A new law in England and Wales will give national museums far more power over disposal work and advance restitution cases.
The Charities Act 2022, which is due to come into force this fall, allows charities, including national museums, to dispose of objects where there is a compelling moral obligation to do so. Museums were previously restricted by the National Heritage Act 1983.
For objects of low value, museums will now be able to alienate them without asking permission, while objects of greater value can be alienated with the authorization of the Charity Commission, the Attorney General or a court.
The National Heritage Act had prohibited administrators of major UK museums such as the Tate and the Victoria & Albert from disposing of items from the collection except in certain circumstances, such as a duplicate or irreparable.
Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A museum in London, had recently called for the law to be revisited during an appearance on BBC Radio 4″Today” program in July. He described a confrontation between lawmakers and museum officials as each blamed the other for failing to resolve the situation, adding “we are approaching the 40th anniversary of the law; before that the [V&A]who was then part of the government, could make these kinds of decisions.
In addition to returning looted works of art and human remains, the new law could expand the ability of museums to repatriate cultural objects.
Earlier this year, a 3rd century head of Eros was sent to Turkey after it was detached from a sarcophagus in the 19th century and brought to the UK by a British official. This transfer, known as a “revolving cultural partnership”, is in fact a long-term loan of V&A assets since the return of the object would have been prohibited by the law on national heritage.
“The V&A is following this story with interest.” a museum spokesperson said in a statement to Artnet News. “As an exempt charity, regulated by [the U.K. Department of Culture, Media, and Sport] rather than the Charity Commission, we are awaiting advice on how these changes might impact the museum sector.
In a report Highlighting the possible implications of the law, art law expert Alexander Herman explained that national museums had not been given sufficient consideration by the previous Charities Act 2011.
The new legislation will override Attorney General v. Trustees of the British Museum, a 2005 High Court ruling which prevented the trustees of the British Museum from returning objects on the basis of a moral obligation under the Charities Act 2011. This effectively created a false distinction between statutory charities such as the museums and other charities. The 2022 law instead emphasizes that “autonomous statutory power” can be exercised by “any charity”.
Additionally, Herman cautioned that “ex gratia payments remain at the discretion of administrators and therefore cannot be coerced by a third party, such as a claimant seeking restitution.” As such, he predicted that “returns of this nature will remain relatively exceptional. They will nevertheless be possible in a way that has not been tolerated so far.
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