Policy | Legislation on restitution needs updating
After the return of several high-profile objects from museum collections last year, it looks as if we might be at a turning point on the question of restitution. National Museums Scotland returned a memorial pole to its place of origin in what is now British Columbia; London’s Horniman Museum agreed to return 72 objects related to the Benin Bronzes to the Nigerian authorities; and in January, Glasgow Museums became the first UK museum service to repatriate items to India.
These decisions are not taken lightly, and each museum will have gone through an ethical process of discussion, consultation and engagement with communities here and abroad. The Museums Association’s Code of Ethics and the Supporting Decolonisation in Museums guidance can provide support for these processes by encouraging a proactive approach and open dialogue.
But the process is not straightforward for some national museums in England. These museums are governed by statutory laws that legally prevent them from disposing of items from their collections, including the Parthenon Sculptures in the case of London’s British Museum.
So much has changed in the world since the National Heritage Act was introduced 40 years ago. Now is the time for a review of the legislation, to pave an ethical way forward.
Sharon Heal is the director of the Museums Association