Culture secretary rules out restitution from national museums

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 25.04.2019
Jeremy Wright says focus should be on collaboration and long-term loans
The UK culture secretary Jeremy Wright has ruled out returning objects held in national museums to their countries of origin.

Wright made his first public comments on the issue in an interview with The Times this week, telling the newspaper that if you “followed the logic of restitution to its logical conclusion”, there would be no “single points where people can see multiple things”.  

The culture secretary, who has been in the role since last July, ruled out introducing legislation that would enable permanent restitution from national institutions, saying that discussions with other nations should focus on “cultural cooperation” and long-term loans.

At present, many national collections are prohibited by law from deaccessioning objects, with some exceptions for items such as duplicates, damaged items, human tissue and items spoliated by the Nazis. 

The issue of restitution has been in the media spotlight since a report commissioned by France’s president Macron last year argued in favour of the permanent return of colonial-era items taken from sub-Saharan African countries. In recent years, several countries, including Greece, Nigeria and Ethiopia, have made high profile requests for the return of artefacts held in British collections. 

Wright told the Times: “Never mind the argument about who owns this thing, let’s argue about how it gets to be seen… There is a huge cultural benefit to the world in having places in the world where people can see these things together.”

The Museums Association’s (MA) director, Sharon Heal, responded to Wright’s comments in a blog this week, writing: “Just saying ‘no’ is a blunt message to deliver to those seeking information about their cultural heritage, which has often ended up in UK museums through looting, forced trading or simply because the balance of power was skewed so heavily towards imperial authority.”

The MA code of ethics urges museums to be proactive in developing relationships with source communities and to respond promptly and sensitively to repatriation claims. 

Update
25.04.2019

Updated to give more clarity on deaccessioning from national museums.

Comments

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Anonymous
04.05.2019, 07:54
“Never mind the argument about who owns this thing, let’s argue about how it gets to be seen"

The staunch advocate of property right declares that 'what's mine is mine and what's yours is mine as well.'
26.04.2019, 11:19
And exactly who is going to pay the costs of long term loans and cultural cooperation - the communities from whom the stuff was taken? Hmmm..
25.04.2019, 15:38
"At present, national collections are prohibited by law from deaccessioning items, with exceptions for human tissue and items spoliated by the Nazis."

This statement is not true of all national collections - many national museums can and do responsibly deaccession objects, for a variety of reasons.

A very disappointing lack of nuance and awareness from our Culture Secretary. The world is changing and museums must face up to repatriation claims responsibly - return cannot be off the table if we truly want to collaborate.
25.04.2019, 15:15
As Sharon suggests, it’s a disappointing, narrow minded, little England response. There are many examples where returning things from museum collections has led to valuable partnerships, renewed collecting and research, richer narratives and increased audience interest. As in so many things, in its international cultural politics England is slipping behind other Western nations such as Germany, France and the USA. It’s sad that so much of the English establishment seems to wish we were still in the 19th century.