Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 92-99)


28 OCTOBER 2003

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed for coming to see us. You have been kind in listening to some of the previous evidence, so you know which direction we are coming from.

  Q92  Michael Fabricant: First of all, may I welcome you this morning. You have been listening to this conversation: you have been in the public gallery. Does the Museums Association differ in its view at all from that of the Natural History Museum regarding the question of the change in the law to the repatriation, possible repatriation of human remains?

  Dr Davies: No, not at all. We have felt for some time that the law should be changed to allow the return of human remains, and also, following this Committee's report in 2000, that the law should be changed to allow the return of items found to be right for return by the Spoliation Advisory Panel. I think I am right in saying that DCMS did a limited consultation with the museum sector in late 2000 about the spoliation issue, to which we responded that we were perfectly content for the law to be changed. Recently, within the past couple of months, DCMS have done another limited consultation about bringing in provisions to change legislation on human remains in museums within a Department of Health Bill which may be coming before the next session of parliament. We have responded to that, that we also support the idea of changing legislation.

  Q93  Michael Fabricant: Interestingly, though, I think in your evidence you say that the "slippery slope" argument really does not apply in connection with making returns, not only of human remains but cultural objects.

  Dr Davies: Yes.

  Q94  Michael Fabricant: But is that not because we really have not got onto a slippery slope yet, simply because museums have held fast. Would there not be a slippery slope if we started making major returns of cultural objects to other countries? Would they not all then start claiming?

  Dr Davies: I think the interesting thing is to look at evidence from other countries where high profile returns have happened and where a slippery slope doesn't exist—or a coach and horses, to use Miss Kirkbride's reformulation of it this morning. I think also Glasgow is a really interesting case. The Glasgow shirt was an incredibly high profile and public return, much more public in its decision making than is usually the case. My understanding is that, in spite of that, and the worldwide attention that that case received and the evident amenability of Glasgow City Council as the governing body of Glasgow Museums to cases for return, they have received next to no claims for future returns, which suggests to me, if they are like any other museum service of that size and they have millions of objects in their collection, that you are looking at one item out of millions as being returned. So it is a tiny amount. My understanding is that, even in the case of the British Museum with its collection of millions and millions of items, there are actually claims for, at the most, maybe 100 items.

  Q95  Michael Fabricant: They are quite high profile items.

  Dr Davies: Of course. The thing you often see is that the items that are claimed often have an iconic status. In a sense, the return often has a symbolic purpose and a political purpose beyond the actual significance of the individual object. I think, in terms of a sense of a post-imperial re-balancing of cultural power—as I like to think of it—in a sense, the return of one item is almost enough. It is almost a gesture of courtesy, sometimes between governments but more often actually between museums or museums and cultural groups.

  Q96  Michael Fabricant: With due respect to Glasgow, I do not think I could agree with you when you say that the Ghost Dance shirt had national or international publicity in its return. The return of that would be very, very different from the return of the Elgin Marbles or the return of Cleopatra's Needle or some object like that. Surely that would create a slippery slope.

  Dr Davies: Possibly. All I can say is that the evidence so far does not suggest that that is the case and places that have returned things have not been met with lots and lots of further claims. The number of claims that are, in a sense, unresolved is very, very small. They are of intense importance for the claimants, and often, as you have said, because of the importance of the object, but the actual volume is tiny. My sense is that it will remain tiny.

  Q97  Michael Fabricant: In another part of your evidence you talked about sacred objects and said that in many ways they should be treated in the same way as human remains. Whereas one can clearly define what is human remains and what are not human remains, might there not be arguments over the degree of sacredness—it is almost a theological question—of certain objects? Who would actually decide what is sacred and what is not? Are there shadows of degree or shades of degree of sacredness? I am sorry to pursue this. When did something become so sacred that it automatically ought to be returned?

  Dr Davies: I think there are two comments I would like to make on that. The first one is that I have been in the interesting position of being involved in arguments between anthropologists about what sacred is and it is clear that there is no agreement whatsoever. The other point that is interesting, that I think is coming to the fore—and this was an important part of the deliberations of the Human Remains Working Group of which I am a member—is the human rights implications. Different parts of the Human Rights Act can act in different ways, but there are many things in there about equality of right to practise religious belief and so on. There is quite a long section in the report when it is published about the implications of the Human Rights Act, but I think it is key. There are problems in human rights terms about making judgments from our, if you like, Western perspective about the sacredness of something. Whereas to us it might not be sacred at all and we might not have much respect for the religion that holds it sacred, if that religion genuinely holds it sacred, then, in human rights terms, they have as much right to their views of what is sacred as we do to ours—if you see what I mean. So it is a terribly difficult area.

  Q98  Chairman: If I could interrupt, there are some things which are absolutely indubitably sacred, are there not? They are quested after as works of art. A huge furore was taking place, around the time when we did our previous inquiry, about the theft of icons from Greek-Cypriot churches, with a smuggling ring prosecuted in the end, because of the Cypriot Government, in the United States. There cannot be any question that icons stolen from churches are sacred objects. Or can there be?

  Dr Davies: I could not see how you could question it, no.

  Q99  Michael Fabricant: I wonder if I could move on to the return of objects looted in the 1933-45 period. I gather that back in March 2001 the Department of Culture, Media and Sport reported there was agreement concerning how these ought to be treated. I wonder if you could say a few words about what progress has been made since then.

  Dr Davies: As far as I know, there has been no sign of progress at all. As I mentioned, there was a consultation to which the Museums Association responded, saying we were happy with the proposals to legislate.

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