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The treasure buried in ancient Acts

The idea that cultural treasure should be returned is not new. "We are the target, if that's the right word, of the most famous request of all," says Andrew Hamilton of the British Museum. He means the Elgin Marbles, a collection of ancient Greek sculptures and fragments brought from the Parthenon in 1801. They were the first authentic classical Greek sculpture to be displayed in London, where they caused a sensation. Unfortunately the Greek government does not accept that the original sale was legal, and has asked for them back. So far the answer has been a polite but firm refusal.

At the British Museum they prefer to call them the Sculptures of the Parthenon. They are particular about language, choosing to use the word "restitution" rather than the more loaded term "repatriation". The museum is crowded with objects of special cultural or spiritual significance to people groups all over the world, but Mr Hamilton claims there are no outstanding requests. That seems remarkable until he reveals that as an international museum it is only obliged to recognise requests that come directly from governments.

Pressure groups and campaigners need not waste their ink. Applications have been received from Maori and Aboriginal Australian representatives, he says, but they were not made by governments so they were "treated differently". Although the case of the Lakota Ghost Dance Shirt had made those in charge of all museums "sit up and think", Mr Hamilton said the outcome would not affect his own institution. The trustees were not about to dismember collections that were best seen as a whole.

In any case, the British Museum Act of 1963 made it illegal for them to dispose of any object at all, from any collection in the museum. "It would take another act of parliament before we could do that," said Hamilton. So that's that, then. CM