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MPs would return the Elgin Marbles: Debates on museum policies concerning restitution requests continue

Restitution guidelines in the UK are changing with the times, but the marbles remain with the British Museum for now

Last month, the Economist Magazine asked members of Parliament whether, if there were a free vote on the matter, they would vote for or against returning the Elgin marbles to Greece: 66% voted aye, 34% no, with opposing symmetry in the main parties—84% of Labour MPs for, 16% against; 13% of Conservative MPs for, and 87% against.

The survey coincided with British museums being presented with guidelines on restitution and repatriation which propose a flexible, case-by-case approach to requests for the return of objects. The report by the government’s advisory body, the Museums & Galleries Commission (MGC), points out that “the question of ownership of cultural or scientific property has never been so keenly debated as it is to today.”

MGC chairman James Joll therefore recommended that museums holding material which might become the subject of a restitution claim should be “proactive in considering how they would handle such requests”, ideally by laying down policies and procedures.

Although it is assumed that British museums reject restitution requests, the report cites several examples of items which have been returned within the past three years. These include eight Maori tattooed heads from Edinburgh University’s anatomy collection (to the Museum of New Zealand), an Aboriginal necklace and bracelet from Exeter’s Royal Albert Museum (to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre) and the Lakota Ghost Dance Shirt from Glasgow Museums (to the Wounded Knee Survivors’ Association in the US). Despite these examples from regional museums, national museums in the UK are still prohibited from deaccessioning.

The new guidelines were endorsed by Neil Chalmers, director of the Natural History Museum, speaking on behalf of the recently established Museums Standing Advisory Committee on Repatriation. He pointed out that options include long-term loans. The MGC guidelines were also supported by Manus Brinkman, secretary general of the International Council of Museums (ICOM). He noted that in the 1970s the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden had returned the Treasures of Lombok, jewels which had been looted by Dutch soldiers in Indonesia in the nineteenth century. Mr Brinkman also pointed out that Stockholm’s National Museum of Ethnology had returned a totem pole to a native American group in the early 1990s, even though documentation proved that it had been legally purchased (their ancestors had not understood the procedure of selling and had been offered alcohol).

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'MPs would return the Elgin Marbles'