BBC Radio 4's Analysis: Who Owns Culture? was broadcast on Thursday, 29 July, 2004 at 20:30 BST.
Whose marbles are they anyway?
Museums used to be dusty repositories of arcane artefacts. Today, as culture increasingly acquires a political dimension, they are fast becoming the sources of political controversy and debate.
Most British museums are Victorian institutions and much of their collection is the product of Empire. Now, in our postcolonial age, there is a growing demand for many of the objects, from Aboriginal skulls to the Elgin Marbles, to be 'repatriated'.
The question of Human Remains has proved most controversial, with a fierce debate between scientists who want to study them and indigenous groups who want to bury them.
The Human Remains Working Group, appointed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, recently recommended a change in the law to allow museums to release human remains. It recommended, too that all institutions holding remains must be licensed by the Human Tissue Authority and that a panel of 'independent experts' be appointed to oversee disputes. A Government Consultation Paper on this issue is imminent.
Equally controversial are new proposals by UNESCO to extend intellectual property rights to traditional cultural forms including symbols, motifs and artefacts but also songs, stories, dance and even the use of indigenous words or names. For example, the Maoris recently objected to the use of Maori words for a line of toys by the Lego Company and as a result Lego agreed to cease that practice.
All this takes place against the background of a wider discussion of what museums are for in the 21st century.
Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell argued in a recent essay that art was important for its own sake but also " in defining and preserving our cultural identity- of the individual, of communities, and of the nation as a whole". Current government policy is to look to museums and other cultural institutions to further the project of social inclusion. Public funding for museums and galleries, for instance, is now partly based on their ability to attract minority groups.
Kenan Malik examines the arguments for and against 'repatriation' on the basis of tribal or other affiliation and asks whether a growing emphasis on cultural identity over scientific rationality and universal knowledge endangers the very raison d'etre of institutions like the British Museum as defined by its Director, Neil MacGregor: " A collection that embraces the whole world allows you to consider the whole world."
Contributors include: Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, Jack Lohman, Director of the Museum of London, Norman Palmer, Chair of the Working Party on Human Remains, Robert Foley, Professor of Human Evolution and anthropologists Michael Brown and Adam Kuper.
Presenter: Kenan Malik
Producer: Ingrid Hassler
Editor: Nicola Meyrick