Debate in the House of Lords: “National pride” if Charles returned the Parthenon Sculptures to Athens

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The Liberal Democrats’ Lord McNally pointed to a new poll showing that 54% of Britons are in favor of reuniting the Parthenon Sculptures in Athens compared to 16%

London, Thanasis Gavos

The desirability of amending the National Heritage Act 1983 to allow British museums to return exhibits to their countries of origin where there are reasons was discussed this afternoon at House of Lords in London.

A similar law, from 1963, prohibits the trustees of the British Museum from removing objects from the collections, such as the Parthenon Sculptures, to which there were several references during the debate.

The speaker was the former Undersecretary for Culture under the Cameron governments, Lord Ed Vesey, who announced at the start of his speech that he had officially been appointed, unpaid, to the position of chairman of the Parthenon Project, which works in Britain for the reunification of the Sculptors.

The Conservative politician noted that museum managers should be given the freedom to make case-by-case decisions on the repatriation of exhibits, possibly with the help of an independent commission. As he noted, until now the policy of preserving controversial objects “has not been successful”.

He rejected the argument that returning some exhibits would lead to the other extreme, with British museums being “stripped” of artefacts, pointing out that requests to restore works of art are very few. In the case of the Victoria & Albert Museum e.g. there have been only nine restoration requests in the past two decades out of a total of 2.7 million items in its collection.

The Lib Dems’ Lord McNally pointed to a new poll showing that 54% of Britons are in favor of reuniting the Parthenon Sculptures in Athens compared to 16%.

“The question is ‘why’ and the answer is ‘because they belong to Athens'”, he continued to conclude: “We would have much more national pride to see King Charles in Athens returning the Parthenon Sculptures instead of wasting a lot years to discuss the fine details of an agreement. Real national pride is doing the right thing.”

The independent member of the House of Lords the Earl of Clancarty said it was a “moral obligation” for the British government to decide on the return of exhibits stolen in the past “on its behalf”.

Labour’s Lord Bassam said that “it is absolutely right to return exhibits to the country of origin”, commenting that British public opinion has moved ahead of the government on this issue.

In his response the Under Secretary of State for Culture with responsibility for national heritage Lord Kamal made it clear that the government’s position is “unchanged” and that there is no intention to amend the law. He reiterated that decisions about museum collections should rest with the commissioners of administration.

Without making explicit reference to the Parthenon Sculptures, Lord Kamal said requests to reunite exhibits can lead to dialogue and collaborations.

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