Question for Short Debate
My Lords, it is obviously time to get cracking. We have only one hour, but we have a stellar cast of Peers here to debate this important issue, including the first major speech by my noble friend Lord Parkinson since he was so cruelly ejected by this temporary Government.
It is hard to believe that 40 years ago some of our greatest museums were simply adjuncts of government departments—much as I admire government departments. The V&A was actually a section of the Department of Education and Science, as was the Science Museum; the Royal Armouries was part of the Department of the Environment; and Kew Gardens was part of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Heritage Act 1983 did a great thing and set them free, following the model of many other Acts which had put in place the governance of our national museums, including the famous British Museum Act 1963 and many others before. The Heritage Act meant, effectively, that the micromanagement of museums by government departments was to become a thing of the past, and that our museums would become broadly autonomous, steered in all their complexity by engaged directors and trustees—which reminds me that I have to declare my interests. I am a trustee of Tate, and I was appointed today as chairman of the Parthenon Project, for which I am not paid, which is a campaign to return the Parthenon sculptures to the Parthenon. I am sure that I have lots of other interests that encroach, but those are the two that spring to mind immediately.
This approach of making our museums as autonomous as possible has been an unequivocal success. As people know, UK museums are some of the most popular in the world, with 50 million people visiting DCMS-sponsored museums. The British Museum, Tate Modern, the Natural History Museum and the V&A are in the top 10 most popular art museums in the world. We have the best of both worlds: we do not micromanage our institutions, as do the French, and we do not simply leave them to the whims of wealthy benefactors, as to a certain extent our American cousins do.
With the 40th anniversary of the Act falling next year, there is now a chance to reflect on the remaining restrictions that still bind some of our museums. I am talking in particular about the disposal of objects in a museum’s collection. In the 1980s, it was quite right for the Government to impose these kinds of restrictions, just as they were establishing freedom for national museums. That has been very successful. The collections in our museums, which are for research as well as display, are unrivalled by institutions all over the world.
But in the last few years, the debate has moved on to include a sophisticated and important debate about restitution: how cultural objects were acquired and where they might ultimately reside. It has moved on also because, even going back to a time as recent as the 1980s, the ability to travel around the world to look at objects and the ability to study objects through technology have leapt on exponentially.
We need to debate whether the Act still works for what we need today. In 1983, what was not accounted for or considered were restitution requests and the idea that trustees might want, to put it bluntly, to do the right thing and return artefacts to their place of origin.
Things are beginning to move and the museums that do not have restrictions are able to make these decisions. This week alone, the Smithsonian museum decided to return 29 Benin bronzes, taken from Nigeria during the 1897 British raid on Benin City, to the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria. Nigeria has also made a restitution agreement with Germany that included the handover of two Benin bronzes. Oxford and Cambridge Universities have agreed to repatriate more than 200 Benin bronze items, and the University of Aberdeen has already returned two bronzes—the first British university to do so. The Horniman Museum has agreed to return 72 objects. Glasgow City Council has returned Benin bronzes and the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter has returned some sacred regalia to the Siksika Nation in Alberta. Many museums, if they are not restricted in the way our national museums are, are getting ahead of the game and leaning into this issue.
Let me show you an anomaly that exists today. The V&A has the “Head of Eros”. The British military consul in Anatolia, Charles Wilson, took it from a Roman sarcophagus in 1879 and loaned it to the V&A. It was then gifted to the V&A by his daughter, but Wilson himself had expressed the wish that the head be returned to whoever ended up caring for the sarcophagus. As long ago as 1934, the V&A tried to return it to the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. It has taken almost a century to physically return it, but it was returned in 2021—but of course as a loan rather than a transfer of ownership. And of course, the Parthenon sculptures have been endlessly debated for the last 200 years. I am not going to get into that in my opening remarks.
The stalemate of the Parthenon marbles is nevertheless a useful issue to look at. If your view is simply binary, either you own them and keep them or you do not own them. The debate around returning artefacts is complex, but it is hard to argue that the “retain and explain” policy on contested heritage that the previous Government put in place has been a success. That policy involved writing to museums, galleries and arm’s-length bodies, even those outside the 1983 Act, advising them not to remove contested heritage from their collections. This was effectively a backwards step on the independence and scholarship of directors and trustees.
