Cameron's views on "returnism" condemned

Sharon Heal, 26.02.2013
PM's concept is simplistic and indadequate, say critics
Prime minister David Cameron has been condemned for a lack of understanding following his statement last week about restitution of cultural objects.

Cameron was answering questions on a state visit to the site of the Amritsar Massacre, where British troops killed 379 Indians, when he was asked if he thought that the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which is part of the Crown Jewels, should be returned as goodwill gesture. The prime minister said he didn’t believe in “returnism” and that wasn’t the right approach.

He added: “It’s the same question with the Elgin Marbles and all these other things. I think the right answer is for the British Museum and other cultural institutions in Britain is to do exactly what they do, which is link up with museums all over the world to make our collections - to make sure that the things that we have and look after so well - are properly shared with people around the world.”

But the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles has censured the prime minster for conflating the two cases.

Eddie O’Hara, chairman of the committee, said that each case must be judged by its merits.

“In the case of the Parthenon marbles it is the probably unique demand for the reunification of the integral sculptured components of a Unesco world heritage monument, acquired in circumstances that were at best dubious, in an act of cultural vandalism.”

He added: “The fact that he conjoined two such widely differing cases as the Koh-i-Noor diamond and the Parthenon Marbles, and the fact that he called the latter the "Elgin" Marbles suggests that he does not appreciate what a simplistic and inadequate concept ‘returnism’ is.”


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Tim Schadla-Hall
MA Member
Reader in Public Archaeology, University College London
28.02.2013, 14:04
well I am not sure what is meant by returnism and I susprect that the Prime Minister is once again - ambushed or not - failing to understand the significance of some objects forother nations- its worth remebering that many politicians including Churchill would have considered returning the Parthenon marbles- the defence used so often to prevent their return is the Act odf Parliament- to which the answer is lets have a new Act. the second defence is the nature of the the universal museum- a defence for keeping what was stolen during an imperial past - and pathetic, and the third - if we return one thing -we shall have nothing left - is simply pathetic.
Chrissy Partheni
Head of Museum Partnerships, National Museums Liverpool
28.02.2013, 09:51
Typical of politicians' shallow approach to rather complex issues for cultural heritage, Cameron has also demonstrated once more his rather London centric and elitist approach to culture. The Parthenon freeze should be re-united and visited where it was made. As a recent visitor to the Acropolis Museum in Athens I cannot think of a better place for the freeze, appreciated in the Greek light and with the view of the Acropolis in the background. The display in the BM is aesthetic and sanitised. And there will be undoubtedly benefits to the tourist economy for Greece.
Having a progressive agenda when it comes to complex cultural issues and linking them to contemporary realities and histories isn't obviously part of Britain's cultural diplomacy.
MA Member
27.02.2013, 22:47
The 'critics' whom you quote are hardly representative of mainstream heritage opinion. I think that under the circumstances (he was effectively ambushed in a manner most undiplomatic and unbecoming of the Indian authorities) Mr Cameron gave a most laudable response. Sadly his support for the idea of apologising for historic events, as demonstrated on the same visit, is less laudable....and only gives encouragement to nationalist forces seeking the restitution of cultural artefacts for political rather than cultural reasons.
MA Member
28.02.2013, 10:36
Just because the critics are not mainstream does not mean that their opinion has no validity. I cannot agree that"under the circumstances....Mr Cameron gave a most laudable response" Mr Cameron has been in politics a long time and should be well used dealing with situations similar to this. I'm afraid in this case he has not only shown his inadequate understanding of "returnism" but also his inadequate ability to deal with what is a pretty standard tactic in politics in this country and around the world.
Keith HOOK
Volunteer, Essex Regiment Museum
27.02.2013, 21:23
If Lord Elgin had not saved the Marbles they would have been destroyed by the Turks' artillery practice.
28.02.2013, 02:48
You are confusing the Turks with Muslim Iconoclasts and the Parthenon with the Sphynx, the Pantheon was used as a gunpowder magazine and it was the Venetians that fired into it and then Morosini proceeded to loot it for statues. Regardless of that, BM conservators of the past have done their fair share of damage, scrapping the marbles with metallic tools, scrapping away the original pigments, lathering them in oil and wax further damaging them, and while those things are in the past, the BM can not take the position that the marbles were safer with them than with the Greeks.