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.

Dowden’s new vocation

Our MP has been grilling ministers about a new charities law – but it’s really all about the Culture Wars

The Parthenon Marbles in their current location the British Museum in London
Some of the Parthenon Marbles in their current location

The new Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is now busy answering questions on behalf of the Cabinet Office but in his final days as a backbencher he was packing in the written questions. This time he was asking the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (his old gaff, of course) questions about the Charities Act 2022. As we reported a couple of weeks ago, his recent questions relate to the return of stolen artworks to their countries of origin. You’ll remember that, in a previous life, Oliver Dowden very publicly argued that artefacts brought to Britain during the colonial era should stay where they are and, in particular, in the UK’s national collections.

While Culture secretary, and in the midst of the row over statues of slavers and war criminals, he wrote to UK institutions asking them not to touch controversial items and famously threatened them with loss of funding if they considered removing or returning objects:

It is imperative that you continue to act impartially, in line with your publicly funded status, and not in a way that brings this into question. This is especially important as we enter a challenging Comprehensive Spending Review, in which all government spending will rightly be scrutinised.

Lines from Dowden’s ‘retain and explain’ letter, sent in September 2020

It looks like this is going to be an important cause for our MP – alongside the important local issues of yellow lines in Aldenham and building on the green belt. It’s not obvious why a home counties MP would want to invest much in the profoundly controversial argument between a former Imperial power and its once colonised territories. There are evidently some Culture Wars points to be won with the Tory base but it’s difficult to find a morally consistent defence for retaining the Benin Bronzes or the Parthenon sculptures. The risk of being very visibly on the wrong side of history is real.

So far Dowden has offered no positive defence for retaining the objects at all but has continued to make the odd case that returning stolen goods might be some kind of woke gesture and to repeat his demeaning statements about the fitness of the original owners of these artefacts to look after them. In the Commons two weeks ago he said “…those institutions risk facing a barrage of claims for restitution, some of which may be encouraged more by virtue signalling”, “I can assure you that if we allow this Pandora’s box to open, we will regret it for generations to come as we see those artefacts being removed to countries where they may be less safe.” (our emphasis).

Meanwhile it must be a colossal wind-up for the former Culture Minister that institutions – including his own alma mater – are busy shipping artefacts home or making agreements to do so (Oxford, Cambridge and Aberdeen Universities, The Horniman Museum, Glasgow City Council and the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter to name just the most recent). Governments are acting too – a huge agreement between the German and Nigerian governments links development funding and trade with the return of over a thousand bronzes.

The government’s stance is intriguing but also puzzling, not least because it obviously hasn’t occurred to anyone that clinging to colonial-era loot, talking down to allies and potential trading partners (and Commonwealth members) and using shallow legalistic defences to profoundly moral appeals is not very ‘Global Britain’ and might just contribute to Britain’s growing isolation.

Dowden’s questions to the DCMS relate to a new law regulating charities. The law itself is not concerned with stolen artworks directly but the Charities Act 2022 introduces a new freedom for charitable bodies to to seek authorisation if they feel compelled ‘by a moral obligation’ to make a transfer of charity property (called in the act an ‘ex-gratia payment’).

This was meant to allow charities more flexibility in dealing with awkward bequests and the law, passed back in February, has not yet come into force. In the meantime, though, it’s occurred to ministers that this new flexibility could allow museums (which are usually charities) to apply to return stolen artworks.

Dowden’s fear is obviously that we could see a flood of applications from woke charity trustees who want to return items to their countries of origin on spurious ‘moral’ grounds. Current legislation makes it illegal for the national collections to do this, so the government has already decided to delay the implementation of the new law while they think about “the implications for the national collections.”

Dowden asked the Minister “if she will make an assessment of the potential impact of the implementation of sections 15 and 16 of the Charities Act 2022 on the ability of trustees of national museums […] to return collection items if they are motivated by a moral obligation.” What’s fascinating – and a bit dispiriting – about all this is that, for our MP, ‘moral obligation’ is a euphemism for ‘shallow woke virtue signalling’.

Is this going to be a big story in the two years between now and the next general election? Probably not. Will it keep Oliver Dowden in the news for a hot-button Culture Wars issue? Quite possibly.