One question that is frequently asked when one discusses this issue is whether one will go from one extreme to another, from not giving back any object back to giving back everything so that museum shelves and display cases are stripped clear. That will not be the case. The V&A, which holds more than 2.7 million items in its collections, has received a total of nine restitution cases since 1999. The Spoliation Advisory Panel, which returns Nazi-looted art and is a good example of where the Government stepped up to do the right thing, has returned only 22 objects. I think the Spoliation panel and the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art, where we ourselves say an object is part of our cultural identity and should not leave our shores, are very good models for the Government to follow, should they wish to amend these Acts and put in place a new procedure. One is not—without wishing to contradict myself in my own speech—saying that the trustees would simply have carte blanche to return an object. There would be a reviewing mechanism. It could be an independent body, such as the Reviewing Committee for the Export of Works of Art, which would simply give a view on whether this was a wise disposal.
We know there is much talk about a supposed loophole that has appeared in the Charities Act 2022 to allow museums to make a moral disposal but, even under that, it would require an application to the Attorney-General and the agreement of the Charity Commission. The Horniman Museum’s decision to return the Benin bronzes was still subject, in effect, to approval by the Charity Commission; there will, therefore, always be a backstop to allow a director or a board of trustees to think again about a decision.
In these opening remarks, I simply ask the Minister to consider how times have changed. Our world-class national museums are run by world-class directors and curators. The debate on the provenance of objects and their location has become much more sophisticated, technology has changed and travel has changed. We in this House can have a mature debate about that. The Minister has a perfect opportunity, particularly with the debate about the Charities Act loophole and as we celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Mendoza review into national museums’ policy—which certainly needs to be updated and its implementation reviewed—to take a holistic view of our national museums in the 21st century and to put on the table the opportunity to give our museums and their directors and trustees greater freedom to dispose of or to return objects of questionable provenance to their rightful owners or location.
My Lords, on my travels in the Middle East, I once stayed at a very palatial British ambassador’s residence. I said to him, “This really is splendid, when did we acquire this?” He said, “Oh, the local ruler so admired Queen Victoria that he gave it us in perpetuity, in token of his admiration of the Queen”. One has to remember that when we were a great empire, we acquired many gifts in the same way as the mafia captains of Chicago retained tribute. It was to show admiration for the empire.
It seems a little bit absurd—I am glad that in the noble Lord’s introduction he noted that this is not a debate about the Parthenon or the Elgin marbles—that we get it down, as the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, explained to me, by the restrictions of this Act or that Act, or whether we still have the bill of sale that Lord Elgin allegedly had, when we are talking about an agreement between two empires that no longer exist. This debate must be about how we manage our museums in the 21st century, in recognition of the changes that have taken place in the world—all kinds of things about national pride, the national view of who we are and where we are in the world.
I come to my last point. In my personal view, we would have far more national pride and esteem in witnessing King Charles in Athens returning the Parthenon marbles than if we spent several more years arguing the small print of a deal. Real national pride is doing the right thing. It is typical of the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, that he should initiate a debate and then have a press release on the BBC announcing yet another medal on his chest, like one of those Soviet generals for a new campaign. The press release makes one very interesting point. In an opinion poll asking whether the marbles should be returned, the overwhelming answer was yes. On the question of why, the answer was because they belong in Athens. You would be surprised how sensible the man on the Clapham omnibus is about this issue, compared with government lawyers.
The problem is that, while a Royal Commission might be a good way of doing this, as Harold Wilson famously said, they take minutes and last for years. A government draft Bill with pre-legislative scrutiny could do some of the same work. But let us not have this debate as part of the culture wars—let us have a real, rational and sensible debate on what we need to keep and protect and what we should return.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, for initiating this debate and I also congratulate him on his chairmanship of the Parthenon Project. That is of course the brainchild of Mr John Lefas, who has donated something like £10 million to it. Apparently, his wealth comes from manufacturing plastics. The noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, says that he is confident that a deal is within reach—that was the report in today’s papers—and that support for “reunification” of the sculptures in Athens from the public, and in particular from Conservative-leaning voters, is clear. Later today, in a BBC interview, the noble Lord also told us that perhaps a deal might have to be a fudge. In a few hours today, we can see how his faith may be regarded. The combination of money from plastics—as if we do not know enough about polluting the climate—the advocacy of a “fudge”, which is terrible for our health, and finally calling in support Conservative-leaning voters might go down rather badly with the rest of the country. Maybe he should start afresh.
