A display of Benin Bronzes at the British Museum (via Wikimedia Commons)

Museums in the United Kingdom may be able to return objects on the basis of a “moral obligation,” according to new legislation to be implemented this fall. Experts say that the Charities Act 2022, which was passed by the UK Parliament earlier this year, may have consequences for restitution cases.

Alexander Herman, director of the UK Institute of Art and Law, detailed the significance of the Charities Act in a preview of a forthcoming article to be published in the institute’s quarterly journal. Currently, museums in the UK, most of which are charities, must govern their collections by statute, meaning that trustees are limited in what they can remove from them and return by legal precedent. Most notably, in 2005, the High Court of Justice in London ruled that the British Museum Act 1963 prevented museums from disposing of items in their collection except under very rare circumstances. The British Museum’s official policy on deaccessions, for instance, specifies that the British Museum Act of 1963 disempowers the museum’s trustees from removing or returning objects unless they are “unfit to be retained in the Collection” and “can be disposed of without detriment to the interests of the public or scholars” — a standard that the museum has cited in explaining why it cannot restitute certain times.

New provisions in the Charities Act 2022 suggest that national museums may make ex gratia transfers — or transfers that are undertaken for reasons of morality. Under these provisions, trustees can independently decide to dispose of property deemed as “low valued” (with this value dependent on the museum’s size). For items of higher value, trustees can petition the Charity Commission for authorization to return objects when there is a strong “moral claim.” The Charities Act also provides new guidance on how to arbitrate whether a moral obligation to return an item exists, setting that standard as a “reasonably held belief” that a moral claim exists.  

“The 2022 Act will not lead to the restitution of vast amounts of museum material, since the ex gratia power can be used only in rare cases,” Herman wrote. “But the additional tools will nevertheless prove useful to trustees who, until now, may have felt handcuffed by the legal restrictions of their governing statutes.”

The Charity Commission has recently approved two high-profile restitution cases — one involving the return of 72 Benin bronzes from London’s Horniman Museum to Nigeria and the other initiating the return of a Benin bronze from Cambridge’s Jesus College to Nigeria. 

Spokespeople at both the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum reiterated in an email to Hyperallergic that they are exempt museums established by statute, each adding that they would be following the progress of the new Charities Act “with interest.”

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.