Museums must consider returning artefacts taken during British ‘occupation’

What is right should be based on ‘today’s ethics’ and not historical ideas of morality, the guidelines suggest, and if objects have been unethically acquired, museums should consider “appropriate” solutions, including giving away items or sharing ownership.

Museum patrons who decide on the ethically valid solution to disputes include careful consideration of artifacts “originally taken in ways considered unethical today, including during war, conflict or occupation.”

Greek officials have long maintained that the Elgin Marbles were taken by Lord Elgin during a period of Turkish occupation in Athens, while Nigeria’s claim to the Benin Bronzes stems from carvings taken during a British raid in 1897.

UK law prevents the return of disputed items

These disputed works of art are held in the British Museum – along with also disputed items such as a set of holy books taken from Ethiopia – but British law prevents their return, which has caused frustration among nations seeking repatriation.

Arts Council guidelines state that “if the museum is legally prevented from alienating certain objects (i.e. removing them from the collection)” it may consider offering “results other than a transfer of legal ownership”, suggesting more loan agreements as a way around the current problems. legal restrictions that have stalled many repatriation requests.

What Arts Council England has called a “toolbox” also makes other suggestions for work within museums, including changing the labeling of potentially contentious objects to indicate their “controversial past” and the ” attitudes of those involved” in their initial take. This follows recent ‘decolonization’ work in museums which has highlighted historical racism and links to slavery.

The 34-page guidance document was released amid a growing number of high-profile requests to return cultural artefacts from the UK to their country of origin, and aims to help institutions act with “transparency , collaboration and equity”.

The document – titled Restitution and Repatriation: A Practical Guide for Museums in England – was written by the Institute of Art and Law, whose director Alexander Herman told the Telegraph: “It will serve as an indispensable guide for the museum sector, which has so far had little guidance on best practices or relevant steps to take in the face of a complaint.

“With a growing number of cases in the UK and elsewhere, now is a particularly good time for such guidance.”

The document is intended as a guide to best practices and museums will not be required to follow it.

Items subject to return disputes

Bronzes from Benin

Michael A. Bynum