Let me consider what happens when the general principle of returning or the restitution of pieces of art is in place. The noble Lord has mentioned the Benin bronzes; they are a good example, because he is quite right that the museum is all over bending over backwards to return them to Nigeria, or what they think is Nigeria. I commend all those who wish to understand those arguments—and those arguments are related to these arguments—to read the Atlantic. David Frum’s article, “Who Benefits When Western Museums Return Looted Art?”, powerfully sets out the pitfalls here.
There are three sets of interests—the Benin Dialogue Group, the Oba of Benin and the Nigerian federal Government—who see themselves as the sole decision-maker in claims of heritage to the Benin kingdom. The Oba of Benin has announced that he is the legitimate owner and custodian, and the Benin Dialogue Group, which has morphed into something called the Legacy Restoration Trust, wishes to establish a museum in the interests of others, but mainly through raising philanthropic donations from millionaires. It would own the objects, were they to go to it.
This comes against the backdrop of previous attempts. In September 2020, Oliver Dowden, the former Culture Secretary, said in a letter to museums and galleries:
“History is ridden with moral complexity.”
This goes to the heart of the fundamental question. Should history be unwound? Can it be unwound? A standard that art should belong to the present-day Government of the place where the art was created centuries ago does not feel right, especially when those taking decisions to deprive their own populations do so in the mistaken belief that returning art somehow atones for the brutalities and injuries of the past. It takes more than the return of a few physical objects to express a genuine sense of regret for, by today’s standards, injustices of the past committed under different norms.
I suggest that we think hard about this but that public opinion should not be the mere determinant. The trustees of museums have an obligation to behave responsibly, and the Act rightly directs them to do so.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to welcome my noble friend Lord Kamall to his new role. I am in the happy position of being able to say that I know he will both enjoy and excel at it. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Vaizey of Didcot on securing this debate and so successfully trailing it in today’s Times, in the weekend’s Sunday Times, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, on his Twitter feed, on the BBC and in our Spectator panel at the Conservative Party conference earlier this month—possibly also on his new Times Radio show, but I have not yet had the pleasure of listening to that.
It is a debate well worth having, and an issue I have particularly enjoyed discussing over the last 12 months with the excellent professionals who work in our museums and galleries, including those involved in informing the practical guide on restitution and repatriation published by Arts Council England this summer, the first for 20 years. As I have said in your Lordships’ House before, both the National Heritage Act and I turn 40 next year. It is a good rule of thumb that Acts of Parliament should be reviewed when the Ministers responsible for them are the same age, but I am not convinced, from the discussions I had when I and the Act were both 39, that there is presently a case for change.
Some perspective is needed. There are more than 2,000 museums in England alone, and the Act we are debating today covers just three—albeit they are now groups of museums—not including the British Museum. With a handful of other exceptions, such as through the 1963 Act, all other museums in the country are free to take decisions about their collections within the confines of their own statutes and charity law. I know from my discussions with museums’ directors and trustees how carefully and thoughtfully they approach questions of repatriation and restitution. These questions are a vital part of the unending process of historical inquiry. How did this object come to be here? How have it and the people who made it been treated down the generations? Whose voice is missing from the conversation we are having about it? There are often complicated or uncomfortable truths to confront in all directions through this historical inquiry. Ensuring that people have the opportunity to do that, and to reach their own conclusions, is in many ways more important than where they get to do it.
Just as it is bad history to sweep under the carpet past actions that make us feel uncomfortable, it is bad history to create new myths of wickedness or virtue. We have to seek to understand the past in all its complexity. At their best, our museums help us to do that—but there are constant pressures on them to boil down that complexity and let present morals intrude on the past. But morals, just like politics and fashion, have changed over time and will continue to change in generations to come. That is why I believe there is still a strong case to be made for universal collections that bring together items that give us a range of insights into our shared human experience across the globe and across the generations, and for sheltering them from short-term political pressures.
Our national museums take their responsibilities very seriously, sharing and exchanging not just the items in their collections but perspectives and scholarship on them, supporting the development of museums around the world and using digital technology to share their collections with global audiences. We saw just last week the advantage of having dispersed collections of our shared human heritage: a wildfire on Easter Island caused terrible damage to the Moai sculptures at that UNESCO world heritage site. It is possible that the fire was started deliberately—an unthinkable thing—but, whatever its cause, it is a reminder of the vulnerability of our universal heritage and, to me at least, it is a cause for relief that two are at the British Museum, as are some 20 in other museums around the world.
