Why might the definition of treasure be changing? Five things we learnt from our conversation with heritage minister Lord Parkinson
In February, arts and heritage minister Lord Parkinson announced proposed changes to the definition of “treasure” in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, to help museums acquire a greater number of important artefacts. Matt Elton spoke to the minister to find out more, and get his thoughts on a range of other issues facing the UK’s heritage
Why the definition of treasure might be changing...
“The Treasure Act has been around for just over 25 years […] and in that time it has saved hundreds of objects for museums and public collections around the country. But the definition of what constitutes “treasure” is quite specific at the moment: items have to be [made of] a precious metal and have to be over 300 years old. That means that some items which are made of other metals – such as the Roman helmet that was found in Crosby Garrison in Cumbria – fall through the net.
“We are proposing to bring [the age of covered items] down to 200 years, and to [broaden the definition to cover] items made of any type of metal. We would also bring in a new significance test, so if an item sheds particular light on an individual or a particular event from the past, it could be saved [on that basis].”
His view on history’s role in the “culture wars”...
“I’m a history graduate, and I think it's great that people are debating the past. That’s a never-ending process: there's no final word on history, and we should always be re-examining and questioning what has come before. We should always be asking: whose story isn't being heard here? What's the counterpoint to this argument? There's a very close overlap between history and politics. [The aim of] history is to try to understand the nature of human relations in different eras and civilisations and shed important light on current debates, so I welcome it.
Museums, galleries and heritage venues should be provoking debate. The important thing is that they encourage people to ask the questions and don't spoon-feed them the answers
“I think the important thing is that it's done in a rigorous and scholarly way. Museums, galleries and heritage venues should be provoking debate. The important thing is that they encourage people to ask the questions and don't spoon-feed them the answers. Let people who come to see collections make up their own minds: give them the facts and maybe even send them away with more questions in their minds and encourage them to do some more research and join the debate.”
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His thoughts on the repatriation of museum artefacts...
“I think it has to be done case by case. Often there's a complex story behind [an artefact], and that provokes lots of questions – as it should. Working with the Arts Council, we have published some refreshed guidance for museums and galleries and others who are looking at this question.
Sometimes there are a number of different groups of people with competing claims on items and it's very difficult to disaggregate that today, so you reach a dead end
"There is no set outcome: I've spoken to lots of curators and museum directors who have talked me through all the possible outcomes. Sometimes you can have a fruitful loan arrangement; sometimes you transfer the legal title of an item, so it physically stays in your collection but the ownership is transferred; and sometimes there are a number of different groups of people with competing claims on items and it's very difficult to disaggregate that today, so you reach a dead end. And in some cases the law prohibits a number of our national institutions from deaccessioning their items [officially removing them in order to sell them], but that doesn't stop them lending them, as they generously do to lots of organisations.
“In a sense, where you see [an artefact] matters less than what you take from it. So many of our great institutions are visited by people from around the world, [and] because of the ability to share things digitally, they can share [these stories] with international audiences. The important thing is that they tell the full story: here’s who made it, here’s who owned it, here’s how and where it was taken, here’s how it got here and how it's been looked after since. The many stages of its history down the centuries should all be there for people to engage with, and I think that's as important as where physically items are located.”
Whether the Bayeux Tapestry is coming to the UK...
“I had the pleasure of meeting my French counterpart on a visit to Paris recently, and we're obviously preparing for the UK-France summit later [in March], which the prime minister and President Macron will attend, [along with] Lucy Frazer, our secretary of state. That follows on from the visit that President Macron made to the UK in 2017, when he generously raised the prospect of a loan of the Bayeux Tapestry. We're still very keen, and there are lots of museums in the UK that are very keen to be part of it.
There's still so much we can learn from it. We're keen to see it come to the UK, but I think it needs a bit of love and attention before it can
“It's a very fragile item, as you might expect, so I think there's some important conservation work that's got to be done. I was explaining to the French government that our conservators, curators and tapestry experts are very happy to help on that while it's going on so that we can work out a good time for it to come across the Channel. It’s such a fascinating piece: there’s some scholarship to suggest it was made in England rather than in France… There's still so much we can learn from it. We're keen to see it come to the UK, but I think it needs a bit of love and attention before it can.”
- Read more | How was the Bayeux Tapestry made
His favourite heritage site...
“As a history graduate, I feel really lucky to be the heritage minister. What’s so wonderful is that you get to jump around the country and around different eras... I'm from Whitley Bay, so my nearest English heritage site is Tynemouth Priory, which is a wonderful place to go as a child – from tobogganing down the moat when it snowed to exploring the monastery and the garrison there. I've been delighted to see Seaton Delaval Hall, which I visited as a child, restored after the terrible fire that it suffered [in 1822]. The National Trust have done some great work, and I'm looking forward to going back and seeing that.
My nearest English heritage site is Tynemouth Priory, which is a wonderful place to go as a child
“I've also been proud to fly the flag for Northumberland as we celebrated the 1,900th anniversary of Hadrian's Wall. It gets so many visitors, not just to the rural sections of the wall but also to the bits that run through Newcastle city centre. You can go and visit a Roman temple that's just at the end of a residential street in the west end of Newcastle. The route of the wall goes under petrol stations and schools: there's history all around us. I think that incredible anniversary has been a great opportunity to engage the local community who just live right next to it.”
Lord Parkinson was speaking to Matt Elton. Listen to the full conversation on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast, then browse our entire podcast archive:
Matt Elton is BBC History Magazine’s Deputy Editor. He has worked at the magazine since 2012 and has more than a decade’s experience working across a range of history brands.
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