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Has the British Museum Act 1963 allowed the British Museum to keep ‘stolen’ objects?

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

By Zoe Adlam

The toppling of colonial statutes, the cries for heritage to be returned and the images of people reclaiming their own stories. For the last few months, such images have filled our screens and coloured our discussions. The drip down of these discussions has reignited the conversation about the objects contained within museums across the UK, in particular the disputed ownership of many objects contained within the British Museum. Therefore, it is an interesting question, in light of the current climate, to consider whether the British Museum Act 1963 has allowed the British Museum to keep ‘stolen’ objects.

Firstly, what is the British Museum Act 1963?

The British Museum Act 1963 deals with ‘the composition of the Trustees’ of the museum, it separates out the British Museum from the Natural History Museum and makes specific provisions for their respective collections.[1] However, the Act also details more specific provisions as it mentions the collections of the museums and how the museums should look after the objects under their care.

Section 5 is one such section which concerns how the museum should treat objects as it deals with the ‘Disposal of Objects.’ At first glance, this may seem unusual. Why would a museum want to get rid of its objects, the main reason people visit a museum in the first place? However, ‘disposal’ really concerns how the Museum should depart with objects in its collection. This Section is crucial regarding disputes over objects because it states that Trustees of the Museum can only ‘sell, exchange, give away or otherwise dispose of any object vested in them and comprised in their collections if:

(a) the object is a duplicate of another such object, or

(b) the object appears to the Trustees to have been made not earlier than the year 1850, and substantially consists of printed matter of which a copy made by photography or a process akin to photography is held by the Trustees, or

(c) in the opinion of the Trustees the object is unfit to be retained in the collections of the Museum and can be disposed of without detriment to the interests of students.

Provided that where an object has become vested in the Trustees by virtue of a gift or bequest the powers conferred by this subsection shall not be exercisable as respects that object in a manner inconsistent with any condition attached to the gift or bequest.’

These crucial exceptions provide limited circumstances in which the museum can ‘dispose’ of an object. As such, this Section significantly limits the ways in which disputed objects can be handed back. The UK Parliament has effectively ringfenced the objects of the British Museum. This lays a clear starting point in trying to answer the question about whether the Act has allowed the museum to keep ‘stolen’ goods. At this stage, the limited circumstances of ‘disposal’ make it clear that it probably has. Yet, this cannot be fully asserted until thought is given to what a ‘stolen’ object is.

What is a ‘stolen’ object?

It is crucial to answering this question that a definition of a ‘stolen’ object is sort. According to Halsbury’s Laws of England – Criminal Law, these are objects which are stolen under the provisions of the Theft Act 1968 and occurred in England or Wales.[2] However, more crucially for the British Museum, the definition goes on to detail that a stolen good can be considered as such if the theft of such an item ‘amounted to an offence where and at the time when the goods were stolen.’[3] This is crucial to not only discovering that a ‘stolen’ object can include those defined as such in other jurisdictions but also to building a case for the argument that the British Museum is in possession of ‘stolen’ objects because a huge quantity of the objects contained within the museum are from all corners of the globe and they haven’t necessarily always been acquired in a fairway. Therefore, from the definition of ‘stolen’ goods, a picture is gradually emerging that the British Museum Act 1963 could be allowing the British Museum to keep ‘stolen’ objects. However, all these definitions and Acts lack factual clout. Therefore, considering the debates around two of the museum’s most disputed objects is crucial to establish whether this Act really is allowing the museum to keep ‘stolen’ objects.

Parthenon Sculptures

The carved figures and the assorted frieze scenes of the Parthenon Sculptures have pride of place in the British Museum. However, the background to them ending up in London is murkier than the picture-perfect presentation in front of us today. From this murky past rises an assertion that the British Museum is keeping ‘stolen’ objects.