I have a question in closing. My noble friend Lord Vaizey asked about the Charities Act loophole. Has my noble friend the Minister seen the opinion by the Institute of Art and Law about recent changes to the Charities Act, specifically to Section 106 on ex gratia payments? The institute suggests that this could make it easier for museums, including national ones, to dispose of items in their collections without seeking permission from the Charity Commission. The recent Charities Act was a Law Commission Bill that was not designed to make significant policy changes in contentious areas. It was carefully scrutinised by a special Public Bill Committee chaired by a former Master of the Rolls in your Lordships’ House. Has the Minister seen the opinion and do the Government have a view on it?
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson. I think he has aged rather better than the Act.
This is a timely and important debate. This very week, a team from Cambodia is here visiting the British Museum and other collections to try to retrieve and get returned artefacts looted from their country during and after the Vietnam War. These objects—statues and monuments—are works not only of aesthetic value but of a huge spiritual, religious and personal significance that we can only try to imagine. Members of the team include the Cambodian Cultural Minister, the Cambodian ambassador and the distinguished stonemason and restorer Simon Warrack, who has worked on the rose window at Canterbury Cathedral, the Trevi Fountain in Rome and the monument at Angkor Wat. He explained to me that, as Tristram Hunt has pointed out, they can convince museums of the moral imperative for returning items but very often then be stymied by the 1983 Act.
As we have heard, at the heart of these deliberations lie profound philosophical and moral dilemmas. Should time be a consideration in these deliberations? Is there a difference between items taken in living memory from Cambodia or, for example, the Elgin marbles, brought to this country in the early part of the 19th century? I want to diverge a bit here just to colour this aspect of human involvement and influence. The descendants of Admiral Byng, outrageously tried and executed for a decision that was ludicrously described as cowardice, have long campaigned to get him exonerated. I tried to help them and discuss the case with our colleague, the noble Lord, Lord West. He was very sympathetic and declared Byng’s trial and execution a travesty of justice, but felt that the passage of time made it more difficult. This is relevant because, as with the Cambodians, that answer does nothing to help the feelings, the deep hurt, of Byng’s family descendants—and who in this Room would not want to clear the name of their ancestor?
I address this last point to the Minister. I suggest that if the Government believe that the chair and trustees of the V&A, for example, are responsible enough to be appointed, then surely they should be considered responsible enough to make decisions on the return of objects unfettered by the National Heritage Act 1983.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, for securing this debate, which has predictably been very interesting and enjoyable. In the previous debate, secured by my noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Weardale, defined corruption as being about the misuse of entrusted power. Of course, colonial power was not entrusted by those who were colonised to us—the powers—but was imposed on people at the point of a gun, bayonet or a gunboat. This is how we come to have the kind of objects that we are talking about.
It is sometimes a very direct and clear case of theft, even under the laws of the time, but there are much broader issues as well about all the objects from colonial backgrounds in our museums. I am reminded of the fact that the first time I went to the Foreign Office and looked around at the glorious surroundings, I thought “Ah, this is where the wealth of India went”. It was a little simplistic, but you get the idea.
I should make a personal statement here. I come from a white settler background in Australia, and grew up on land that was stolen from the Wallumettagal people. I acknowledge that I benefited from that. Perhaps influenced by that background, unsurprisingly I would go further than the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey: it would be a step forward to empower trustees and directors to make decisions, but here there is a moral responsibility for the British Government to make decisions about these objects, which were often stolen in their name. The noble Lord set out what is happening in Belgium, Germany, France and many other places and in institutions in the UK where we are seeing those returns.
The moral case here is overwhelming. The noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, referred to short-term political pressures, but basic morality is not subject to short-term pressures. If something was stolen, you give it back; that is a universal, long-term value. I make a practical point, too, about the geopolitics of today. If we look at the global view of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in most of the global north there is a clear understanding that Russia is in the wrong and Ukraine has been attacked. If we look at the global south, particularly among the public in the global south, the view is not nearly so clear. A lot of that comes from a kind of distrust of the global north—countries such as the UK—and the long-term impacts they feel about being victimised for so long.
On that point, I will finish by referring to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine. She said that history cannot be unwound and that it would take more than returning these objects to undo the damages of the past. I absolutely agree with her on that. Loss and damage in the global climate talks is a related and much larger issue in scale, but this would at least be a start of us doing the right thing. In terms of global politics, making restitution for some of the damage we have done in the past would take us in the right direction.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, for his comprehensive introduction to this debate. I am very much in favour of looking at this legislation, but with certain caveats. I wonder whether a more top-down approach is required, as has been suggested and is happening in other European countries.
