April 28, 2008

Delays to Elgin family’s return of artefacts

Posted at 1:29 pm in Similar cases

The donation of artefacts back to Canada by the Elgin family has now been delayed by the British Government. One fears that any return decision on the Elgin Marbles would probably suffer a similar fate.

Ottawa Citizen

Red tape likely to delay Elgin artifacts display
Library and Archives’ acquisitions yet to receive OK from Britain
Paul Gessell, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Saturday, April 26, 2008

Library and Archives Canada held a news conference yesterday to announce it has acquired, through a combination of donation and purchase, thousands of personal letters, state documents, paintings and other artifacts owned by Lord Elgin, governor general from 1847-1854.

The announcement was somewhat premature. Britain still has not given the green light for the export of all the loot.

The British, like the Canadian, government instructs a panel of experts to examine objects deemed to be historically important to determine whether the owners should be given a licence to export them abroad or whether the materials are so important they must remain in the country. The wheels of bureaucracy sometimes move slowly. A final decision could be “months” away despite yesterday’s announcement in Ottawa.

The treasures come from the current Lord Elgin, the great-grandson of the 19th-century aristocrat. Talks between Lord Elgin and Library and Archives began in earnest in 2003, when Rideau Hall mounted a small exhibition of some of the artifacts. Actually, the 84-year-old Lord Elgin said in an interview he first got the idea speaking to Georges Vanier, when the latter was governor general in the 1960s.

The current Lord Elgin, once a page to King George V, agreed to donate some of the artifacts and to sell some to Canada. He needs the money, he says, to maintain the vast collection of family memorabilia at his estate, Broomhall, near Edinburgh. Over the centuries, the Elgins helped explore, govern (and sometimes plunder) countries around the world, including the United States, India and Greece, where the Elgin Marbles were pried off the Acropolis and brought to Britain. All this exploring, governing and plundering has resulted in a vast collection of possessions that are, in many cases, important historical treasures and must be stored and maintained at the family’s expense.

“Nine years ago we had a roofing problem,” Lord Elgin said. “It wasn’t cheap.”

The most problematic artifacts in the Elgin collection are hundreds of documents and letters, including letters written by the vice-regal Lord Elgin to family members.

“These are personal family letters,” said the current Lady Elgin. She can’t understand why the British government would interfere with the disposition of such personal material.

Britain is also deciding whether to allow Canada to have Lord Elgin’s carriole cutter, an open sleigh common in 19th-century Canada.

Officials at Library and Archives are confident they will eventually get their loot. The officials declined to state how much the purchased objects will cost, at least in part because they don’t yet know exactly what they will get. Some of the money was raised by Alberta Friends of Elgin, which was founded by the Calgary-based Scottish-Canadian scientist Jennifer Considine.

Library and Archives already has some artifacts and displayed them yesterday. These were objects that were in the 2003 Rideau Hall exhibition and were simply never returned to Britain afterwards. They include watercolours painted by the 19th-century Lady Elgin, a birchbark tray, beaded moccasins, and even some paving stones thrown at Lord Elgin by some angry Montrealers.

The three-dimensional objects in the Elgin collection will be housed at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The documents will be stored by Library and Archives Canada.

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