Tristram Hunt, director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, is calling for a U.K. law that prohibits national museums from deaccessioning works from their collections to be revisited.
Hunt addressed the topic of allowing art to leave U.K. collections during an interview with the BBC. His remarks followed the museum’s recent announcement that the V&A will return a displaced marble head of the Greek god Eros to the Turkish government in a move that ended nine decades of restitution discussions.
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Established in 1983, the U.K. National Heritage Act prohibits trustees of select national museums in the U.K. from relinquishing objects held in their collections unless they are duplicates or damaged beyond repair.
Hunt, who previously served as a member of the British Parliament, was appointed museum director in 2017. He has in the past openly debated legal policies affecting U.K. art institutions, saying last year in an an op-ed for the Guardian that the statute on museum collections “should always been open to change.”
In his remarks to the BBC, Hunt questioned whether the law should still apply to today’s museum world.
“I have not got the clear and crisp solution to this, and there is a role for government involvement,” Hunt said. “Museums hold an awful lot of material now … some of which should be disposed, and we don’t have the freedom to do that.”
Prior to the 1983 legislation, leaders at museums such as the V&A, which was then overseen by the U.K. government, could dispose of works at their discretion. “This legislation prevents thinking about deaccession and disposal,” Hunt added, calling the current standard “unsatisfactory.”
Hunt’s remarks come as Western museums face calls to repatriate artifacts that were looted, often during colonial conquests. The former politician referenced a restitution agreement finalized last week in Berlin that will see more than 1,000 items in German collections transferred to the Nigerian government.
The V&A is among those institutions holding objects that many have said were stolen in the 19th century. An ornate gold crown taken from Ethiopia around 1868 has been the subject of calls for restitution since 2007. Hunt floated a potential long-term loan of the disputed Maqdala-era artifact back to the East African country in 2018.
Last year, British Parliament broke with a law from the 1960s that guides deaccessioning rules for the British Museum’s trustees. The move, which paves the way for long-term loan agreements for restitutions, transferred the decision-making power to the museum’s trustees to negotiate the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece after talks with the country’s officials.