It is clear to me that it is absolutely right that certain artefacts should be returned to their country of origin, or at least something close to it, and the Horniman Museum, for one, has made the correct decision with regard to the Benin bronzes in its collection, but it is important that if legislation is to be changed, those changes should be restricted to the question of restitution only. We really have to make that point.
In this respect, I am mindful of the concerns expressed by Robert Hewison in the Apollo piece referred to in the excellent Library note we have on this debate. It would be hugely worrying if legislative changes made deaccessioning in the more general sense easier, for all the many reasons that deaccessioning is such a fraught area. It is so much influenced by personal whim, faddishness, misguided ideas about tidying up a collection and, of course, funding concerns. Restitution is a separate issue, and that needs to be clearly understood. It would thus be helpful if the Minister could outline where we currently stand legislation-wise with regard to these concerns. As has been mentioned, it is about not just the National Heritage Act but the British Museum Act 1963 and the Charities Act 2022 as well. That would be helpful.
When we raise these concerns in the House, we are repeatedly told by the Government that it is up to individual museums to make decisions about their collections even if, as in the cases of the BM and the V&A, their hands are very much tied. We have reached the stage, in the words of Tristram Hunt, of there being a ping-pong between central government and museums that really needs to stop.
This is also a government stance in stark contrast to that of other countries, including Germany and France. President Macron has made it very much a personal mission to return ownership of many African artefacts, notably from the Kingdom of Dahomey to the country of Benin—not the same Benin as of the Benin bronzes, which come from an area in present-day Nigeria. This top-down approach, which in effect is a national policy, allows such restitution to be seen very much as an opportunity for dialogue and co-operation between countries. In this case, French money is being put into the building of a museum, meaning that the work is returned to a safe environment, there is training of curators and much more besides. To be fair, of course we have our own significant museum-run programmes, and I am very grateful to the British Museum for furnishing me with details on those, which include work in Benin City on the site of the royal palace we destroyed in 1897.
None of this of course makes up for the original looting of such objects or indeed the accompanying destruction, sometimes of a whole nation and culture, something which Russia is now attempting in Ukraine. It does, however, acknowledge the reality of a shared history for those artefacts, and that has huge importance in itself. France is proving that an exchange in ownership is no bar to co-operation. I believe that our Government should spell this out as an opportunity for co-operation rather than continuing contestation, which is currently the Government’s default mode in too many areas. I believe that the word “contested” should become an obsolete term. It is certainly clear from the latest YouGov poll on the Parthenon sculptures that public opinion has moved way ahead of the Government on that issue, with 59% in favour of return and only 18% against. The ball is very much in the Government’s court.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of the Museum of the Home.
In 2019, Manchester Museum returned 43 sacred and ceremonial objects, including human remains and a ceremonial dress made from emu feathers, to their communities of origin, four aboriginal peoples in Australia. It is the first museum in Europe to have returned sacred remains. This has resulted in a cultural revitalisation between the museum and these indigenous communities of origin. They have a very different view of the significance of these objects. For them, they do not just have physical properties but spiritual ones. This new knowledge has allowed the museum to reinterpret its remaining objects, so that they reflect not just how western curators might see them but also the values given to them by their creators.
The resulting equitable relationship has produced great benefits, not just for British audiences but for indigenous peoples in Australia. The Noongar people of western Australia wanted to replant a forest of indigenous trees, in keeping with their deep spiritual connection with the land, but such was the extent of the deforestation there were no seedlings available in Australia. However, Manchester Museum’s botanical collection had continued to propagate these trees. Their seeds have now been returned to Australia, where they are creating a vital link between the indigenous people and their land. This must be a shining example of how repatriation of objects can be a huge win for all humanity.
Manchester is fortunate. It is a university museum which, as the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, says, lies outside the purview of the British Museum and National Heritage Acts, which, as other noble Lords have mentioned, tie the hands of national museum trustees and curators when deciding about disposal of objects. What is interesting from the Manchester example is that it has proved wrong the purveyors of the “slippery slope” argument. When the 43 objects were returned in 2019, there was a huge publicity campaign around the move. The museum was unafraid that other communities of origin would be encouraged to initiate mass claims on the thousands of objects of foreign origin in the museum’s collection. The director, Professor Esme Ward, told me she had not had one single claim for the return of objects.
