The UK has altered a restitution law while still keeping intact a requirement that museums seek government approval for international returns of artifacts.
The law, which was first rolled out in September 2022, gave more power to trustees of major national museums to return objects, granting them the ability to seek approvals for repatriations on “moral” grounds—even in cases where the museum’s own policies had previously barred them from doing so. In other cases involving less valuable objects, the law stipulated, trustees wouldn’t have to seek the UK’s charity commission’s approval at all.
The latest addition limits the amount of leeway public museums have in processing the returns of certain objects that are subject to restitution claims from other countries.
In a letter address to the UK Charity Commission’s head Orlando Fraser, filed publicly on February 2, the minister for the UK’s Arts & Heritage agency, Lord Parkinson, said the branch would “exclude” international transfers of museum objects in restitution claims from being enforced under two distinct provisions in the 2022 Charities Act.
In the notice, dated January 31, Parkinson said the government would still require museums to seek approvals in certain cases to maintain “assurance” that museum trustees have “undertaken proper due process,” in restitution claims, even for low-value items. Value levels, the law stipulates, are based on an individual charity’s income.
Parkinson expressed an aim to keep the approval process with the UK Charity commission intact, arguing the current system allows national museums and galleries to stay in line with their own policies. “Removing this oversight would not be appropriate in restitution cases,” the letter states.
At the time it was introduced, the 2022 law was considered a sign of a major change to a six-decade-old standard that restricted publicly funded institutions like the Tate and the Victoria & Albert museum from carrying out restitutions of objects to outside countries requesting them.
For decades, officials of national institutions in England and Wales have attributed those legal barriers to returning objects from their permanent collections. Among those institutions is the British Museum, which has faced increasing pressure in recent years to respond to requests from countries like Greece and Nigeria for the return of objects like the Benin Bronzes and the Parthenon Marbles.
Among UK policymakers, the process remains an ongoing concern. In the letter, Parkinson claimed that when the law was first passed, the “potential consequences” of some provisions gave trustees more power to return objects were “not made clear” and weren’t adequately debated in Parliament.