Returning museum objects to former colonies risks ‘denying Britain’s history’

Patrick Sawer , Senior News ReporterNovember 22, 2019

Edinburgh University’s decision to return a set of skulls to Sri Lanka has been criticised by historians who fear Britain’s museums risk being stripped of objects which are crucial in explaining to future generations this country’s place in the world.

Some of the country’s most respected museum curators and antiquarians have expressed their concern over the growing number of artefacts and works of art being returned to countries from which campaigners say they were “stolen”.

They fear that far from providing a just restitution of objects stolen from their countries of origin, returning works of art paradoxically risks denying Britain’s history as a former imperial power and coloniser.

The writer and broadcaster Tiffany Jenkins, a former visiting fellow at the London School of Economics’s Department of Law and author of Keeping Their Marbles, told The Telegraph: “Museums should not be used for political battles, or for a contemporary culture war. A lot of people seem to think that by returning artifacts they can somehow atone for the past.”

The warnings came as Edinburgh University decided to return a set of nine 200-year-old human skulls to Sri Lanka, from where they were taken more than a century ago.

The move follows an announcement by Manchester Museum that it is to restore 12 Aboriginal objects taken from Australia more than 100 years ago, including sacred ceremonial artefacts and a garment made with emu feathers.

Visiting the museum last week Mangubadijarri Yanner, an indigenous leader, said the treasures had been “taken without our permission” by early 20th Century British colonialists.

“The repatriation of our sacred cultural heritage items is a fundamental part of the healing and reconciliation process,” Mr Yanner said.

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