Director of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, Tristram Hunt, has criticised certain UK laws that prevent museums from restituting or deaccessioning works. Hunt was appointed museum director in 2017, serving as a member of the British Parliament prior to this.
Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Hunt urged the government to revisit legislation dating from 1983. The National Heritage Act prohibits trustees in certain national museums, like the V&A, from returning objects in their collections classed as property of the museum, unless they are duplicates or irreparably damaged.
“It’s a tricky area; I have not got the clear and crisp solution to this, and there is a role for government involvement,” Hunt said. “[But] 40 years on does this piece of legislation really still hold water? There are other issues connected to it—museums hold an awful lot of material now… some of which should be disposed and we don’t have the freedom to do that.”
In light of these comments, Hunt aims to start a wider conversation about changing the act next year with the assistance of former Conservative culture minister, Ed Vaizey. There is certainly precedent for such a change, as demonstrated by the historic agreement signed recently in Berlin. The agreement will transfer ownership of more than 1,100 items in German collections to Nigeria.
“I think it shows a lot of initiative on Hunt’s part,” said Alexander Herman, the director of the Institute of Art and Law in London. “This is a conversation that needs to be had for the reasons he mentions. The need is only heightened in the post-pandemic world where national museums need to reinvent themselves, which is difficult to do with some of the antiquated restrictions in the existing legislation.”
Hunt’s remarks follow the announcement that the V&A will return a life-sized marble head of the Greek God Eros to the Turkish government, resolving a restitution issue spanning nearly 90 years. Dating to the 3rd century AD, the head was once attached to the famous Sidamara sarcophagus. After discovering the sarcophagus in 1882, the British military consul general in Anatolia removed the head, which he later loaned to the V&A. In 1934, the museum agreed to its restitution but in the end only a plaster cast was provided. The long-term loan of the object ushers in a new “cultural partnership” between the V&A and the Ministry of Culture & Tourism in Turkey.