Return of Elgin Marbles to Greece would be a ‘dangerous and slippery road’, warns Culture Secretary

The Elgin Marbles on display at the British Museum
The Elgin Marbles on display at the British Museum

Returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece would be a “dangerous and slippy road”, the Culture Secretary has said, warning that it could open the floodgates for other claims.

Michelle Donelan said that Britain has acted as careful “custodians” of disputed objects, adding: “Once you start giving one back, where does that end?”

It was reported last week that George Osborne, in his capacity as chairman of the British Museum, has held secret talks with the Greek Prime Minister over the possible return of the Elgin Marbles.

In her first appearance before a Parliamentary select committee as Culture Secretary, Ms Donelan was asked if the return of the Marbles would be “the thin end of the wedge”.

The Culture Secretary replied: “I can sympathise with some of the arguments but I do think that is a very dangerous and slippy road to embark down.

“Our museums and cultural centres are hubs that people, not just in this country but also tourists, can visit and that enable them to be transported to a different part of the world and a different period of time.

“These are objects that we have taken great care about for decades, if not even longer, that we’ve researched into considerably, that we’ve been custodians of. And once you start giving one back, where does that end?”

She added that in some cases it was “very difficult to know who to give these things back to”.

The Elgin Marbles - Getty Images North America
The Elgin Marbles - Getty Images North America
Elgin Marbles in the British Museum - PA
Elgin Marbles in the British Museum - PA

Ms Donelan also committed to the Government’s “retain and explain” policy on contentious statues and objects, saying they served a similar educational purpose to Holocaust Memorial Day.

The policy is “absolutely essential”, she said. “Our history and our culture is something that we should always stand up for and protect. As a history graduate myself, I believe very strongly that you don’t educate the next generation by eradicating bits of history or trying to rewrite it - what you do is add in those stories that potentially have been neglected over the years.

“You add to the story of history but you certainly don’t remove aspects of it. Removing statues doesn’t have the goal of informing anybody about anything.”

Asked if that would still be the Government’s position if a local community overwhelmingly wanted something to be removed, Ms Donelan said: “It would depend on what exactly the artefact was, who owned the artefact, where the artefact was, yada yada yada.

“But I believe the general principle is we should always stand up for our history and our culture and not be afraid to defend it.

“It is part of the fabric of our nation and we can learn from it, just like we do from some of the great atrocities of the world. Holocaust Memorial Day is there to not just commemorate but reinforce to the next generation that we cannot as a society ever allow these ills to happen again.”

BBC licence fee not sustainable

Michelle Donelan - PA
Michelle Donelan - PA

On the subject of the BBC, Ms Donelan said that “the licence fee is not a long-term, sustainable model in its own right”.

But she did not discuss scrapping it altogether, instead suggesting that there could be a “mixed model” in which “the licence fee is propped up by other sources of funding” such as commercial income.

“The licence fee on its own cannot be the only answer,” Ms Donelan said, but praised the BBC as a “fantastic institution and one that we should work together to protect”.

On impartiality, Ms Donelan said the BBC had drawn up a plan but “it is one thing having a plan and one thing solving a problem, and there is a great way to go”.

She cited a recent tweet by Gary Lineker about the Tory party’s alleged links to Russian donors, and a BBC News report which reported that Jewish students targeted in an anti-Semitic incident had used anti-Muslim slurs.

Ms Donelan was notably more measured on the subject of the BBC than her predecessor, Nadine Dorries.

Told by the committee that Ms Dorries had seemed to connect impartiality at the BBC with the future of the licence fee, Ms Donelan said: “I don’t connect it at all.”