One of the arguments used by the British Museum for why they can’t return the Elgin Marbles to Greece is the British Museum Act 1963. This is the act of parliament that defines many aspects of the way the British Museum operates. It defines things such as how the Museum’s trustees are appointed. It also sets out the rules on how the Museum can remove objects from its collection (or in most cases, how it can not). The act states that the only way that items can be removed from the British Museum’s collection is if they are either duplicates of other items in the collection, or are deemed worthless as a result of damage or similar. Originally this served the purpose of safeguarding the collections within the museum & stopping them from getting broken up. These safeguards are not unique to the British Museum, but are a relatively common feature in the charter of museums to prevent deaccessioning (the term used to describe the removal of items from a museum or libraries collection).
The British Museum regularly uses this Act as part of their reasoning that they can not return the Parthenon Marbles, suggesting that the act means that they can not be removed from the collection without a change of the act, & that a change of the act would be a decision made by the government. This conveniently means that they can divert questions about the return of the marbles to being the responsibility of the government. (lets not forget though then when it suits them it is possible to bend / ignore the British Museum Act – the deaccessioning of some of the Benin Bronzes, as exposed by the Art Newspaper, was either a strange interpretation of the act, or a case of total incompetence by the museum in understanding the contents of its own collections). The reality is that any decision would probably have to be agreed by both the Museum & The Government).
All this could change however, as a court case underway at the moment could rule that the moral obligations of the museum in cases of restitution can over rule the anti-deaccessioning provisions of the British Museum Act. The Attorney General has acknowledged that the outcome of this case could have implication for other cultural property cases, specifically mentioning the Elgin Marbles as an example. It will be very interesting to see the conclusions of this case.
Tue 24 May 2005 4:23pm (UK)
Court Battle Could Decide Fate of Elgin Marbles
By Stephen Howard, PA
A court battle over Old Masters drawings looted by the Nazis could decide the fate of the Elgin Marbles.
Senior High Court judge Sir Andrew Morritt was today asked to rule whether the “moral obligation” of the British Museum to the true owners of looted works of art overrides laws forbidding the break-up of its collections.
The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, has asked the court for clarification of the law because he says there are “strong arguments” that the moral merit of a claim cannot override an Act of Parliament which bars the museum from disposing of its collections.
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