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New repatriation working group seeks sector views

Earlier this year the Scottish Government accepted the recommendations by the Empire, Slavery & Scotland’s Museums Steering Group. One of the recommendations was for the creation of guidance to support museums and galleries in their repatriation work. Repatriation is a crucial part of decolonising initiatives and a clear way in which we can actively lead change, consider and reimagine the role of museums and galleries in understanding and addressing legacies of Colonialism, Slavery and Empire.

Museums Galleries Scotland has set up a working group to support this work. In this blog, Neil Curtis, convener of the group and Head of Museums and Special Collections at the University of Aberdeen, explains some of the context for setting up the group and its work going forward.

A Benin Bronze sculpture is pictured in the foreground. The sculpture depicts the head of an Oba of Benin. A person with light skin tone and dark hair is in the background observing the sculpture.

Significance of repatriation

Repatriation by museums in Scotland is nothing new. Glasgow Museums was one of the leaders in international repatriation with its return of a Ghost Dance Shirt in 1999, while the University of Edinburgh first returned human remains about 75 years ago, with others subsequently doing similarly. More recently, the House of Ni’isjoohl memorial pole was rematriated by National Museums Scotland, while the University of Aberdeen was the first museum in the world to return a Benin Bronze in 2021. 

Each of these stories has been an incredibly powerful experience for all the people involved. For those of us working in museums who have been involved with repatriation, this shows the importance of the collections we care for, and how much we can learn from the people most closely associated with them. To those seeing their ancestors and sacred items going back home, it must be so much more significant! 

Although the number of returns is small, how museums think about such returns goes far beyond the individual items – instead leading to a much richer understanding of what the purpose of museums should be. It is also a topic that has become of much greater public interest. Almost two-thirds of the people surveyed as part of the Empire, Slavery and Scotland’s Museums project felt that it was important that museums should return looted and stolen objects. Sadly, it is also an issue that a few people have noisily used as part of a ‘culture war’ that (sometimes intentionally) misunderstands the importance of repatriation to the people having their ancestors and items returned. 

Challenges and considerations

However, for those museums facing a repatriation request for the first time, it can still seem daunting. How should a museum respond to a proposal? What does the museum need to know? How can a museum make a decision that is fair and respectful to everyone concerned? What are the legal and logistical practicalities that need to be considered? What should a museum do if it wants to make a return but doesn’t know who to talk to? We must also remember that for the people making a request, it will probably also be daunting, confusing and expensive, with museums having different approaches and working in different languages. 

Answers to these, and many more detailed questions, will be important. However, the most important thing is to make sure that the first step in any discussion is based on a welcoming conversation, and a willingness to ‘do the right thing’, rather than feeling a need to follow rigid rules.

Next steps

The Repatriation working group is thinking about an online resource to highlight the key factors to be considered, including case studies and links to existing guidance, rather than writing a detailed and comprehensive document to cover all eventualities. It will also be important to keep a record of all cases – not least as a way of enabling people with experience to share the knowledge they have gained with other museums. The working group is keen to hear from anyone working in museums with thoughts about what guidance would be most helpful. This is an important task that involves so many people!

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