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Stephen Fry convinces: Oxford Union votes to repatriate contested artefacts

The Oxford Union voted in favour of the motion “This House Would repatriate contested artefacts”, with 250 ayes to just 52 noes. The debate took place amid a packed chamber, with members being turned away at the door due to high demand.

Speakers in favour of the motion included Chika Okeke-Agulu, Director of African Studies at Princeton University, Steph Scholten, director of the Hunterian Museum and previous Director of Heritage Collections at the University of Amsterdam, and Sandhya Das Thuraisingham, a PPE student at Queen’s College. The proposition speaker that had attracted the crowds, however, was Stephen Fry, who was described by a member of the opposition as “nothing short of a national artefact – I mean treasure”.

The motion was opposed by Gary Vikan, Former Director of Walters Art Museum, Dominic Selwood, a historian, author, journalist, and barrister, Nadia-Angela Bekhti, a biologist at Hertford College, and Matthew Dick, a history student at Magdalen.

Union President Michael-Akolade Ayodeji opened, after which Sandhya Das Thuraisingham took the floor, introducing the speakers and reminding the audience of a very similar debate that took place nearly forty years ago when Boris Johnson (then President of the Oxford Union) argued that the British government should see the Parthenon marbles returned to Greece. 

In response, Nadia-Angela Bekhti argued that “repatriation causes a revisionist history”. To truly redress the wounds of the past, she contended, we need to move past questions of acquisition and address the issue of education. With owners of artefacts like the British Museum offering free entry, outreach and educational programmes, she claimed that it is “not a case of where these artefacts belong but where they can be of benefit to most people”.

In an argument that raised commotion from the audience, Bekhti suggested that individuals have no inalienable right to possess items that they do not own directly. Comparing the claim of the Nigerians to the Benin Bronzes to the claims of Statford-upon-Avon residents to Shakespeare’s manuscripts, she suggested that the repatriation of artefacts may not even be in the interests of those to whom they are repatriated. She said of the brutal seizure of colonial artefacts, “these wrongs cannot be made right, there are no owners when it comes to our shared history”.

Steph Scholten began his argument by rephrasing the title of the debate, suggesting that we should not be asking if artefacts should be repatriated but when. Claiming that the process of repatriation has been going on for decades, Scholten argued that the UK’s involvement in multiple international conventions, declarations, and agreements means that they are already part of this movement. Describing the injustice of holding non-western objects, particularly sacred and ritualistic ones, in western museums, he said: “museums are full of items that are valued in our western terms as objects but have deep spiritual value – we are trained only to understand their material culture.”

Above all, Scholten argued that repatriating artefacts is not a question of history, but of current geopolitical relationships: “there is an assumption that the meaning of repatriation is transactional, one off, and that it frees the nation of further obligations [but] it is a process that allows for building stronger relations.”

Dominic Selwood opened his response by stating: “Henry VIII wrote 17 letters to Anne Boleyn, some of which were pretty racy… most of them are now in the Vatican”. He claimed that the value of artefacts does not lie in their origins, but in their journey, suggesting that to repatriate artefacts would be to erase an important part of their history. He said: “the movement of cultural treasures abroad is constant… world’s highways have always run with objects in transit.”

His most divisive argument was that “the vast majority [of British-owned artefacts] were donated or purchased legitimately; Lord Elgin had permission to take the Parthenon marbles.”

Chika Okeke-Agulu’s speech was the most personal of the evening. Having been brought up in Nigeria during the civil war, he said that for his mother, “the lingering pain of that war was waking up and finding that the shrines had been systematically looted”.

Okeke-Agulu further claimed that the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property was introduced suspiciously soon after most African countries won their independence. He said, “Africans have been asking for these treasures, for these incredibly valuable artefacts, since my lifetime”, suggesting that the Convention was passed to bar newly-independent nations from requesting the return of their artefacts from European museums.

Above all, Okeke-Agulu urged the audience to pay attention to the reception of Benin artefacts that were recently returned by the French, claiming that the immensely positive response from the Nigerian people indicated “the beginnings of the revival of the people who were for so long damaged by colonialism”.

Stephen Fry took to the floor later, greeting the various members of the audience as well as the “assorted media scum” [thanks, Stephen]. He was keen to express the function of the Union itself within the repatriation debate: “You can send a message to the world, as this chamber has often done in history. It has shown where the current of thought is trending.”

Primarily, he discussed the Parthenon marbles, which he claimed were “sawn and hacked away from the frieze of that extraordinary building… These were looted and stolen and exported without licence and they need to go back.”

In response to the argument that the artefacts are being used for educational purposes in museums, he retorted: “only 1% of what the British Museum holds is on display. 99% is simply not available…What should be written on the entablature is that star phrase of Frankie Boyle, ‘Gun Beats Spear’.”

Fry told the audience that if the Parthenon marbles are finally returned, “Britain will have done something which it hasn’t done almost in my lifetime: it will have done something classy.

“There is a future in repatriation which is more than tearing it out of one museum and putting it into another… send a signal that you here in the Oxford Union are ready to embark on an exciting adventure that will only enrich everyone.”

The debate was drawn to a close by Gary Vikan, who lamented his bad luck in following Fry. He argued that there are three possible options for the repatriation of artefacts: that this debate “blows over”, that the artefacts are unilaterally given back, and that a 50/50 partnership is drawn up between the museums holding artefacts and the nations that have a national claim to them.

Forty years after Boris Johnson argued in a Union debate that the Parthenon marbles should be returned to “where they belong”, the audience of that same chamber reached the same conclusion. The only remaining question is whether the debate will need to return in another forty years’ time. 

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