The hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara) made a good case, and I agree with some of what he said. Certainly the marbles belong to the whole of humanity, not just to any one nation. He would be expected to make
The hon. Gentleman said that his proposals were modest, but they are not. The implications for the future of all world museums housing universal collections are enormous. I oppose this latest attempt at iconoclastic decontextualisation and will judge it on the following grounds. Are the Elgin marbles rightfully in the British museum, are they in the best place to be appreciated most by the widest audience, and what are the real motives for destroying the status quo?
On the first charge, that the Elgin marbles are not legitimately in the British museum, even Greece no longer challenges the legal ownership of the marbles. In 1815, Parliament bought the marbles by paying part of Lord Elgin's costs. In 1816, a Select Committee said that they had been rightfully acquired. That judgment has been confirmed by a Select Committee report in 1999, by the former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), and by the former Minister for the Arts, the right hon. Member for Newport, East (Alan Howarth), who is here today and who ratifies the judgment in his excellent article in The Guardian today.
I come to the defence of the much maligned Lord Elgin. The marbles were not housed in a private collection but given to the British museum in 1816. They became an integral part of the British museum's heritage and are intrinsic to its identity. It was Lord Elgin who saved the Parthenon marbles: without him, they would not exist. They were legally taken under a firman. Placing the marbles in the British museum led to an appreciation of the high classical style in the early 19th century, which had been overlooked in preference to the hellenistic style of sculpture. There is also a case for saying that bringing the marbles to the British museum encouraged an awareness of hellenism and the foundation of the Greek state in 1833, a far cry from the city state of Athens in classical times.
Would it not be odd if after almost 200 years of the Parthenon marbles being in the British museum, and as the British museum prepares to celebrate its 250th anniversary next year, an integral part of its heritage were ripped from its walls? There is no case for saying that they are not rightfully part of the British museum. The hon. Member for Knowsley, South would be better off looking at the urgent matter of clamping down on the illegal trade in artefacts between private collections, which often goes on unprovenanced and unrecorded.
The second charge is that the British museum is not the best place for displaying the Elgin marbles. The British museum holds no place for nationalism. It is a universal museum. The idea of a universal museum is the outcome of the 18th-century age of enlightenment. It is a national museum in the great tradition of the Louvre, the Metropolitan museum of art in New York and the Berlin national museum. The British museum regards it as a privilege to display some of the finest artworks known
The British museum is a world museum. Forces for educational and cultural enlightenment across the globe exist there. It has 6 million visitors a year. Academics, students, school children, Greeks, Britons, South Africans, Koreans all visit for free. They are able to see the Elgin marbles not just as a single artistic treasure but in the context of the great developing panoply of archaic and classical art and architecture.
In the British museum, visitors can trace artistic development through Sumerian gudea figures, Mesopotamian site artefacts, Assyrian reliefs from Nineveh and Nimrud, Egyptian kouroi, early classical statuary and high classical, hellenistic, Roman and renaissance artefacts; the British museum itself is built in a neoclassical style. They are all under one roof, all for free and all properly explained, displayed and set in context.
Decontextualisation would be a disaster and would open a Pandora's box, whatever the hon. Member for Knowsley, South says. Mesopotamian finds dug up because of the tenacity of British archaeologists in the 1900s and previously would be returned to Iraq and Iran, perhaps never to be seen again. The Benin bronzes would go to Nigeria, despite the fact that the British museum helped to build the collection of bronzes in Nigeria itself and has done an awful lot to promote the heritage and history of west Africa. When Nelson Mandela visited the British museum just 13 months ago on the opening of three new African galleries, he praised the British museum as
In the fifth century, Pericles and the fleet of artists under Phidias built the splendour of classical Athens not just as an impressive environment for local Athenians but as a symbol to the world of how quickly civilisation had developed under Athens' artistic and military prowess: it was the top nation of the day. No one would be more impressed by the longevity of that legacy in the British museum two and a half millennia later than Pericles himself.
What are the real motives? It is all political. Academically, there is no case to return the Elgin marbles and other works of art to Athens. They are in the ownership of the British museum but they belong to the history of world civilisation. To treat them as some political trophy that can be traded for short-term political advantage is the worst reason for ripping them out of the heart of one of the world's great museums.
No doubt the Greeks would view us as better Europeans if we made a gesture of handing them the Elgin marbles after 200 years, just as the Government want to make the Spanish view us as better Europeans by handing over Gibraltar after almost 300 years, yet it does not make our equal partners, Greece and Spain, better Europeans by pressing for such moves and expecting us to comply under duress and for all the wrong reasons.
The intentions behind the Bill are clear but the motives are entirely wrong and the implications for the academic world would be catastrophic. The hon. Member for Knowsley, South made his case with some passion, not as much as the late Melina Mercouri and certainly with fewer tears, but just as we echoed her sentiments to her in "Never on a Sunday", so I ask the House to say to the hon. Gentleman, "Never on a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Monday for that matter."
Mr. Edward O'Hara accordingly presented a Bill to clarify the respective responsibilities of trustees and the Secretary of State in terms of international co-operation and the exchange of cultural objects between museums: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 12 April, and to be printed [Bill 92].