Losing his marbles

Since he was Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has opposed the return of stolen artworks to their owners. But it looks like they might be going home anyway

Some of the Parthenon marbles in their current location in the British Museum in London
The Parthenon marbles awaiting return to Greece

In the last few years Dowden hasn’t missed an opportunity to assert that objects like the Parthenon marbles and the Benin bronzes ‘properly reside’ in the British museums and galleries that currently hold them.

As Minister he refused appeals from institutions and governments who wanted their artefacts back and opposed all efforts by trustees and directors to open negotiations or to transfer artefacts. In a notorious letter sent to heads of national collections in September 2020 he carefully connected removing statues of slavers with returning stolen art – classifying both as ‘contested heritage’ and insisting that Government-funded bodies “should not be taking actions motivated by activism or politics.”

A composite image of Conservative MP Oliver Dowden, wearing a surgical mask and floating against a virtual reality background
Oliver Dowden floating in some kind of dimensionless alternate reality

More recently, UK institutions have begun negotiations or have actually returned items. The Horniman museum in South London returned six Benin bronzes last month and Cambridge University has agreed to return 116. Both made use of a provision in a new charities law that allows institutions to ‘deaccession’ items when they perceive there is a ‘moral obligation’ to do so. Mr Dowden doesn’t like this provision and has been asking questions about it in Parliament. Dowden thinks that woke museums may be ‘virtue signalling’ when they agree to return looted items to places “…where they may be less safe.”

Meanwhile, national collections (like the British Museum and the V&A) can’t make use of this provision because they’re bound by another law, the British Museum Act of 1963, which explicitly prohibits return of artefacts. When Culture Secretary, Dowden hoped to suppress this kind of worthy posturing by packing boards of trustees and opposing the appointment of anyone with ‘decolonisation’ on their CVs.

One of his appointments was George Osborne, former Chancellor and the man who brought Britain nine years of austerity – including harsh cuts to museum funding – inserted as Chairman of the British Museum’s board in 2021. Everyone’s assumption was that this appointment would mark a change of direction for the museum – with more pride in the museum’s colonial history and less shame about the awkward provenance of its collection. The Guardian called it ‘a startling jolt‘ and wondered ‘can it it really have come to this?’ As recently as November George Osborne asserted that the great collections ‘would not be permanently broken up‘ but did acknowledge that loans of objects might be possible.

Things are obviously moving quickly now, though. Dowden’s been demoted, resigned and promoted again since then and Osborne is showing signs of having gone native at the BM. We learn, from a Greek report quoted by the Art Newspaper, that he’s actually been in secret discussions with the Greek Culture Ministry, which has long campaigned for the unconditional return of the Parthenon marbles. It looks like a permanent loan might see the marbles taken to the Acropolis Museum, where a specially-built, climate-controlled gallery has been waiting (a loan would allow the museum to get around the tricky provisions of the 1963 law). Experts say that the British Museum’s increasingly ramshackle accommodation risks damaging the marbles and a refurbishment means they’ll have to move soon anyway. Some galleries at the museum are in such poor condition that they’ve had to be closed and one of Osborne’s other priorities is to raise one billion pounds (yes, a billion) to fix the leaky roof and crumbling walls.

It’s safe to say that Dowden’s bluster in the media and public bullying of the institutions haven’t really paid off. The galleries don’t want to be recruited to the Culture Wars and the momentum for return is building. There’s a British campaign group working to return the Parthenon marbles, more museums are opening negotiations and influential Parliamentarians are applying pressure. Lord Vaizey, also a former Culture Secretary, is pursuing a campaign through the House of Lords. Let’s face it, it’s about time.

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