Arts Council England releases new guidance for museums on restitution and repatriation

Posted on: August 5, 2022 by

Today, Arts Council England released its guidance on restitution and repatriation for English museums. Restitution and Repatriation: A Practical Guide for Museums in England offers guidelines, best practice and case studies for the museum sector, helping institutions act appropriately and considerately in the context of claims for the return of collection objects. It replaces previous guidance on the topic that had been published by the Museums and Galleries Commission in 2000.

IAL was happy to assist Arts Council England in preparing the new guidance. The drafting reflects recent developments in the area, both in the UK and internationally, basing the approach around three core qualities of transparency, collaboration and fairness.

The guidance is divided into two main sections: ‘Getting started’, which deals with preliminary matters (before a request or claim has been received) and ‘Working through a claim’ which covers the stages arising following receipt of a claim. Under the first section, museums are to prepare by ensuring that appropriate provenance research is undertaken, that provenance findings are made available online and that they have a clear and easy-to-follow policy on restitution and repatriation.

In the second section, the stages of working through a claim are set out. They are:

  • Stage 1 – Developing better understanding of the object(s), the parties and the possible need to involve third party stakeholders
  • Stage 2 – Working through the formal claim, including information sharing, record keeping and communications
  • Stage 3 – Assessing the claim based either on legal or ethical factors, namely: (1) The significance of the object to the claimant, (2) How the object was removed from its place of origin or from a past owner, (3) How the museum has engaged with the object and (4) Who is raising the claim (see Flowchart at p 17)
  • Stage 4 – Implementing the outcomes, which can include transfer of ownership, loan, rights of access or control, joint legal ownership or no change.


Four brief case studies are included in the guidance to help illustrate some of the above steps. These include a project for building relationships and trust around African collections (p 5), the recovery of a Torah scroll by the Jewish community of Cornwall (p 15), the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’s assessment of a claim for the Gweagal Spears, which did not result in restitution, but nevertheless resulted in major loans to the country of origin (p 18), and the return of Chief Crowfoot’s regalia by the Royal Albert Memorial Museum to the Siksika Nation of Canada (p 19).

The guidance helpfully includes, as Appendices, a template policy on restitution and repatriation for institutions, an outline of the relevant international and national legal instruments and other relevant guidance documents, and an outline of the legal structures of UK museums (including any legal restrictions on disposals).

While the new guidance is aimed at English museums, the principles behind it can be used by museums across the UK, and indeed internationally. IAL would like to thank the many experts from the museum sector and beyond who we consulted in developing this guidance. Needless to say, the guidance will become a central part of IAL’s teaching on museums and restitution going forward – and, we hope, will be integral to the sector for many years to come.