Museums should be free to return looted colonial artefacts, says V&A chief Tristram Hunt

The Times 2 July 2022
By David Sanderson

One of Britain’s leading museum directors has called for the government to be stripped of its power to block the return of objects looted during the colonial era.

Tristram Hunt, director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, broke ranks to demand an overhaul of legislation to ensure that museum trustees have the responsibility for deciding whether disputed items should be returned to their places of origin.

Hunt, 48, said it was time for politicians to think about how the National Heritage Act “works in the current era”, adding that there was a “strong case for updating” it.

An increasing number of restitution claims are being made against British cultural institutions, whose collections contain thousands of artefacts taken under duress or by force during the colonial period. Britain and Greece continue to dispute ownership of the Elgin Marbles, which have been in the British Museum for more than two centuries, and the V&A has received requests for the return of items from countries including Ethiopia.

Hunt said the National Heritage Act 1983, the year when some of the Britain’s national museums including the V&A stopped being departments of government, prohibited trustees from returning objects, except in limited circumstances. The British Museum Act 1963 prohibits it returning objects, although the government has disputed this and has said it is up to the museum’s trustees.

Hunt has said the 1983 act prevents trustees at the V&A and the Science Museum, among others, from deaccessioning items except in rare circumstances such as, for example, when they were damaged beyond repair.

“My view is that we are coming up to the 40th anniversary of it [the National Heritage Act] and it might be time for parliamentarians to think about how the act works in the current era,” he said. “It should be the responsibility of trustees to make the case for what should and should not be in their collections and at the moment they don’t have that right because the 1983 act means they are legally unable to do so.”

He added that it was “very difficult” for museum directors who are accused of “hiding behind legislation”. He said: “But this legislation is the rule of law and the rule of law is quite important. And if we do want this change, and I think there is a strong case for updating that act, then we have to have some political leadership to think about that.”

Yesterday the V&A announced a new “cultural partnership” with the Turkish culture ministry under which the Head of Eros, a marble statue from the 3rd century AD taken from Turkey by Britain’s military consul in Anatolia in the 1880s and given to the V&A, has been lent long-term to the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul. For more than a decade, conservation teams from London and Istanbul have been working on plans to conserve the head and reattach it to its body, carved into the museum’s Sidamara Sarcophagus. The V&A is exploring other “cultural partnerships” with countries that have asserted rights to objects in its collections.

British museums decline to confirm how many restitution claims have been made against them, but it is known that states from Africa, Oceania, Asia, Europe and South America have asserted their rightful ownership of items held in UK collections. In April Glasgow city council voted to return 17 Benin bronze artefacts looted in west Africa in the 19th century.
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