Instead of tying the hands of our national museums behind their backs with these Acts, the Government need to support trustees and allow them to make their own decisions about the acquisition and disposal of objects. I echo the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, when I say that the trustees in most of these institutions are already publicly appointed and even vetted. Surely they should be the arbiters of these policies. The noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, during his much-admired term as Museums Minister was respected for visiting and listening to museum boards and their directors when they were wrestling with difficult decisions in the culture wars. I look forward to his successor, the noble Lord, Lord Kamall, being equally willing to support the sector as it recovers from the closures and lack of audiences of the Covid years and moves into a brave new world.
Any change in the Acts must be with a view to creating a new environment in which great museum objects can be seen as belonging to humanity. We can all learn from combined research and easy exchange of objects. I hope this mood will allow for the suggestions by Jonathan Williams, the deputy director of the BM, who in August said:
“What we are calling for is an active ‘Parthenon partnership’ with our friends and colleagues in Greece. I firmly believe there is space for a really dynamic and positive conversation within which new ways of working together can be found.”
Recent reports say that the British Prime Minister has refused to countenance such an agreement.
The British and Greek Governments both seem to support nationalist arguments that have created stalemate between our countries. I call on them to back off and allow our great institutions to work out for themselves how these extraordinary objects can be shared to the benefit of us all.
The Government keep telling us that they want to create a global Britain. The success of our creative industries has shown that this country is able to hit above its weight in the world. Now we must empower our museums to become Britain’s cultural embassies—centres of soft power for the modern, tolerant, cultured and informed society we want to project to the world.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, on securing the debate and a dollop of publicity around it as well. It is a rare thing that debates in the Lords generate so much interest, but it is a good thing too. It is very nice to see the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, here after his excellent stint as our Arts Minister.
I ought to declare an interest or two: I am a trustee of the Royal Pavilion and Museums Trust in Brighton and a trustee of the People’s History Museum in Manchester. My eldest daughter is a curator at the V&A Dundee and has to wrestle fairly continuously with issues such as this in her role there.
I visited the Hamburger Kunsthalle in the summer, and in one of the galleries there is a whole explanation of its policy and approach to restitution. After the Second World War it had in its possession thousands of objects looted by the Nazis, and since then it has spent a lot of time trying to return them to the people they were stolen from. Of course, in many cases those people were deceased because they had been put to death in the Holocaust, but the museum had made a very honest attempt to return them. In part, I see this debate in that context.
I raised this issue last month in the context of the Horniman Museum returning the Benin statues to Nigeria, which was an immensely significant decision. Now the Horniman is working with Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments on how together they can secure long-term care for the artefacts and arrange for a formal transfer of ownership, collaborating and working on the possibility of retaining some objects on loan for display, research and education, which I think we would all applaud. But, as has been said, the Horniman trustees were able to take that decision because of their independence and because they are not covered by the 1983 Act.
The noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, makes a very compelling case for a review of the Act. I like his suggestion that there ought to be an independent review body looking at the issue, because that would take some of the heat that has been generated around this topic out of it and perhaps put to bed the whole “woke” arguments, which I think have rather confused the whole discussion and debate unnecessarily. Given that momentum is building for a review of the legislation, I wonder whether the Minister agrees with that point.
Perhaps we could get some discussion going about how that review might take place. I do not particularly favour royal commissions, for the very reason that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, set out. But the reality is that the conversation is being had. Colleagues have given fair voice to that today in their observations on museums across the country and around the world. The question is: do Ministers want to be at the forefront of that discussion or do they simply want to follow it? I think there is a role for them to take a lead, and if we review the 1983 Act, although it covers only three national institutions, it sets a benchmark for the rest of the sector. I think the 40th anniversary is a good point to do that. We can reflect on the emerging new technologies that offer opportunities to the museum world to display and share cultural artefacts in many different ways and across many different locations.
I also ask the Minister to reflect on this point. What more consideration can the DCMS give to the independence of our institutions so that they feel freer to carry out their role as trustees? The sector itself is looking very carefully at these issues—the museums that I am part of certainly are. What conversations are the Minister and his colleagues having, together with the Secretary of State, to engage with leaders of museums and national institutions on this issue? They need to take a leadership role, because we are now in a place where there is an appetite for change.
My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, and his ability to generate publicity for this debate. I also pay tribute to my predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson. I would not go so far as to say that he is a national treasure but he is treasured by many of us for his knowledge and the way in which he went about his duties.
