Museum Collections

Current project status

  • Initiation: Could include discussing scope and terms of reference with lead Government Department
  • Pre-consultation: Could include approaching interest groups and specialists, producing scoping and issues papers, finalising terms of project
  • Consultation: Likely to include consultation events and paper, making provisional proposals for comment
  • Policy development: Will include analysis of consultation responses. Could include further issues papers and consultation on draft Bill
  • Reported: Usually recommendations for law reform but can be advice to government, scoping report or other recommendations

Helping museums to continue to share rich heritage by managing their collections more effectively. This project has not started yet.

The problem

Britain’s museums are envied the world over, with a rich heritage informing each new generation of the past.

But museums face significant problems dealing with objects where acquisition records are hard to come by and as a result it is impossible to know whether the item was gifted outright or loaned to the museum, or even to identify or locate the donor. This is because they were often obtained from a time when record keeping did not meet modern standards.

That means museums are unsure about what they are entitled to do with such items, including, for example, whether the items can be displayed, transferred to another museum or, in appropriate cases, disposed of. This can create a hidden drain on a museum’s resources.

Local authorities responsible for running museums can face particular problems due to a lack of clarity as to how and when they can legitimately and ethically dispose of items in their collections.

Certain national museums can only dispose of items following an arguably unnecessary process requiring the authorisation of the Secretary of State.

The project

This project came out of our 13th Programme of Law Reform.

We want to provide a clear legal framework setting out how objects are held and can be dealt with by museums. Such rules would help to reassure donors as to what can and cannot be done with their donations. Similarly, those responsible for managing museum collections will be able to do so without having to seek expensive, specialist legal advice or incur unnecessary storage costs.

Next steps

This project will start as and when resources allow. It is expected to last between two and three years.




Project details

Area of law

Property, family and trust law


Professor Nicholas Hopkins