Repatriation and Restitution: Museums Association Conference 2020

Written by Anna Cottle, Coordinator, International Training Programme.

As you know, Claire, George and I attended the Museums Association online Conference, World Turned Upside Down: Exploring the Future of Museums, #Museums2020, from 2nd to 6th November 2020.  During the conference we posted a series of blogs from the sessions we attended but some sessions we kept aside as we wanted to share them in more detail.  One of these was Repatriation and restitution which focused on recent examples of constructive and meaningful engagement between university museums and source communities that are working on the restitution and repatriation of museum objects.

Three case studies were showcased featuring interviews with representatives of the communities involved and one live interview with Valorie Walters from the Chickasaw Cultural Center in Oklahoma. The case studies were then followed by a discussion focusing on what processes and ways of working are needed to be able to constructively engage on the subject of repatriation.

The panel had hoped to have more representation of source communities in this session as they had secured funding in order to physically bring some of those colleagues over to Edinburgh but unfortunately, COVID-19 meant that this was not possible.

Case Studies

The session aimed to give an overview of the work that has been done by museums with source communities so far, starting with the first case study on what Pitt Rivers Museum has been doing with the Maasia Living Cultures Project, working with Maasai representatives from both Kenya and Tanzania. Laura Van Broekhoven joined as Director of Pitt Rivers Museum – one of the four museums of the University of Oxford and well known for its Victorian space and rich collections gathered mostly during the height of the British Empire. Laura showed a video about the Maasia Living Cultures Project; a partnership project that she was closely involved in.

Laura explained how the project forms a programme of work that the museum has developed working closely with communities, indigenous people and people living in diaspora communities, in order to improve collections care, to tell meaningful stories through a plural perspective and sometimes to discuss whether objects should be repatriated. The Maasai Living Cultures Project started in 2017 when Samwel Nangiria visited the Pitt Rivers Museum as part of an Indigenous Leadership programme organised by the NGO Insightshare. The museum then received a video where the Maasai traditional elders voiced concerns over the Maasai objects being in the UK without their consent, as well as the label interpretation and assumptions made without their involvement. They were upset by this and wanted to engage in conversation and so Laura invited them to come to the museum to discuss.

Over the course of three years, three visits by Maasai representatives from Kenya and Tanzania have taken place. Laura explained that during the visits, the delegates from Kenya and Tanzania expressed concerns over 5 of the 188 objects in the Pitt Rivers Museum and 6 objects in a museum in Cambridge, indicating that without spiritual guidance and intervention, their presence in the collection would cause ongoing damage in their communities and with specific families. The museum is now waiting for guidance from the chief of the Maasai community so that they can move forward with them and start conversations about the way in which the museum speaks about the Maasai in its displays, databases and education programme.

The video shown in the session showed Samwel visiting the museum from the Maasai community and talking about the approaches he feels need be taken towards the objects. He sent a powerful message saying, ‘We would like the museum to know you are not holding the artefacts but holding the community,’ and you can see some more stills from the film, below.

The project page on the Pitt Rivers Museum website has lots of information and links to media coverage – you can see this here.

In another case study Neil Curtis from the University of Aberdeen talked about an open-ended, developing relationship between the university and nations in southern America. He explains that this is not about repatriation in the obvious sense and is more about restitution – about sharing and passing over responsibility for items that have been in the collections in Aberdeen for a long time. Neil talked about his work with Valorie Walters from The Chickasaw Cultural Center and a piece of Chickasaw beadwork from the University of Aberdeen museum collection which is currently on loan to the center in Oklahoma –you can read more about this here.

Valerie explained the significance of this to the Chickasaw community – they were able to see patterns never before seen in person – not only was it a beautiful display to have at the Chickasaw Cultural Center but it also inspired their beaders to begin beading the patterns again. It also meant that Neil introduced other members of the community to Valerie which has extended the collaboration and expanded the project which gives the opportunity to see parts of their history for the first time. She expressed the importance of building relationships and trust in a project such as this; the community was able to experience these objects and their own history for the first time and Neil was able to learn directly from them to build further collaborations. You can read about this in more detail on the center’s blog here.

Neil mentioned another, related and funded project: ‘Caring and Sharing’, which involved looking after collections, their provenance and improving the stories being told by discussing what should be delivered and shared. You can read more about this here.

The third case study focused on Manchester Museum who worked with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) on the unconditional repatriation of 43 secret sacred and ceremonial objects to the Aranda people of Central Australia, Gangalidda Garawa peoples’ of northwest Queensland, Nyamal people of the Pilbara and Yawuru people of Broome (read more about this here). Esme Ward built on the notion of relationship-building, describing this as ‘the sense of collective endeavour and people’. Talking about how Manchester Museum have been returning human remains since 2003, Esme explained how a lot of people were involved from the museum but there was also a lot of community work which happened before this. The AIATSIS led the engagement on this work with Manchester Museum – work focusing on country, engagement with source communities and supporting the research and the process with years of experience. Esme says that AIATSIS ‘have cultural authority and they have ethical engagement and methodology, which I feel we are really learning from and now our collaboration with them is critical.’

Key points for community engagement in terms of repatriation and restitution and museum collections

  • Openness
  • Collaboration
  • Community
  • Trust
  • Conversation
  • Generosity of spirit
  • Dignity
  • Collective endeavour
  • Prioritising
  • Academic freedom
  • Sense of global connectedness
  • Commitment to social responsibility
  • Relationship building
  • Flexibility
  • Open mindedness

Kate Bellamy joined the conversation at the end of the session, from Arts Council England who have been creating guidance for UK museums around repatriation. In February, Arts Council England commissioned the Institute of Art and Law (IAL) to produce some new practical guidance to support UK museums to better understand and more proactively deal with all matters dealing with restitution and repatriation. This was in response to a roundtable with ICOM and the British Council to understand what was needed in this area and the feedback from museums and representatives was that they wanted some more process guidance. It is not a new policy, it is about practical guidance managed by Arts Council England but with lots of input from a steering group made up of colleagues from across the sector and in consultation with a wider group of sector representatives and representatives from communities. You can read more about this here and on the IAL website here.

Related links:

University of Aberdeen Repatriation and deaccessioning from the University Collections