Before I respond, it might be worth recalling some of the origins of the National Heritage Act 1983. I say this as a new Minister for Heritage; I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, would describe me as the temporary Minister for Heritage. Indeed, in some ways all Ministers are temporary—we are the opposite of puppies. People say that puppies are for life, not for Christmas; we are just for Christmas. We recognise our ephemeral nature. In my new role I am the Minister for Heritage, but my honourable friend Stuart Andrew is the Minister responsible for museums. Of course, there is overlap, and we talk all the time about these issues, but I focus on heritage. I have been reminded by my department to stop getting so excited about heritage railways and canals; there is far more to our heritage, as Historic England reminds me.
It is worth remembering that this Act established the Royal Armouries, the Science Museum, the V&A and the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, as many noble Lords have mentioned, as non-departmental public bodies. We have to remember that, under the provisions of the Act, the bodies are governed by the trustees, not the UK Government. Many noble Lords may well question that, but it is a principle that we have to be quite clear about. The Act outlines the responsibilities of trustees of these institutions, which includes caring for objects in their collections and exhibiting them to the public, supporting research but also promoting public enjoyment and understanding of the unique and special subjects covered by their collections, as well of course as, rightly, generating much debate. Noble Lords have spoken about some of that debate today.
The Act also sets out the board’s duties about the acquisition and disposal of objects. It provides that the board of trustees may not dispose of an object in its collection unless they are duplicates,
“unsuitable for retention in their collection and can be disposed of without detriment to the interests of students or other members of the public”
“useless for the purposes of their collection by reason of damage”.
The Act exists to protect the objects and artworks in our national museums to ensure that they are preserved for public benefit now and in the future. As my noble friend is aware, this is one of several Acts that govern our national museums.
Clearly, the underlying question of where cultural objects belong is an important and, as my noble friend acknowledges, highly complex issue. Complexity should not be used as an excuse for inaction; it just means that we have to unpack some of that complexity and look at some of the issues. As someone who grew up in an immigrant household and is from a non-white and non-European background, it is very easy for me to see the feeling of superiority of white European culture over the rest of the world—you sometimes saw this in the referendum, for example—and to feel baffled by this question, given the rich histories of many other countries. I remember my parents telling me when I was a child, “We’ll go to the British Museum, but remember there’s nothing British in the British Museum.” I acknowledge that when I actually turned up there, that was not true, but many of the collections came from around the world, and many of those items are subject to much debate and ongoing discussions.
In the UK, of course, given that the trustees operate independently, it is up to the museum’s own trustees to respond to restitution claims. Of course, in our national museums there is also legislation, including the Act that we are discussing today, that prevents them from removing items. But there are two exceptions—my noble friend rightly acknowledged the case of art looted by German national socialists in the 1930s and 1940s. Of course, in 2000 we had the Spoliation Advisory Panel to consider the claims for the return of these objects. So far, it has advised on 20 claims, and 13 cultural objects have been returned to families. Therefore it is of course important that there are exceptions and to recognise that such claims are deserving of special consideration.
Of course, there are also legal measures in place to allow human remains under 1,000 years old to be returned to their descendants around the world. Since the introduction of this measure, there have been a number of successful repatriations of human remains from our national museums. As recently as July 2022, the Natural History Museum transferred the custodianship and care of the ancestral remains of 113 Moriori and Maori individuals to their descendants in New Zealand.
Given all this, I now turn to the questions from my noble friend Lord Parkinson and the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, about the potential implications of the new measures in the Charities Act. I am aware that it has been reported that the two provisions, Sections 15 and 16 of the Act, have the effect of enabling national museums for the first time to restitute items from their collections, based on moral grounds. However, I am also advised that when your Lordships and the House of Commons debated the Charities Bill, no such intent was considered, nor agreed on. Given this, the Government are deferring the commencement of the sections of the Act, which we initially expected to be part of the first tranche of commencements in the autumn, until we fully understand the implications for national museums and other charities. I hope that noble Lords will respect that decision; we really want to understand the implications. Whatever one thinks of the debate, it is important that we understand the legal implications for that.
We also recognise that restitution cases are complex and that every situation is different. Given that, at the moment the Government are not changing their position. However, as noble Lords have rightly acknowledged, we are seeing museums exploring other circumstances in which they may be able to return objects in their care. This is to be encouraged. Noble Lords have already talked about the return of the Benin bronzes to Nigeria by the Horniman museum in August this year. The complexity of deciding what is Benin, who the rightful owners are and where the bronzes should be returned to has also been shared with noble Lords. There are many issues such as these when people call for restitution. Some claim to speak for others; many people have claims on restitution. That does not mean that we should not try, but it exposes the complications and the complexity of the debate.
