Since the South Kensington Museum (which later became the V&A) opened its doors to the public in 1857, the collections have grown to over 2.7 million items, featuring every conceivable type of object, from all over the world. During the 19th century, in particular, certain items that came to the V&A were acquired in ways that today would be considered unacceptable. The most obvious examples of this are objects forcibly removed from their countries of origin, or whose 'acquisition' suggest other forms of coercion. Today, such objects lie at the heart of important debates concerning how museums should deal appropriately with this difficult inheritance. In a small number of cases, these objects are the subject of formal restitution and repatriation claims – for example, from the governments of their countries of origin. The V&A is committed to telling the full story of objects on display or in storage, engaging with these important debates, and to acting as a conscientious steward of the objects in its care.
Renewable cultural partnerships
The V&A is building renewable cultural partnerships with museums and other cultural institutions around the world to ensure that the items in its care can be studied and appreciated beyond South Kensington, including in their countries of origin. In 2022, the V&A entered into a pioneering cultural partnership with the Istanbul Archaeology Museum (İstanbul Arkeoloji Müzeleri), which has led to the reunification of the Head of Eros with the Sidamara Sarcophagus. The V&A is currently exploring similar arrangements with institutions in other countries.
The Head of Eros
The Head of Eros is a life-sized marble carving dating back to the 3rd century AD, which was donated to the V&A in 1933 by Marion Wilson in memory of her father, Sir Charles Wilson. From 1879 Charles Wilson was the British military consul general in Anatolia, Turkey, and at the end of his term in 1882 he discovered an important Roman sarcophagus at (or near) the site of the ancient settlement of Sidamaria.
When Wilson returned to Britain, he took the Head of Eros (which had become detached) with him, ultimately placing it on loan at the South Kensington Museum in 1883. Wilson wrote at the time: '[I] should wish the head eventually to go to whoever secures the sarcophagus'. In 1900, the sarcophagus was moved to the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, where it remains on display today. After Wilson's daughter had converted the loan into a gift to the V&A in 1933, a visitor noticed that it closely corresponded in style to the Sidamara Sarcophagus in Istanbul. This prompted the V&A to create a plaster cast of the Head which was sent to the Istanbul Archaeology Museum to determine whether it matched the figure on the sarcophagus. After the match was confirmed, the Director of the Istanbul Archaeology Museum suggested that the V&A give the original head to his museum.
The V&A was sympathetic to this request, recognising that this would be in accordance with the expressed wishes of Charles Wilson. It is unclear why this proposed transfer was not carried out at the time. In 2010 negotiations were renewed, culminating in a long-term renewable cultural partnership between the V&A and the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. Conservation teams from both museums worked together on a joint plan to conserve the Head and determine how it might be safely reunited with the figure carved onto the sarcophagus. In June 2022, the two teams successfully reattached the Head of Eros to the Sidamara Sarcophagus. This extensive collaboration between the two conservation teams marks the beginning of an ongoing and deep partnership between the two institutions.
Visitors to the V&A rightfully expect to learn not only about the creation and qualities of the objects on display, but also about their unvarnished histories. The V&A is committed to telling these stories in its permanent galleries and through special displays, as well as through its online collections database Explore the Collections.
- The Maqdala 1868 display, curated in collaboration with the Ethiopian Embassy, highlighted numerous items that owe their presence in the galleries to looting by the British military during its campaign against the Abyssinian ruler Tewodros II.
- The Asante Goldweights display featured items from the gold regalia looted by the British military from the Asante court in Kumasi in 1874.
- The Concealed Histories display used objects from the Gilbert Collection to highlight the fate of Jewish art collectors and their collections under the Nazis.
Beyond these special displays, the V&A is working to bring this same commitment to transparency to all existing and future galleries. Since 2009, the V&A's collections database has been accessible online and it is continuously updated on the basis of the museum's archival records. Wherever possible, provenance information is included though the original records do not always contain detailed information.
Research into our collections is continuous, and alongside our exhibitions and displays we publish research and discoveries online – either through our collections website, on the V&A blog or at events where we share knowledge and receive feedback on our work. The V&A's archival records are also freely accessible to anyone wishing to research the history behind a specific object or group of objects.
National Heritage Act 1983
There has been a great deal of interest not only in the origins of the collections, but also in the laws governing the museum. In 1983, parliament passed the National Heritage Act, which placed the management of the V&A in the hands of a Board of Trustees. With this Act, rights and duties to an object that had been vested in a Minister of the Crown and formed part of the collections of the V&A became vested in the Board of Trustees. The Act stipulates that the V&A can only 'deaccession' an object from its collections if it is a duplicate, has become irreparably damaged, or if it has become 'unsuitable' for the collections and its disposal would not be detrimental to researchers or to the general public, or if it is transferred to another national UK museum. As a result, if the V&A wants to make an object accessible to an institution in a different country, then this can currently only happen as part of a long-term loan agreement. The National Heritage Act can only be amended or changed by parliament.
In 1956, the V&A received a Monstrance as part of a large bequest, which the donor had acquired in the 1930s in Switzerland. In 1999, the Toro Municipal Council alerted the V&A to the possibility that this Monstrance had been stolen from the Santa María La Mayor Collegiate Church in Spain more than a century prior. Together, the V&A and the church investigated the object and its provenance, and confirmed that the monstrance was indeed identical with the one stolen from the church in 1890. Because the collector who bequeathed the monstrance to the museum had acquired it in good faith at auction in 1931, it was determined that he had passed legal ownership to the V&A and that it therefore fell under the provisions of the 1983 National Heritage Act. The V&A curator responsible for the object accepted that 'the legal case for return might well be very weak', but he remarked that 'the ethical case for return was powerful, and that the ways of honouring this would need to be considered'. In 2005, the V&A placed the monstrance on long-term loan to the Santa María La Mayor Collegiate Church, where it has been on display ever since.
Holocaust Act 2009
Following years of consultation, parliament passed the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects ) Act in 2009, which made it possible for national museums such as the V&A 'to return certain cultural objects on grounds relating to events occurring during the Nazi era', which had previously been impossible due to the 1983 National Heritage Act and similar pieces of legislation. The 2009 Holocaust Act, which in 2019 was extended indefinitely, created a framework that enabled national museums to restitute items from their collections if recommended by the UK Spoliation Advisory Panel and authorised by the Secretary of State. On this basis, the V&A in 2012 restituted three Meissen pieces to the heirs of the Jewish art collector Emma Budge (1852 – 1937) whose collection was forcibly sold at auction in 1937 in Nazi Germany.
In the 1980s, the V&A acquired three Meissen pieces from an English collector living in Rome, who had acquired them from a Parisian dealer specialising in Russian art. This was before British museums started to ask in-depth questions about the Nazi-era provenance of their acquisitions – and the fact that the pieces were recorded as previously belonging to 'the Emma Budge Collection, Hamburg, sold in Berlin' did not raise concerns at the time. After the V&A published its collections online in 2009, the V&A received a restitution claim for one of the Meissen pieces – alerting the museum to the fact that Emma Budge was Jewish and, as a result, her collection was sold forcibly in 1937 in Nazi Germany. This prompted research at the V&A that led the curator responsible for the V&A Sculpture Collection to identify two additional pieces that bore the same printed label identifying them as part of the Budge Collection. The restitution claim was referred to the Spoliation Advisory Panel, which reviewed the historical evidence and, on its basis, in 2012 recommended the restitution of the Meissen pieces, which were returned to the heirs.