For successive Greek Governments and the Greek people, these Sculptures should be returned home. For the British Museum, these sculptures were ‘lawfully’ removed by Lord Elgin as he was granted a permit which saw him, between 1801 and 1805, removes half of the remaining sculptures.[4] Linking this ‘lawful’ removal back to the definition of ‘stolen’ goods, it is described how objects will only be considered as such if there was an offence at the time in the place in which the ‘theft’ took place. Here there was rather the contrary - the ‘permit’ allowed for the removal of the sculptures. However, this must be balanced against the perspective of the Greek Government who dispute the legality of this ‘permit’ because it was granted by the Ottoman Empire who were occupying Greece at the time of the sculptures’ removal[5]. Thereby, for Greece, this removal was illegal as another body had assumed ownership of the objects. Here, this dichotomy of lawful and unlawful demonstrates the uneasy balance of perception about whether these objects were ‘stolen’ in the first place.

Turning towards the Act itself, if the Greek definition of these objects being stolen was adopted, Section 5 of the Act would mean that no return of the Sculptures could take place because the sculptures meet none of the exceptions laid out in subsections (a) – (c) of Section 5. Under the category of subsection (a) the sculptures are not a duplicate of another; equally, under (b) the object was made far earlier than 1850 and is not of printed matter and under (c) the Trustees have never expressed the opinion that the object is unfit to be retained in the collections of the Museum. So, on this technical basis, the British Museum is holding a ‘stolen’ object because the Act is allowing it to keep this object without any reason to give it back.

The Parthenon Sculptures are not isolated in this though. As the country of origin of the objects turns south, the principle remains, sadly, the same.

The Benin Bronzes

The Benin Bronzes is a collection of sculptures including decorated cast plaques, various animal and human figures, ornaments and other decorative pieces.[6] These pieces were made from around the 16th century onwards[7] and are the pride of the people of Benin. Such pride has led to successive calls for these artworks to returned from the country they were taken from, particularly from the Benin Royal Court.[8]

Unlike the Parthenon Sculptures, there is no lawful or unlawful debate around the obtaining of these objects. These objects were taken during the period known as the ‘Scramble of Africa.’ Whilst this period had no specific set of international laws preventing theft of cultural goods, a moral perspective of this period and in particular the way in which these ‘objects’ were taken denotes a clear theft of these objects.

Equally, these objectives fall into the same problem faced by the Parthenon Sculptures. Section 5 prevents their return from occurring until Parliament decides to revise this position. As such, again, the Benin Bronzes highlight how the British Museum Act 1963 does allow the museum to keep ‘stolen’ goods and stresses this more so because these objects were taken during a time of conflict.

Why is this important?

In amongst the successive problems faced by the world, a debate surrounding objects in a museum may seem somewhat trivial. However, for the people and the stories which make these objects, it is something much more personal. It’s their story. For them, having such stories presented in a context not chosen by them, it is a cultural theft, and the British Museum Act 1963 has facilitated this.

Yet, this extends beyond this. By questioning whether this Act has allowed the British Museum to keep ‘stolen’ objects, the debate perfectly illustrates the difficult questions of morality which colour our laws. The law is shaped by our decisions, like this one about these objects. It’s coloured by the discussions about disputed ownership and what the definition of a ‘stolen’ object really is. Therefore, when you are next wandering around a museum consider how those objects got there. Whose objects are they really?



cover photo (British Museum)

Pantheon sculptures

Benin Bronzes

[1] British Museum Act 1963, Long Title [2] Halsbury’s Laws of England Criminal Law (2020) 25, 366 [3] Halsbury’s Laws of England Criminal Law (2020) 25, 366 [4] British Museum, ‘The Parthenon Sculptures’ (The British Museum, 2020) ˂˃ accessed on 25th November 2020 [5] PBS News Hour, ‘Rescued or seized? Greece’s long fight with UK over Parthenon Marbles’ (22nd September 2018) ˂˃ accessed 24th November 2020 [6] British Museum, ‘The Benin Bronzes’ (The British Museum, 2020) ˂˃ accessed on 25th November 2020 [7] British Museum, ‘The Benin Bronzes’ (The British Museum, 2020) ˂˃ accessed on 25th November 2020 [8] Ibid

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