That's ours. No, it's not. Who really owns culture?

In Greece yesterday Bill Clinton said Britain should return the Elgin Marbles, but he was told to stay out of the long-running saga

Just over a century ago, a British military expedition plundered the large 16th-century bronze doors of the royal palace in Benin city, Nigeria. Once they were in Britain, they were bought by the collector Frederick Horniman and placed in a museum named after him in Forest Hill, south London.

The doors - known as plaques - were not the only parts of the great Benin civilisation to have been seized by the West and, over the years, its people have made efforts to get them back. Yet this year's exhibition featuring the plaques at the Horniman Museum has received official Nigerian support. Why? Because the Benin people were consulted and Benin city museum's curator, Joseph Eboreime, acted as adviser. "It's been a huge success," Janet Vitmayer, the Horniman's director, said. "They felt we had done justice to their plaques. That justified, to some degree, the fact that we hold them here."

As the century draws to a close, the museum world is looking at who owns culture and what should be done with it. A trickle of claims for objects to be returned are landing on the desks of museum directors.

The row over damage done to the Elgin Marbles by cleaning at the British Museum 60 years ago has underscored these problems once more. They will be further aired when the findings of a six-member Greek team of conservationists are presented to a two-day international conference at the British Museum in 10 days' time. Although the Greeks look unlikely to reclaim the Marbles, taken from the Acropolis in Athens by Lord Elgin in 1801, each demand for restitution is assessed on its merits. And some of the biggest British museums are forbidden by their constitutions from disposing of objects in their collections other than under the most complicated conditions.

Earlier this year the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow returned what was known as the Ghost Dance Shirt to the Lakota Sioux of North America who believed it had magical powers. It was worn at the Wounded Knee massacre.

But Dr Deborah Swallow, chief curator in the India and South-east Asia department of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, believes objects should not necessarily be sent back. An exhibit, she explained, has a complex story, of which its origin is only one part. Many museums' most prized treasures have passed through numerous hands. "This is part of the history of the object and part of the history of these civilisations," she said. "The way we've approached it here is, first of all, to see ourselves as world custodians of these artefacts for everybody. We aren't the owners, we're the carers."

The artefacts of her own department, for instance, were the heritage of Britain's Asian community as well as part of the broader British heritage. Its duty was to inform those communities of this heritage. Thus, this year's Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms was developed in consultation with Sikh communities in Britain as well as India and the US. The issue of Nazi looted art, although distinct from rows such as those about the Elgin Marbles, has been the final spur to more determined action on claims for works to be returned. Many of Britain's leading museums have been searching their collections to check whether they hold any of the works which were seized from their Jewish owners during the Holocaust. The Tate's director, Sir Nicholas Serota, is chairing the joint working party.

A separate committee, under Dr Neil Chalmers of the Natural History Museum, was set up this year to investigate repatriation. Dr Chalmers said museums were great institutions because they had collections of objects and there would be concern if there were wholesale returns. But he said: "There is a steady flow of instances where museums are being faced with requests to return objects to communities. We think there's a lot of merit in establishing a good framework for handling these."

Andrew Graham-Dixon, the critic and presenter of the new television series on the Renaissance, said it was important to discuss each case on its merits. "In the case of the Marbles, you need to talk about what would have happened to them if they hadn't ended up here. The Marbles that have been left in place have been completely destroyed," he said.

He believed that, where possible, works benefited from being seen in context, such as the Bellini altarpiece which was designed for the San Zaccaria church in Venice and remains there.

"But I'm all for a bit of trade," Mr Graham-Dixon said. "We shouldn't give the Greeks the Elgin Marbles, but perhaps we should give them some Constables or Turners. Turner painted of the folly of human aspirations and how civilisations crumble. It would be a fruitful thing for them to ponder."

Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

    £18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

    £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own