October 21, 2006

British Museum director questioned on marbles by Select Committee

Posted at 1:49 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles

The Department for Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee is in the process of holding an enquiry with the title Caring for Our Collections. One of the stated subjcts covered by this enquiry is: Acquisition and disposal policies with particular reference to due diligence obligations on acquisition and legal restrictions on disposal of objects. Something which would cover the clauses that prevent de-accessioning in the current British Museum Act.
Amongst other witnesses called to the first session of oral questions was Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum. Although the questions ranged over various other topics, towards the end the discussion did cover deaccessioning & more specifically the Elgin Marbles. The answers were fairly predictable – That the British Museum would much prefer it if the Greek government would settle for some sort of compromise & that the marbles could remain in Britain.

United Kingdom Parliament

House of COMMONS


Tuesday 10 October 2006


Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 – 54


Oral Evidence
Taken before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee
on Tuesday 10 October 2006

Members present
Mr John Whittingdale, in the Chair
Philip Davies
Mr Nigel Evans
Paul Farrelly
Rosemary McKenna
Adam Price
Mr Adrian Sanders


Memoranda submitted by the British Museum, the National Gallery
and the Victoria & Albert Museum

Examination of Witnesses


Q48 Chairman: Can I turn to the question of deaccession. There seems to be at least a robust debate taking place in the museums sector and, indeed, between you here. Mark Jones, you produced the report Too much Stuff but, Neil MacGregor, in your submission you felt there should not be a change in legislation. Can you perhaps give us an idea of the pros and cons and whether or not you think this is an area which Parliament should revisit?

Mr MacGregor: I think it is entirely a question of the purpose of the collection. The British Museum’s collection was conceived as a library. There was the book library and then the material libraries of different sorts and different cultures. The key thing about a library is that a catalogue be available and that it be studied. It is very concerning to think of getting rid of books because sometimes these people have looked at them and we seem to have an awful lot of them. Our starting position would be that the powers that the trustees of the British Museum have at the moment, which is to get rid of material if there are duplicates or for conservation reasons cannot continue to be stored, seems to us to be the right power for the trustees of the British Museum. Different collections with different functions perhaps require different powers.

Mr Jones: Basically I agree with that. Some, but not all, museums have an archival function, that is to say they are the place where you go to find out about something. It is very clear that, say, the British Museum’s archaeological collections, or for that matter a number of other archaeological collections throughout the country, are to be understood like libraries, and the same is true of social history collections, natural history collections and so on. That does not let us off recognising that there are also eminently displayable objects, oil paintings for example, in large numbers in many collections which are never going to be shown and which are not currently delivering as much benefit as they should. The work of the Public Catalogue Foundation, which is going through public collections county by county – a wonderful idea – and publishing them all just reinforces what we already knew, which is it is not just that there are many more paintings in public collections than can ever be shown but there are also many more paintings in public collections than one would ever want to be shown. It is not even theoretically conceivable that we would want all of these on display. I do think that we need to be terribly careful about saying, “This is a collection of low value, that it is ephemeral so we should junk it”. That has been done in the past and very often it has destroyed important historical evidence. I also think that we should be creative about finding new uses for very attractive objects which are currently in store and not giving any enjoyment to anyone. I think there is a way of doing that, by the way, which could retain a public interest in the objects. I cannot see any reason why we should not think that museums might be able to dispose of objects from their collections or sell them, but under the same kind of conditions that are applied to objects exempted from inheritance tax. If you have an object that is exempted from inheritance tax you have to make it available to people who want to see it and you have to lend it to public exhibitions but you can also have the pleasure of owning it. Why should we not to take that as a model?

Q49 Chairman: So, Neil MacGregor, your view would be that whilst the British Museum would not envisage ever deaccessioning or disposing of any of its collection, you would not object to a change in the law to allow your colleagues to do so?

Mr MacGregor: Not at all. I think different collections require different laws.

Q50 Chairman: Regarding specific items within your collection, the Elgin Marbles: does it remain the position of the British Museum that there is no prospect of their returning to Athens?

Mr MacGregor: As you know, Parliament when it bought the Elgin Marbles considered all these questions very carefully and took the view that they were properly acquired. The trustees of the museum believe that they play an important part in the survey of cultural achievements of humanity. There is nowhere else in Europe where you can look at the whole world in one building, the cultural achievements of the whole world, and the Parthenon sculpture is clearly a part of that. I think it is unlikely that the trustees would change their view on that.

Q51 Chairman: So the decision of, we understand, a German university to return a part makes no difference?

Mr MacGregor: No. Clearly that was a decision for the German university and that is the decision they took, presumably on their criteria of the purpose of their collection.

Q52 Chairman: I understand you are looking at helping the Greek authorities with a display, perhaps through some kind of computer generated image.

Mr MacGregor: Yes. We work very closely with colleagues in the museum in Athens, we lend very generously in many areas and, of course, in scholarly terms we work closely with them and, indeed, would like to work with them on an electronic programme on the Parthenon as a whole.

Q53 Mr Sanders: Should we not be doing it the other way round? Should we not have the electronic representation and they have the items back?

Mr MacGregor: No, because the purpose of the collection —- We could have a long argument about this but, firstly, there is no question that the legal title is with the trustees of the British Museum. The point is the Parthenon as it once was cannot be reconstructed, it is a ruined building and a very large part of the sculpture is now destroyed. Roughly half of what survives is now in Athens and roughly half the rest is in the British Museum and in other museums elsewhere. You cannot reconstruct the whole, and as that cannot be done physically it makes perfect sense, it seems to me, for the two halves of what survives to be seen in a different context, in a world context in London and in a Greek context in Athens. I think the world public benefit is greater under the present arrangements and the world will gain if electronically it can be combined to show what we think is the totality of the surviving material, but that is only a fragment of what was there.

Q54 Adam Price: There are a number of objects in your collection which are intrinsically important to the history of my nation, will you consider returning them to the National Museum of Wales?

Mr MacGregor: To take one example, the gold cape from Mold, which was acquired in the 1830s, which is one of the great documents of early Wales, as you know, that was recently lent to Wrexham, where it was found, and there is no permanent setting for it but it was important for it to be seen and enormous numbers of people saw it there. It has been lent to the National Museum of Wales. I think it is important that it be seen also in the context of the other gold objects of that period from the rest of Britain and, indeed, from the rest of the world so that we can look at Wales at that period in the context of Egypt at that period and China at that period, and there is nowhere else that can be done. I think what is important is that objects move so that we see them in different contexts and understand them differently and that is now possible. The whole strategy of the British Museum in recent years has been to lend objects as generously as possible around the UK and across the world so that the different meanings of the objects and the different narratives can be understood, the latest example being a major loan selected by our colleagues in Nairobi from the British Museum’s collection which is on show in Nairobi to show how Kenya relates to the cultures round about it. These objects need to be in different places.

Chairman: I think we will have to cut it short there. I, and some of my colleagues, have to go to the memorial service for my late colleague, Eric Forth. I am sorry that this session does not follow our usual time but thank you very much for coming this morning and answering our questions.

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1 Comment »

  1. Selby Whittingham said,

    01.07.07 at 9:11 pm

    This is a depressing exchange and does not suggest that the committee will ever really get to grips with the subject. We have submitted our own memorandum to it, but do not expect it to get much consideration. http://www.jmwturner.org

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