Past the point of no returns - Museums Association

Past the point of no returns

It could be a watershed year, following developments in several long-running disputes – despite some less-than-helpful interventions from the government

The coming year may herald a new dawn for some of the longest-running restitution disputes at England’s national museums.

The news in January that the British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) have signed a cultural partnership with Manhyia Palace Museum in Ghana to return the country’s royal regalia (see box) is a sign that changes are afoot.

There have also been significant developments in the Parthenon sculptures case – although, as ever, it hasn't all been plain sailing.

Last autumn, UK prime minister Rishi Sunak caused a minor diplomatic incident when he cancelled a meeting with the Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis at the last minute after the latter spoke to the British media about his country’s claim of ownership.

Number 10’s shock at Greece’s hitherto unsuspected stance on the marbles may have been a little disingenuous, but the row was a setback at a time when the two sides appear to be edging closer to a deal.  

At a House of Lords debate in December, Lord Parkinson said the government would issue an export licence only for a loan of up to three years for the Parthenon sculptures Trustees of the British Museum
Change of heart

Some members of the UK government also appear to have grown cold at the prospect of a resolution. At a House of Lords debate last December, the under-secretary for arts and heritage, Lord Parkinson, made clear that the government would be prepared to issue an export licence only for a loan of up to three years.

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This is something of a departure from the government’s previous position that the sculptures’ fate is a matter for the British Museum’s trustees, and not for politicians to meddle with. 

In spite of these obstacles, those involved in the discussions believe that a deal is within touching distance. The Parthenon Project is a campaign for a “win-win” deal that was launched in 2022 by the Greek plastics magnate John Lefas.

The project, which is being managed by the London PR firm Pagefield, has been responsible for some of the progress made in recent years towards resolving the dispute. 

Joshua Lambkin, a partner at Pagefield, says that in some ways, the publicity around the Downing Street row was beneficial to the Parthenon Project’s campaign, as it highlighted the extent to which the return of the sculptures is backed by the British public.

“It attracted support from corners of the debate you wouldn’t necessarily expect,” he says.

With a general election coming up, it was also helpful to clarify Labour leader Keir Starmer’s positive stance on a deal, he adds.

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The Parthenon Project’s research on public attitudes shows that returning the marbles has majority support across the political spectrum. “It absolutely cuts across that traditional culture war divide,” says Lambkin.  

Some key challenges remain before a deal can be done. While the Greek authorities are privately said to be pragmatic about compromise and amenable to the arrangement being proposed – which would involve a cultural partnership whereby the sculptures return to Athens in exchange for loans of other ancient treasures – Greece’s position has always been that it has a claim to full ownership, which the British Museum disputes.

It absolutely cuts across that traditional culture war divide

Joshua Lambkin

It will require sensitive language to make a partnership acceptable to the Greek public.   

One of the key features of the Parthenon Project is that its proposal works within current legislation and would not require a change to the British Museum Act 1963, which prohibits trustees from deaccessioning items in the museum’s collection in all but a few circumstances.

Other acts of parliament, such as the National Heritage Act 1983, restrict many of England’s national institutions in the same way.  

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More leeway

National institutions in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have slightly more leeway. Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales and National Museums Northern Ireland are not restricted by specific legislation, while National Museums Scotland is permitted to deaccession items with the formal permission of the culture secretary (see box). 

Nisga’a Nation’s memorial pole

Last year, the National Museum of Scotland became the first national institution in Scotland to permanently transfer a cultural artefact to a community of origin – prior to that, only ancestral remains had been repatriated.

The return of a 11m memorial pole to the Nisga’a Nation in Canada – termed a “rematriation” in recognition of the Indigenous society’s matrilineal structure – was an important moment for the institution as it was also the first time its procedure for considering such transfer requests had been implemented since being introduced in 2021.

“We are pleased to have transferred the memorial pole to its people and to the place where its spiritual significance is most keenly understood,” says a museum spokesperson.

“We worked closely together for over a year to bring this about and we hope that this is the first step in an ongoing relationship with colleagues from the Nisga’a Nation.”

The museum is currently considering a formal request for the return of its Benin bronze holdings under the same procedure.

The government has confirmed its support for further returns.
In January, ministers accepted the recommendations of the Empire, Slavery & Scotland’s Museums steering group, including to support “restitution and repatriation of looted or unethically acquired items in Scottish collections”.

Many in the sector feel that the time has come to review national museum legislation in England, which they say has become an obstacle to institutional autonomy.

Tristram Hunt, the director of the V&A, recently called for decisions on returns to be determined by an export committee, rather than by legislation, saying museums are “infantilised” under the current process.  

However, the government has made clear that it has no intention to revise national museum legislation.

Recently, there was a row over the Charities Act 2022 when experts at the Institute of Art and Law (IAL) concluded that provisions in it would enable national museums to dispose of items on moral grounds with permission from the Charity Commission. 

The government says this effect of the legislation was not properly debated and scrutinised when the bill passed through parliament.

Following a suspension of the provisions in question, the government confirmed in January that national museums would be specifically excluded from the legislation, though the bill will still provide non-nationals with a clearer route and greater legal certainty when it comes to restitution.

Museums Journal understands that some nationals are disappointed with the government’s stance, but there is a reluctance to comment for fear of making restitution a culture-war election issue.

Greater autonomy

Alexander Herman, the director of the IAL, says national museums would benefit from more autonomy. “A good number of museums feel there should be some sort of opening that would enable them to at least have the option,” he says.  

This would act as a diplomatic tool as much as a practical one; the fact that the nationals are currently tied is a hindrance in building relationships with communities of origin, says Herman. 

However, even without a legislative change, the nationals have more routes to return than many realise, he adds. For example, an exemption allowing for the deaccessioning of objects deemed “unfit for the collection” could be used to return Ethiopian tabots from the British Museum, where they are not permitted to be displayed or studied due to religious sensitivities.

Herman points out that export licences are not always limited to three years; since 1959, the National Gallery in London has had an arrangement with Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery that sees the late art dealer’s disputed collection split between the two institutions, with paintings exchanged every few years. 

Could a mutually beneficial cultural partnership finally resolve the Parthenon dispute? Perhaps – as long as there are no more unhelpful interventions from Number 10.

Asante royal regalia
Gold ring, Asante, Ghana, probably 19th century © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Thirty-two gold and silver treasures – described as Ghana’s crown jewels – will return to the West African country under a cultural collaboration between the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum and Manhyia Palace Museum in Kumasi.

The objects are some of hundreds looted from Kumasi by British forces during the 19th century. As part of a long-term loan commitment, the objects will be returned, under separate agreements, to the palace museum.

They will form part of an exhibition to mark the 150th anniversary of the  third Anglo-Asante war.

Ghana’s chief negotiator said he hopes the partnership will bring “a new sense of cultural co-operation” after decades of acrimony over the objects.

However, some countries with similar claims fear such loan arrangements may act as a tacit acceptance of the UK’s ownership.

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