A House of Lords committee on 13 October debated whether a Parliamentary Act should be reformed to allow three national museums to deaccession and restitute works from their collections. The 1983 National Heritage Act restricts deaccessioning by the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), the Science Museum and the Royal Armouries.
The debate was initiated by Lord Vaizey, a former Conservative culture minister (2010-16), who asked whether the government intends to review the Act. He favours returning the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum to Greece, and this week became chairperson of a new campaigning group, the Parthenon Project. The British Museum is also normally prohibited from deaccessioning, under a similar Act.
On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the National Heritage Act, Vaizey pointed to changes since it came into force: “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.”
Lord Parkinson, a former arts minister (2020-21) under Boris Johnson, spoke out against reforms. Pointing out that both the Act and he himself will turn 40 next year, he commented wryly: “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.”
Parkinson is concerned that evolving political and moral attitudes might threaten UK museums: “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.”
The debate was wound up by Lord Kamall, who was appointed heritage minister by Liz Truss on 20 September. Born in London, of Indo-Guyanese descent, he is a professor of international relations.
Kamall spoke of the importance of national museums working with global partners. He told the Lords committee: “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.”
With the 40th anniversary of the National Heritage Act coming up in May 2023, the issue of reform will be much discussed in the coming months. Among those pressing for an informed debate is Tristram Hunt, the V&A director, who believes that the Act should be loosened to permit carefully considered restitution.