Museums face new clamour to return 'plunder'

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British museums face fresh demands for the return of artefacts acquired in the days of the empire after adopting a new code of ethics designed to prevent the future plundering of foreign treasures.

The guidelines, to be published this week by the Museums Association, stipulate that curators should "respect the interests" of the communities from which objects of cultural value originate. And in an implicit admission of the dubious nature of some past acquisitions, it urges them to recognise that others may have a "stronger claim to certain items" than themselves.

Probably the most controversial clause addresses the question of repatriation. Museums and galleries are urged to "deal sensitively and promptly" with requests for exhibits to be returned to their countries of origin, taking into account the "interests of actual or cultural descendants" and the "strength of claimants' relationship to their items".

The introduction of the code, the first to be adopted by the association since its formation in 1889, has led to renewed calls for the British Museum to surrender two of its most disputed assets.

Greece said the document would encourage it to redouble its efforts to win back the Elgin Marbles, while a spokesman for the Nigerian government said it would now be issuing a formal request for the return of the Benin bronzes.

Maurice Davies, the association's director, said the code had been drawn up with the full backing of its members, including the British Museum, and was intended to reflect changing attitudes towards the ownership and display of cultural property. He would not comment on specific acquisition disputes, such as the Elgin Marbles. But he said: "If a museum acquired a big chunk of a temple from Greece today and the Greek government said it was smuggled out of there, or taken without their wishes, we would take action against that museum."

The code has been welcomed by UK campaigners calling for the return of the Elgin Marbles, the 56 ancient pieces of the Parthenon frieze that were shipped to Britain after being removed from the Acropolis in Athens by Lord Elgin in 1799. The Greek government has asked for a "long-term loan" of the sculptures, and is reserving a space for them in a £29m gallery being built at the foot of the Acropolis to coincide with the 2004 Olympic Games.

"This document strengthens our case, if indeed we needed to strengthen it," said Nicos Papadakis, a spokesman for the Greek Embassy in London. He added: "The Parthenon marbles are a unique case. They are not just free-standing sculptures, but were removed from the fabric of a building at the bedrock of western civilisation."

The Nigerian High Commission said the code would give greater ammunition to its battle to persuade the museum to part with the Benin bronzes, a collection of reliefs acquired by colonial forces in 1897. They were back in the news last week, after the museum admitted it had sold 30 of them in the 1950s and 1960s.

A spokesman for the British Museum said it would abide by the code in relation to future acquisitions, but did not believe it should re-open discussion about handing back parts of its existing collection.

However, asked if it would ever again attempt to acquire or retain items against the wishes of their countries of origin, he said: "Certainly not. We wouldn't countenance obtaining antiquities under those circumstances."