Museums must consider returning artefacts taken during British ‘occupation’

·3-min read
Elgin Marbles - PA
Elgin Marbles - PA

Museums should consider returning treasures taken during periods of British “occupation”, Arts Council England has stated in new repatriation guidance.

The publicly funded body has released a new “toolkit” for handling countries demanding the return of artefacts, and urged curators to decide the “right thing to do” in restitution disputes which are becoming increasingly common.

Arts Council guidance states that museums should consider artefacts taken in an “unethical way”, including amid “conflict, occupation”, circumstances which have allowed Britain to acquire treasures like the Benin Bronzes.

While these artefacts would be blocked from being given away under current UK legislation, culture quango the Arts Council has suggested that national museums could offer alternative deals to get around these laws.

The Arts Council guidelines published on Friday state that there should be an “ethical assessment” of what to do with disputed objects, adding: “Considering a claim in accordance with ethical principles means, at its most basic level, discussing ‘the right thing to do’.”

Benin Bronzes - Alamy
Benin Bronzes - Alamy

What the right thing is should be based on “the ethics of today” and not historical ideas of morality, the guidance suggests, and if objects were acquired unethically, museums should consider “appropriate” solutions, including giving away objects or sharing ownership.

Museum bosses deciding the ethically sound solution to disputes includes giving special consideration to artefacts “originally taken in ways considered unethical today, including during war, conflict or occupation”.

Greek officials have long argued 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 the sculptures being taken during a British raid in 1897.

UK law prevents return of contested items

These contested artworks are held in the British Museum - along with similarly disputed items like a set of holy books taken from Ethiopia - but UK law prevents their return, which has led to frustration for nations pushing for repatriation.

Arts Council guidance states that “if the museum is legally prevented from deaccessioning certain items (i.e removing them from the collection)” , it may consider offering “outcomes other than a transfer of legal ownership”, suggesting more loan deals as a way around current legal restrictions which have led to an impasse for many repatriation claims.

What Arts Council England have called a “toolkit” also makes other suggestions for work within museums, including changing labelling on potentially contentious objects to state their “controversial past” and the “attitudes of those involved” in originally taking them. This follows recent “decolonisation” work in museums which has highlighted historical racism and links to slavery.

The 34-page guidance document has been published amid an increasing number of high-profile demands for cultural artefacts to be returned from the UK to their countries of origin, and is aimed at helping institutions act with “transparency, collaboration and fairness”.

The document - titled Restitution and Repatriation: A Practical Guide for Museums in England - was drawn up by the Institute of Art and Law, whose director Alexander Herman told The Telegraph: “This will serve as much-needed guidance for the museum sector, which until now has had little indication of best practice or the relevant steps to take when faced with a claim.

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

The document is intended as a guide to best practice, and museums will not be bound to follow it.

Items facing restitution disputes

Benin Bronzes

Benin bronzes
Benin bronzes

Royal artworks of the Kingdom of Benin taken by British troops in 1897, claimed by Nigeria. Held in the British Museum.

Mahdi armour

Protective gear worn by Mahdi Muslim soldier at Battle of Omdurman, taken in 1898 and held at Royal Amouries, claimed by Sudan.

Elgin Marbles

Elgin marbles
Elgin marbles

Ancient Greek sculptures taken from Turkish-controlled Athens in the early 19th-century, claimed by Greece. Held in the British Museum.

Maqdala treasures

Maqdala treasures
Maqdala treasures

Royal hoard taken from Maqdala fortress in what was then Abyssinia in 1868, claimed by Ethiopia. Held in the V&A.

Ethiopian tabots

Orthodox holy books taken from Maqdala in 1868, claimed by Ethiopia. Held in the British Museum.

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