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Artillery Row

Are we losing control of our collections?

We need trustees who actually believe in our museums

Well, there is absolutely no excuse for being surprised. Just a week after a Ghanaian monarch received a collection of loaned artefacts from the British Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum, he’s angling to keep hold of them permanently

So far, the proposition is very civil. The loan is for three years, and the media reports that Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, traditional ruler of the Asante people, hopes that this will be sufficient time for the United Kingdom to elect a new government and change the law that currently forbids museums giving away parts of the national collection.

We must therefore hope that, in the absence of such reform, he’ll give them back. But there must be the nagging fear that we’re going to end up like Mr Burns (“Give what back?”).

Such concerns do not seem to afflict the British panjandrums overseeing the deal. Tristram Hunt, who attended the handover ceremony, went on the record as saying that he hoped the artefacts would never return to British collections: 

Initially it’s a three-year loan, maybe renewable in future, but then we could see a situation whereby the 1963 Act or the 1983 Act was reformed in future. My view is that those acts should be reformed and trustees should have responsibility for what is in their collection.

He refers to the British Museum Act 1963, which forbids it from giving away items from its collection, and the National Heritage Act 1983, which applies the same restrictions to the V&A. In the meantime, and doubtless encouraged by Hunt’s comments, the Asante palace claims that this deal is “just the beginning” of its repatriation plans, which may well involve further demands of British museums. 

There are two questions here. The first, on the overall question of whether or not historic artefacts belong in museums or their country of origin, gets fought every time the Elgin Marbles make the headlines. People can and do make perfectly cogent cases either way. 

Personally, I think there’s a strong case for maintaining well-stocked museums in global cities such as London, both in terms of the long-term security of the artefacts and of public access.

It is easier for millions of tourists to engage with these important pieces of human history at the British museum than to wrangle a global tour of far-flung private collections; a collection of bronzes “returned” by Germany last year were immediately at risk of disappearing into a private museum.

But you don’t have to agree with that reasoning to recognise that there is a second issue here: museum grandees striking deals that risk undermining the explicit will of Parliament, as set down in legislation.

Consider the extraordinary entitlement of Hunt’s belief that “trustees should have responsibility for what is in their collection”. It isn’t their collection! Collections such as those of the British Museum and the V&A belong to the nation; for that reason, it is Parliament that is their ultimate custodian, and which has set clear rules for their safekeeping.

Trustees are public appointees tasked with the day-to-day administration of these museums on behalf of the country. Unlike a private collection, neither they nor their ancestors built these collections, nor do they own them today. It is not for them to decide one way or the other whether the United Kingdom ought to own this or that historic treasure, merely to safekeep them and ensure the proper running of the museums.

Their private feelings about what the law on historic artefacts ought to be is immaterial; so long as Parliament decides to keep the law as it is, they should respect it. 

Yet loan agreements such as this are obviously an attempt to get around the rules. This is especially the case with the Elgin Marbles: does anybody seriously think that, if they go to Greece, Athens would ever agree to return them? It’s no coincidence that the people drawing up these deals all seem to oppose their museums holding on to the artefacts in question in the first place.

Perhaps Sir Keir Starmer really will update the legislation to allow our museums to ditch their collections; it’s just the sort of policy that could be offered as a sop to his progressive supporters without spending any money. Or maybe Labour will just appoint the right trustees and turn a blind eye to a string of similar “loan” agreements.

But given that the Conservatives support the law as it currently stands, the Government ought to take action. Rishi Sunak ought also to consider reforms to both the 1963 and 1983 Acts to introduce more government control over loans. 

it would be well worth having more ministerial oversight, and perhaps official rules, to ensure such loans take place between peer museums

Whilst they shouldn’t be banned outright (inter-museum loans serve a vital role in helping such institutions fulfil their purpose and exhibit their collections to global audiences), it would be well worth having more ministerial oversight, and perhaps official rules, to ensure such loans take place between peer museums, and are not a way of smuggling divestment past the legislation.

In the meantime, surely it is not beyond the wit of ministers to find trustees — who are all, as mentioned, public appointees — who actually believe in the mission of our great museums?

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