Proposals to Reform the British Museum Act Continue to Fall Under the Shadow of the Marbles

Posted on: March 25, 2024 by

The “legislative prison walls” of the British Museum Act

In 2022, the then UK Prime Minister (the antepenultimate Prime Minister of recent times) responded to calls for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece by saying that it is for the trustees to decide. However, even if the trustees considered it appropriate to return them, Parliament would still need to give them the legal power to do so. For, as many already know, the British Museum Act 1963 only permits the trustees to transfer objects from the collection in limited circumstances. These restrictions were described in the House of Lords as “legislative prison walls” to which at least one former director “clings to… and dreads the fresh air of freedom”. Even if the trustees feel a moral obligation to transfer objects, this does not justify return (similar provisions apply to the other national museum collections). Yet laws can be changed and have been in the past, albeit for limited purposes. But again, in the context of the Parthenon Marbles, the latest Prime Minister has indicated that there are no plans to change the British Museum Act 1963, although there appear to be discussions about other ways to send the Marbles home.

The Parthenon Sculptures

Rattling the “legislative prison walls”

Parliament was only too happy to amend the national museum statutes for Nazi Era objects and human remains, with Parliamentary debates about the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009 described as “a friendly consensus on an important issue” (Andrew Dismore MP). But the scope of these provisions is narrow. Theresa Villiers MP emphasised in debates on the amendment to the 2009 Act that it was a “carefully targeted measure that applies to a defined and limited period and set of circumstances, so it does not open the door for more contentious claims relating to objects brought to the UK in past centuries and under different circumstances.” Such objects would, of course, include the Parthenon Marbles.

The shadow of the Marbles

Alan Audi observed that “the Elgin Marbles narrative casts a dominant, stifling shadow over cultural property argument”. This influence has directly impacted attempts in the UK to reform the law. So far four such Bills have been presented to Parliament, but in all debates the shadow of the Marbles fell on discussions – and the Bills fell too.



In 1983 the Trustee Liberation Bill was introduced (later renamed with what was described as a less dramatic title!) Whilst only applying to the British Museum, it was stated in debates not to be an Act solely to return the Parthenon Marbles. The existing legal restrictions, it was said, “preserved [the trustees] from the random caprice of aesthetic taste, of fashion, moralistic judgments and – even more important – the fluctuations of political pressure, unpredictable, random and varying from day to day…” (Lord Trend).


Nearly 20 years later, a wider Bill, applicable to all national museums again fell because of the risk of the British Museum being emptied and “treated as some Aladdin’s cave to buy power and influence at random. (Tim Loughton MP).


Despite support across the political spectrum for the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009, the Bill’s originator, Andrew Dismore MP, felt it necessary to emphasise that it was “not a Trojan horse for any other art works or cultural items”. Alongside that successful Bill he introduced a second Bill, entitled the British Museum Act 1963 (Amendment) Bill, and acknowledged by him to be a general power. He said there was, really “only one set of objects could realistically apply to”, overlooking other objects recognised as contested. The Bill, like those before it, fell after its first reading in Parliament.


In 2016 the Parthenon Sculptures (Return to Greece) Bill was presented to Parliament, this time focusing directly on the marbles, but again the Bill never had a second reading.


The Charities Act 2022 was the bringer of hope for legislative change, permitting transfers where the trustees have a moral obligation. This Bill was not fully debated, originating as it did from the Law Commission; it was a rather technical Bill relating to charities and the Bill’s applicability then to the Parthenon Marbles was seemingly overlooked. Thus, the Marbles’ shadows were unseen until light was shone on the Bill’s potential impact on national museum collections. Once again the shadow fell, the governmental breaks applied and sections 15 and 16 remain not yet in force and likely, when enacted, will not apply to national museums.


As recently as last year, when the National Heritage Act 1983, (governing only the V&A, the Science Museum, the Royal Armouries and Kew Garden), was debated in the House of Lords, the Act’s inapplicability to the Parthenon Marbles was emphasised. Despite this reassurance, the then Minister for the Arts announced that the Government had no plans to amend the 1983 Act.


An example of Asante Gold

Recent focus has again shifted to the Parthenon Marbles, this time in the context of potential loans. Cultural partnerships regarding the Asante Gold have been confirmed by both the British Museum and the V&A, relying on loans rather than transfers. Nevertheless, serious issues remain about a wider range of cultural objects in museums which are consistently overshadowed by the Marbles and warrant consideration for transfers of ownership, rather than loans.

When in 2005 the Spoliation Advisory Panel would have ideally recommended return of a Medieval missal to the Chapter House in Benevento, the short term “patch” recommended was a loan. Negotiations for its loan did not bear fruit, but the law was changed by the 2009 Act and it returned. Rather than involving a Nazi Era dispossession, the object was likely lost in the confusion of war during the Allied occupation of Italy. Nevertheless, the legislative prison walls were lifted sufficiently to allow the missal through and arguably there are other objects similarly awaiting release, rather than temporary home visits.

Image Credits:

Carole Raddato, The Parthenon Sculptures, British Museum, 2014, CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Dr Charlotte Woodhead, Timeline.

Daderot, Pectoral, Ghana, Asante (Ashanti), early 20th century AD, gold – Ethnological Museum, Berlin, 2014, CC 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons.