Legislation that prevents some national museums from deaccessioning objects should be overhauled, Victoria & Albert Museum director Tristram Hunt has said.
Now approaching its 40th anniversary, the National Heritage Act 1983 established the V&A, Science Museum and several other cultural institutions as non-departmental public bodies governed by boards of trustees. However, the legislation removed the museums’ responsibility for decisions about deaccessioning and disposal and put this in the hands of the government.
At present, trustees of the institutions covered by the act are unable to deaccession objects from their collections unless they are duplicates or irreversibly damaged.
Speaking to Radio 4’s Today programme, Hunt said: “My view is that we are coming up to the 40th anniversary of [the National Heritage Act] and it might be time for parliamentarians to think about how the act works in the current era. 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.”
Hunt said there is a “ping pong between governments and museums which I think everyone finds slightly unsatisfactory at the moment”.
The legislation has been a barrier to discussions around the restitution of cultural artefacts in the V&A's collection, such as the Benin bronzes and Maqdala treasures, which were looted from Nigeria and Ethiopia respectively during the 19th century.
Hunt told Radio 4 that he aimed to start a conversation about the act next year and suggested that former Conservative culture minister Ed Vaizey could lead the re-evaluation.
Hunt was speaking to the programme about the V&A’s announcement of a renewed cultural partnership with the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
The partnership has facilitated the return of the missing Head of Eros, a life-sized marble carving dating back to the 3rd century AD, to Türkiye to be reattached to the Sidamara sarcophagus in Istanbul. The detached head was brought to Britain in the late 19th century. In June a team from the V&A flew to Istanbul with the item, which has now been reattached to the sarcophagus.
Hunt’s comments come as discussions about restitution gather pace in both the UK and abroad. There are growing calls within parliament for the Parthenon marbles to be returned from the British Museum to Greece, with six MPs and peers recently adding their voices to the campaign to repatriate the objects.
British Museum chair George Osborne said in June that there was “a deal to be done where we can tell both stories in Athens and in London”. However, the British Museum has said it “firmly believes” the Parthenon sculptures belong in London, where they “speak to the history of the world, and to millions of visitors from across the globe”.
Meanwhile, Germany and Nigeria signed an accord this week to unconditionally transfer around 1,130 objects held in German museums back into Nigerian ownership. Nigeria’s culture minister Lai Mohammed has described the agreement as “the single largest known repatriation of artefacts in the world”.