’s…