The UK Has a 60-Year Old Law Prohibiting Repatriation of Art. Is That About to Change?

The British Museum has long been barred from repatriation under a 60-year-old law. But public pressure is mounting for a change.

Row of sculptures displayed in room while visitors walk by
The Parthenon marbles on display at the British Museum. (Photo by Graham Barclay, BWP Media/Getty Images)

London’s British Museum is at the heart of growing calls for repatriation of artwork, with repeated requests from various countries, such as Greece and Nigeria, to return items from its vast collection.

Up until now, the museum and the British government has been able to stave of those calls by citing the British Museum Act of 1963, a national statute which prohibits the institution from returning works. But as public pressure continues to grow, the future of the British Museum’s repatriation policy may be in jeopardy.

Under the act, the British Museum’s board of trustees is barred from returning any object in the collection unless it is a duplicate, physically damaged or “unfit to be retained the collection” and no longer of public interest, according to the museum’s deaccessioning policy. Other national museums in the U.K., such as London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, are also prevented from repatriating works under the National Heritage Act of 1983.

The British Museum’s act wasn’t controversial when it was first passed, according to Tatiana Flessas, an associate law professor specializing in cultural property at the London School of Economics. “No one was really thinking about repatriation at that time,” she said. It was an administrative measure aiming to prioritize safekeeping of the museum’s collection, said Flessas, who added that this has long been a priority for the British Museum, which calls its curators “keepers.”

Its intention was to protect works from short-term political decisions, such as repatriating works for diplomatic purposes, said Barnaby Phillips, author of Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes. “The idea was of a public collection that was somehow above the concerns of the government of the day.”

But throughout the past few decades, the law has been used by museum trustees and government officials as a reason to deny any repatriation requests. Greece has asked for the return of its Parthenon Marbles since 1983, and in 2009 built the Acropolis Museum in Athens in order to house them. “We operate within the law and we’re not going to dismantle our great collection as it tells a unique story of our common humanity,” said the British Museum of the Parthenon Marbles in a December press release.

Meanwhile, the British Museum has also not acted on requests from Nigeria to return its collection of 900 items from the Benin Kingdom, including its Benin Bronzes, which were looted in 1897 by British forces. Between 2015 and 2019, the museum also received at least six other formal requests for repatriation, according to WhatDoTheyKnow, a site which publishes responses to U.K. Freedom of Information requests.

Rows of brass plaques depicting various figures hang on wall
Benin Bronzes exhibited at the British Museum. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

“A lot of this is just smoke and mirrors,” said Flessa, who believes the British government could easily make an exception to or change the British Museum Act 1963 if they actually wanted to repatriate a work. This has occurred in the past, with a 2004 act allowing for museum trustees to return human remains, while a 2009 ruling opened up repatriations for artwork looted during the Nazi era.

It’s most likely that a change to the act would consist of some iteration of these previous amendments, instead of a complete overhaul, said Flessa, as the British Museum wouldn’t want to “open the flood gates” and apply the possibility of repatriation to its entire collection.

“Possibly it will be amended in some ways, but repatriation will always be dealt with on a case-by-case basis,” said Flessa.

However, a more substantial change may occur if there’s a significant change in the government in the near future, according to Phillips. While the U.K. has been governed by the Conservative Party since 2010, the next general election is scheduled to take place before January 2025. A win for the Labour Party could see actions taken on the British Museum Act as the party has expressed more interest in making changes, said Phillips, with former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn pledging to return the Parthenon marbles, while Labour politicians Shami Chakrabarti and Alf Dubs have also publicly stated their support for its repatriation.

This wouldn’t be surprising, said Phillips, given “the way things have moved on this in the past two years or so.”

A potential loophole

Another avenue to amend the museum’s repatriation policy is through the Charities Act 2022, which would enforce amendments to a previous act passed in 2011. A provision of the act would allow for charities, including national museums like the British Museum, to return objects if trustees feel a moral obligation to do so and gain approval from either the U.K. courts, Charity Commission or Attorney General.

“That was quite a big excitement last year,” said Petra Warrington, a London-based attorney specializing in art and cultural property law. “It wasn’t ever going to mean that trustees just handed objects over easily, but it was going to possibly open a route where there were very strong moral considerations.”

However, while the act’s provision was supposed to take effect in October, the British government has since delayed the bill to further consider its implications. “It’s possible they hold it back indefinitely because they don’t like the consequences of the change,” said Alexander Herman, director of the U.K. Institute of Art and Law, which focuses on education around cultural heritage law. But the Charities Act 2022 is the most likely opportunity for an amendment to the museum’s repatriation policy in the foreseeable future, unless there’s a sudden drastic change in government or policy, he said. “I couldn’t image, in the current environment, any other proposed change to the British Museum Act.”

The British Museum did not respond to requests for comment.

The UK Has a 60-Year Old Law Prohibiting Repatriation of Art. Is That About to Change?