On 13 October 2022, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate the following question for short debate:

Lord Vaizey of Didcot (Conservative) to ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to review the National Heritage Act 1983.

1. National Heritage Act 1983

The National Heritage Act 1983 established the Armouries, Science Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew as non-departmental public bodies. Under the provisions of the act, the bodies are governed by a board of trustees. As part of their general functions, the boards of trustees have several tasks, including:

  • caring for, preserving and adding to the objects in their collection
  • ensuring that the objects in their collection are exhibited to the public
  • ensuring that the objects in their collection are available for inspection in connection with study or research
  • promoting the “public’s enjoyment and understanding of art, craft and design”

The 1983 act also set out the board’s functions for the acquisition and disposal of objects. Regarding the disposal of objects from its collection, the act states that the board of trustees may not dispose of an object in its collection unless it is either:

  • a duplicate of another object in its collection, or
  • an object which the board is satisfied has “become useless for the purposes of their collections” because of damage, physical deterioration or infestation.

Additionally, the act created English Heritage (officially known as the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England), which took on the heritage functions that were previously carried out by the then Department of the Environment, the Ancient Monuments Board for England, and the Historic Buildings Council for England.

In April 2015, English Heritage split into two bodies:

  • Historic England, which is responsible for grants, heritage research and advice, listing and planning
  • English Heritage, which is a charity tasked with managing over 400 historic buildings, monuments and sites from the National Heritage collection (state-owned properties that are open to the public)

2. Previous government policy on contested heritage

The Boris Johnson government adopted a “retain and explain” policy on contested heritage. This included writing to museums, galleries and arm’s length bodies, including those not constrained by the 1983 act, advising that they do not remove contested heritage from their collections. Responding to growing pressure on the subject, the government rejected calls to replace existing heritage legislation, including the 1983 act.

In September 2020, the then secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, Oliver Dowden, wrote to several national museums, galleries and arm’s length bodies outlining the government’s position on contested heritage.

In his letter, Mr Dowden argued that whilst some statues and other historical objects “represent figures who have said or done things which we may find deeply offensive and would not defend today”, they “play an important role in teaching us about our past, with all its faults”. He stated that the government did not support these museums, galleries and arm’s length bodies removing statues or other similar objects. He also published the view of Historic England, tasked with advising the government on the historic environment, which said that:

Removing difficult and contentious parts of it risks harming our understanding of our collective past. Rather than erasing these objects, we should seek to contextualise or reinterpret them in a way that enables the public to learn about them in their entirety, however challenging this may be. Our aim should be to use them to educate people about all aspects of Britain’s complex past, both good and bad.

Concluding, Mr Dowden warned arm’s length bodies that he expected their approach to contested heritage to be “consistent with the government’s position” and that as publicly funded bodies they “should not be taking actions motivated by activism or politics”. He noted that this was “especially important” as the government entered a “challenging comprehensive spending review, in which all government spending will rightly be scrutinised”.

In November 2020, Nigel Huddleston, the parliamentary under-secretary at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport at the time, provided further context on the government’s position. Mr Huddleston stated that it had “been clear” that “rather than erasing these objects, we should seek to contextualise or reinterpret them in a way that enables the public to learn about them in their entirety, however challenging this may be”.

The government’s position on contested heritage received a mixed response. The Museums Association, a membership association representing over 1,800 museums, welcomed Oliver Dowden’s view that contested heritage should be contextualised or reinterpreted so that the public could learn about them. However, the Museums Association said that it was “concerned” that Mr Dowden’s letter “implie[d] that government funding may be withheld if museums do not comply”.

Lord Vaizey, who was a former minister of state at the then Department for Culture, Media and Sport, argued that he was “very concerned” by the government’s actions. In an interview with the Art Newspaper in March 2021, Lord Vaizey stated that:

It’s one thing to have a bit of fun to feed the tabloids, quite another to start issuing directions to arm’s length bodies. It is a serious breach of the arm’s length principle, an attack on their independence and scholarship, and hugely damaging to morale at a time when the sector is already on its knees. It will have damaging long-term consequences if what were once curatorial decisions are taken over by ministers.

In August 2022, the Horniman Museum (which is not constrained by the 1983 act) returned its collection of Benin Bronzes statues to Nigeria. However, the British Museum, which has the largest collection of Benin Bronzes in the world, stated that it was prevented from returning its collection due to the British Museum Act 1963. This piece of legislation had similar provisions to that of the 1983 act. It placed restrictions on the trustees of the British Museum from disposing of objects in its collection.

The following month, the government was asked an oral question in the House of Lords on the repatriation of cultural objects. Several members of the House of Lords called on the government to amend the 1963 and 1983 acts. The Earl of Clancarty (Crossbench) said that public opinion on repatriation had “changed considerably […] in the past few years” and asked whether the government “now consider it a duty to change the appropriate legislation”. Similarly, Lord McNally (Liberal Democrat) asked the government that “surely there is a case for looking at them and how restrictive they are in modern times”.

Responding, the then parliamentary under-secretary at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, said that the government did not “think there is a case for further changes to the law” and that it thought that the position that it had was the “right one at the moment”.

3. Recent commentary on the National Heritage Act 1983

Some museums and organisations have called for the 1983 act to be amended or replaced to allow museums constrained by the act to decommission cultural objects from their collections.

In July 2022, the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Tristram Hunt, argued that the act needed to be replaced. In an interview with Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Hunt said:

My view is that we are coming up to the 40th anniversary [of the 1983 act] and it might be time for parliamentarians to think about how the act works in the current era. It should be the responsibility of trustees to make the case for what should and should not be in their collections and at the moment they don’t have that right because the 1983 act means they are legally unable to do so.

Mr Hunt stated there was a “ping pong between governments and museums which I think everyone finds slightly unsatisfactory at the moment”.

Expressing a similar view, Alexander Herman, the director of the Institute of Art and Law in London, said that reviewing the act was a “conversation that needed to be had”. Mr Herman also stated that the need to review the legislation was “heightened in the post-pandemic world where national museums need to reinvent themselves”. He contended that this was “difficult to do” with “some of the antiquated restrictions in the existing legislation”.

However, others have argued that allowing select museums to have greater decision-making over their collections could lead to objects being sold to fund them in the future.

Writing for Apollo magazine in July 2022, Robert Hewison warned that when it comes to restitution, “museums should be careful what they wish for”. In his article, Mr Hewison stated that if a museum was free to “get rid of whatever it liked”, then “what is to prevent it from selling something when times get hard”.

4. Read more

Cover image by Mrs Ellacott on Wikimedia Commons.