Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Mr Peter Baldwinson

I read in The Economist of 18-24 March that you are chairing an inquiry into the possible return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece. I do not know whether you have invited views from members of the public but I thought I would offer you mine anyway. (In case you are wondering I am not connected with the British, or any other, Museum).

  It seems to me the issue your Committee is considering goes right to the heart of what museums are for. If one concedes the principle that cultural objects can be returned to their site of origin then one begins to undermine the rationale for any museum—whether it be the British Museum or any other collection. Museums are collections of objects built up over time from many sites and countries around the world. That is what they are. Anything that implies they are collections of items found simply within their national boundaries is to limit them untenably. If one accepts the argument that it is correct to return items to their site of origin then one inevitably reduces museums to being simply provincial collections. A major plank of their purpose and their merit is lost. And that is the consequence of accepting the argument for the return of the Elgin Marbles.

  This is not to deny a moral component to the behaviours of museums. Obviously it is unacceptable for museums—and particularly state or public collections—to have in their collections items of doubtful provenance, for example, items looted by the Third Reich. But that is not the case with the Parthenon Frieze. There is no firm legal argument for the return of the Marbles. Otherwise the Greek Government would have begun proceedings long ago. Nor is there any other persuasive rational argument that the Greek Government can advance.

  Rather their argument for the return of the Frieze seems to turn solely on sentiment and emotion. To make this a fundamental consideration in any museum's holdings policy would be unwise. If similar emotional arguments were to be advanced by Greece for the return of other items in the British Museum they would be hard to resist. If Egypt, Turkey, Libya, Tunisia or Iraq then chose to press the case for the return of other artefacts which originated within what are today their modern borders one would rapidly see the dispersal of the collection.

  I do not want you to read this simply as a knee-jerk "thin-end-of-the-wedge" argument. The issues have, as I hope I have demonstrated, far more serious and wide ranging implications for the future of museums in this country than just the loss of one exhibit from London.

March 2000

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