UK politician says ‘liberal progressives’ running museums must resist restitution

The Art Newspaper 8 April 2024
By Gareth Harris

Conservative Robert Jenrick argues that proposed long term loans of disputed works is a legal fabrication

A UK member of parliament and former minister says that curators at some of the country’s national museums are intent on “denuding” collections, adding that UK institutions must be rescued from “liberal elites” intent on returning objects to their native countries.

Writing in The Telegraph, Robert Jenrick, the Conservative MP for Newark, says: “The call for restitution of artefacts is wider than one institution. Instead of conserving their collections, today’s curators appear intent on denuding them. To the liberal progressives running many museums, it is unfashionable and career limiting not to do so.

“Some of the works, like the Elgin [Parthenon] Marbles, would not have survived had they remained in situ. The UK is world class at displaying them, unlike many of those seeking return. It is a slippery slope. One unpicking inevitably opens the floodgates with a precedent now set.”

Jenrick says he is responding to a previous report which stated that the British Museum is holding private talks with four foreign governments about the possible return of items in its collection. Since 2015, the museum has received 12 formal requests for artefacts. The Telegraph says that four of these were made by foreign governments through “confidential diplomatic channels” (the four items are undisclosed).

Items formally requested for return, which continue to garner media attention, include the Benin Bronzes which have become a touchstone to test European museums’ readiness to restitute heritage looted from Africa during the colonial era. The British Museum has one of the largest collections of Benin bronzes in the world, with more than 900 pieces, but it is prohibited from removing items from its collection under the British Museum Act of 1963.

Earlier this year, the British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum jointly signed a loan agreement with Ghana to return gold regalia that was looted during military operations in the 19th century. Both museums are legally unable to deaccession under different government laws so the objects are being returned as long-term loans.

A British Museum spokesman told The Telegraph: “The British Museum is not in negotiations with anyone about restituting items from the collection, not least because the BM Act prevents us from any such discussions. With regards to Greece, we have been clear our ambition is for a reciprocal loan whereby Greek treasures would be on display here in return.”

But the idea of loaning items long term is heavily criticised by Jenrick who writes: “The published minutes of the [British Museum] board tell us less about their plans than parish council minutes would of changes to verge cutting. We do know, however, that it is negotiating the long term loan of its most celebrated objects, the Elgin Marbles.

“Long term loan is a legal fiction constructed to circumvent the museum’s statutory duty to maintain its collection. There is surely no realistic prospect of the marbles returning from Greece should they ever be sent there. Parliament, like the nation, is being treated like a fool.”

Earlier this year, Alexander Herman, the director of the UK-based Institute of Art and Law, wrote in The Art Newspaper that “seeking a fair resolution on the marbles can hardly be said to open the floodgates”, criticising the arguments coming from those resisting the return of the marbles to Greece.

“Any deal negotiated on the marbles would be case-specific, involving a series of loans or similar transfers that would stay within the terms of the British Museum Act 1963. It would hardly inspire a free-for-all,” he wrote.

Robert Jenrick courted controversy last summer when as immigration minister when he ordered Home Office staff to destroy murals designed to create a welcoming atmosphere at a UK detention centre. In January 2021, the “Retain and explain” policy was first mooted by Jenrick when he was the communities secretary when the government proposed “new laws to protect England’s cultural and historic heritage”. 

According to the UK government website, Jenrick held several senior financial roles at Christie’s, including International managing director, prior to being elected to Parliament in 2014.
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