Tristram Hunt, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, has dipped a toe into some murky, and potentially treacherous, waters. At the beginning of July, a 3rd-century head of Eros (formerly in the V&A) was reunited with the sarcophagus (now in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum) from which it was detached in the 19th century and then taken by a British official in Turkey. Talking about this on Radio 4’s Today programme, Hunt suggested starting ‘a conversation’ about laws that make it difficult for UK museums to return items in their collections to their countries of origin.
The return of Eros was made possible by a ‘renewable cultural partnership’ between the V&A and the Turkish authorities, in which the head remains the property of the V&A but is on long-term loan. It has to be this way, because the National Heritage Act of 1983 prevents the trustees of national museums such as the V&A and Tate from deaccessioning items in their collections unless they are duplicates, or beyond repair. Meanwhile, the British Museum Act of 1963 forbids the BM’s trustees from disposing of items in its collection, such as the Parthenon Marbles – although Boris Johnson, who probably did not fully understand the matter, told the Greek prime minister last year that the decision was up to the trustees. Tristram Hunt deplores the ‘ping pong between government and museums’, with each blaming the other for nothing being done. His proposal, however, is very mild: hold some kind of debate next year, led by the former Conservative culture minister, Ed Vaizey.
There is undoubtedly growing scepticism about the idea of ‘universal museums’ (which just happen to be in post-imperial countries) being the guardians of all kinds of objects – many dubiously acquired – from around the world, in perpetuity. The agreement signed in Berlin on 1 July for the transfer of ownership to Nigeria of some 1,100 items – including bronzes from Benin whose looting and dispersal is described by Dan Hicks in his book The Brutish Museums – shows that where there is a will, there can be a way. In France, President Macron has seen the political advantages in co-operating over returns to former French colonies although, more recently, his enthusiasm for restitution seems to be on the wane.
Hunt’s Today interview made it clear that he thinks that decisions on deaccessioning should be a matter for the trustees of the museum holding the disputed object. But he also suggested that, as far as the V&A is concerned, things were easier when the museum was directly run by the government (through the department of education), before it became the ‘arms-length’ body (sponsored by the department of culture) as it is now. This independence came about as a result of the National Heritage Act, the very act that Hunt is calling into question.
Before 1984, when the act came into force, the V&A was not the lively place that it has since become. This is certainly an argument for the independence of museums (and their trustees) from government. But all public cultural institutions depend to a greater or lesser extent on government funds, and governments have been getting meaner and meaner since 2010. They also influence the choice of trustees. If the V&A were free to get rid of whatever it liked, what is to prevent it from selling something when times get hard, as the Royal Academy did with its Leonardo cartoon in 1962? And what would prevent an insensitive secretary of state for culture, say, from seizing the opportunities for cutting funding that this would open up? If the V&A, or Tate, or another museum were to get into trouble, all they would have to do is flog something off.
Hunt has been careful to say that he hasn’t got ‘the clear and crisp solution’ to the problem he raises. An informed discussion would certainly be useful. A first step would be to try to limit legitimate deaccessioning for the purpose of restitution only, and exclude any possibility of generating income, but my advice to him is to be careful about what he wishes for.