“Never mind the argument about who owns this thing, let’s argue about how it gets to be seen”, culture secretary, Jeremy Wright, has told The Times in response to the debate over the restitution of ancient artefacts.
The debate has reached fever pitch in recent months after France published a report in November 2018 stating its position on the return of looted objects. Commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron in 2017, the ‘Restitution of African Cultural Heritage’ report concluded that French museums should permanently return objects to former African colonies that were removed “without consent”. In March 2019, culture ministers from 16 German states agreed to repatriate artefacts looted in the colonial era from Africa, Asia, Australia and the Pacific.
Responding publicly to the debate for the first time, Wright argued that it was more beneficial to display cultural artefacts from different civilisations in one location than it was to return them to their countries of origin. In his view if you “followed the logic of restitution to its logical conclusion” there would be “no single points where people can see multiple things”. He also confirmed the UK would not introduce primary legislation to enforce the restitution of cultural artefacts by national museums.
The cultural sector has criticised Wright’s stance on the issue. Writing for the Museums Association website, Sharon Heal, expressed dismay at Wright’s “tired misconception” of restitution as leading to the complete absence of anything left on display in cultural institutions. “This kind of thinking flies in the face of the informed conversation about decolonisation, restitution and repatriation that is taking place in the sector in the UK and at government level in many countries in Europe”, Heal writes.
Previously UK attorney-general, Wright was appointed as culture secretary in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (or the Ministry for Fun as it is known by those in the know) in July 2018. He is confident that cultural institutions will survive real-terms funding cuts to the arts by “becoming more imaginative” in their activities to “open up alternative funding streams” and will not have to resort to reintroducing admissions charges.