Restitution: a blunt “no” is not enough

Cast brown plaques from Benin City at British Museum, Wikimedia Commons

Sharon Heal, 23.04.19

Our latest policy column responds to the UK government’s stance on the return of artefacts

When the Museums Association (MA) reviewed the Code of Ethics in 2015, I don’t think we could have predicted just how much museum ethics would be in the news today.

It’s a sign of the turbulent times that we live in that I now generally carry around a copy of the Code of Ethics so I can readily refer to it if needed. It came in handy when I took part in a BBC World Service debate on museums and sponsorship recently, and it provides the backbone of advice to those that work in the sector on a range of issues.

One such issue is restitution, which has hit the headlines again this week after the Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright ruled out legal changes to allow the return of objects from national museums in England.

His argument seemed to rely on the tired misconception that there would be nothing much left in our museums and “no single points where people can see multiple things” if restitution was allowed.

This kind of thinking flies in the face of the informed conversation about decolonisation, restitution and repatriation that is taking place in the sector in the UK and at government level in many countries in Europe.  

Although Wright appears to be in favour of “cultural cooperation” there’s no detail on how this could work and no suggestions for how museums might engage with source communities to share objects and knowledge. The previous official guidance on restitution and repatriation was published by the Museums and Galleries Commission in 2000 and is now not even available online.

Arts Council England is working with other sector bodies to update the guidance on restitution. Meanwhile, we know from our research at the MA that lots of museums are quietly getting on with the job of reassessing their world culture collections and working with source communities to explore new stories and meanings.

One of the findings from the MA’s recent Empowering Collections report was that collections are increasingly contested. Whilst museums have sought to play a positive role in these discussions, there is a lack of information about how to approach issues related to decolonisation in particular, which is why the MA will be working this year to produce practical advice on this subject. 

Just saying “no” is a blunt message to deliver to those seeking information about their cultural heritage, which has often ended up in UK museums through looting, forced trading or simply because the balance of power was so heavily skewed towards imperial authority.

In FranceGermany and the Netherlands, governments and museums are taking a more proactive and nuanced approach to restitution and decolonisation. Hopefully this will include dialogue between museum professionals in those countries and museum professionals and source communities in African and other nations.

The MA Code of Ethics urges museums to be proactive in developing relationships with source communities and to respond promptly and sensitively to repatriation claims.

Claims for repatriation raise important questions about public benefit and the relationship between museums and communities in the UK and abroad. Museums should strive to build lasting and meaningful relationships with these communities; a blunt “no” is not the way to do that.

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