Let me be quite clear: I understand the powerful argument that often museums are willing to return objects to countries but are prevented from doing so due to existing law. Many people—indeed many noble Lords—feel that there will sometimes be very good reasons why an object should not be returned, such as concerns over preservation, curation, storage or who to return it to. But they also feel that a law preventing items being returned should not be the only justification about returning those items. I understand that debate and these arguments completely.
I see that my noble friend Lord Vaizey is getting very excited for his next podcast.
I understand these arguments. However, the Government’s position remains unchanged. The Government will continue to abide by the long-standing principle and legal position supported by successive UK Governments that claims should be considered on a case-by-case basis. I remind your Lordships once again that we believe that it is the trustees, not the Government, who are responsible for these decisions—not as a way out, but to clearly state that factor as a part of these considerations.
We are committed to supporting museums and trustees in delivering their duties in care of their collections. Noble Lords will be aware that our national development agency for museums and cultural property and Arts Council England, which is sponsored by the DCMS, published the museum guidance, under the title, Restitution and Repatriation: A Practical Guide for Museums in England. I am sure it is a bestseller. This guidance offers museums a technical framework to evaluate claims on a case-by-case basis, and it advises on a spectrum of outcomes, including returning, not returning and making long-term loans and partnerships.
We understand that claims often also lead to opportunities for enhancing understanding for all parties involved in the discussions, including improving knowledge, contributing to research, building mutually beneficial international partnerships and relationships with the originating communities, and opening up a dialogue and discussions about cultural heritage. For example, as my noble friend Lord Vaizey said about the return of the marble head of the Greek god Eros to the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, these two institutions have been co-operating since the 1930s—this is nothing new. However, this agreement is part of an ambitious new cultural partnership between the V&A and the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, and the Government support the V&A with its arrangements of renewable cultural partnerships, which are a pragmatic way of—
My noble friend was a government Minister; he knows that it takes a bit of time to come to the answer.
I know that noble Lords are proud of our world-class national museums and the fact that we have more than 24 million overseas visits to DCMS-supported museums, accounting for 50% of all visits, despite the closure of museums due to national lockdown measures. The global public also benefit from our collections, because let us remember that between 2019 and 2020 the UK national museums lent more than 71,000 objects to more than 2,000 venues around the world. It is not black and white or inaction compared with action. Some of these things are already going on. These are deep, complex conversations, but they also provide opportunities for cultural partnerships. Noble Lords talked about global Britain. What a great example of soft power it is if we can be seen to be co-operating and tackling those sometimes difficult discussions head-on. Surely it is better that we have some of those conversations.
As the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, said, technology plays a vital role. Much of our national collection is available online. We recognise the importance of that, which is why my department supported the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s successful bid for £90 million to advance the use of digital technology. These initiatives demonstrate that our museums are dedicated to making their collections accessible, so that as many people as possible can experience, engage with and even be touched or inspired by them.
These collections are also the focus of scholarship and research. In fact, the national museums are internationally recognised as leaders in their academic fields—but, once again, they partner with universities, museums and other research organisations around the world. They collaborated with more than 1,000 UK and international academic and research institutions between 2019 and 2020.
Much of the research is focused on the provenance of museum collections. It is amazing; it shows just show complex these issues are that we have almost a whole new academic field looking at the provenance of the collections, the issues and whether whoever gave it in the first place—or claimed to give it—had any legitimacy. There are a number of other complex issues, as many people would acknowledge. Today we are also committed to combating the illicit trade in cultural property, so that we do not make the same mistake.
In answer to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, we are aware of the positive discussions between Cambodia and some of the national museums. Once again, we welcome conversations such as these. I pledge to write to noble Lords to answer the questions I was unable to answer due to my verbosity.
Our museums co-operate extensively with partner institutions. They share their knowledge and collections, which has enabled our museums to co-operate internationally, to lead programmes, to collaborate and to consider issues case by case, but also, with our research on provenance, to ask whether we can unpack some of the difficult debates around those issues and to consider future claims. The law exists to protect the objects in our national museums, but we want to share these wonderful objects with the rest of the world, whether in person, digitally or through bilateral conversations.
I am afraid that for these reasons the Government have no current plans to amend this Act. It took me 12 and a half minutes, but we got there. Do not worry; we will have much more time to discuss it on one of my noble friend’s podcasts.
Committee adjourned at 5.08 pm.