19 April 2021

Keeping Connected – Repatriation

By Johann Zetterstrom-Sharp (Chair)   

 On March 16th we hosted the first of MEG’s Keeping Connected events, focusing on repatriation.

These events emerged through conversations about what MEG is and what we have to offer, and the recognition that MEG is a community. It has been a place where colleagues have felt supported, able to ask questions they struggle asking within their organisations, talk things through and get advice in a friendly, supportive environment. We have been thinking this past year about what we can do to support our members to do important work, particularly around opening up access (including through repatriation) and decentring knowledge about collections.

At the moment this support feels important. The urgency of acknowledging and working through the colonial nature of our institutions and collections is crucial, but many are working in isolation with little, or unstable, institutional support. Colleagues are often expected to provide quick and complete answers to requests for action within organisations whom publicly promised change in the summer of 2020 without necessarily being ready for it. In other contexts there is the institutional will, coupled with anxiety over risks to funding. We feel sharing best practice and making changes collectively can help.

Repatriation, restitution and return have been flagged repeatedly as something our members feel passionately about, want to support, and see as important to their roles. In many cases, however, our institutions, processes and policies are not ready: there is no clear road map. This is a barrier for all concerned. Institutional inexperience and unreadiness (at CEO, Director or Trustee level) can get redirected towards people whose job it is to care for collections, but have very limited direct power about what happens to collections beyond their status as museum objects. Likewise for individuals and organisations who would like to make a request for the return of their belongings or material heritage, the lack of a clear road map means they do not know how their request will be received, what supporting evidence will be required, or what emotional labour will be expected of them. This is harmful and disrespectful.

The Keeping Connected workshop included short introductions by JC Niala and Juma Ondeng, Emma Martin, and Stephen Welsh, about building trust, writing repatriation policies, and processing requests. Members were then able to indicate who they wanted to speak to and seek advice from in break-out rooms. Some of the conversations had are explored below.

Building Trust

JC Niala and Juma Ondeng reflected on their experience as part of the Rethinking Relationships and Building Trust around African Collections project based at the Horniman Museum in South London, MAA in Cambridge, Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and World Museum, Liverpool. This project was focused on developing new ways of working in order to build the trust needed to have equitable conversations about the futures of collections, including repatriation. As a result of Covid-19, the project became increasingly focused on understanding and working through barriers to digital access, in recognition that for the majority of community members who would like to access their material heritage in European collections, this access will happen digitally.

Both Juma and JC highlighted how trust is not a given, it takes time and is based primarily not on models of working or templates, but on individuals and their relationships with each other. Relationships are not between museums and communities, they are between people.

A question was raised about how to work through conflicting needs and opinions within communities where the future of collections are concerned. We were reminded that community dynamics are not ours; that includes making decisions about whose opinion is most valid, but also playing the role of arbitrator. By focusing on access and transparency (about collections and provenance, but also crucially museum processes and terminologies) we can provide a community with the information they need to reach decisions that work for them.

For me this is a reminder that we are often impatient to see clear and neat conclusions that fit within the structures of ownership and entitlement that our professions already work within. What is needed is patience and openness. It also highlights that trust goes both ways: we also need to trust that communities know themselves how to manage and work through differences in opinion.

As part of demonstrating that trust, Juma noted the importance of taking the time to identify cultural gatekeepers, leaders and elders within a community, and showing them due respect. This includes ensuring they are kept informed from the beginning so that everyone is on the same page and has all the relevant information.

Repatriation Policy Development

Emma Martin spoke about the process of developing a new repatriation policy at World Museum, Liverpool. The last few years have seen the development of individual repatriation policies for museums across the UK, rather than relying on Arts Council templates. This is significant because it has in many cases forced a reflection on what these policies need to do in anticipation of a rise in formal requests made directly to the museum. For Liverpool, the formal policy will be accompanied by a document written for individuals and organisations who want to approach the museum to make a request or claim. This aims at clarity around process, with step-by-step guidance to build a clear road map. This is as much about supporting the claims process as it is being honest and open in order to manage expectations. That includes the time that it takes to process claims, the potential costs involved, and how claims will be assessed.

This honesty is crucial. Whilst it is understandable that museum leaders want their institutions to be perceived as ethical and committed to social justice, raising expectations that requests for restitution will be always granted, or that the process will be straightforward - when this is not the case - is both disrespectful and harmful. It serves no useful purpose.

Emma reflected on the importance of taking time over the writing of policy, thinking carefully about who will read and use it. At Liverpool this meant speaking with colleagues in the organisation as a first step, ensuring that the whole organisation was on board. This included senior management who would need to defend and understand the policy to advocate for it, and get it signed off. It also included an external public conversation focusing on how this policy might affect visitors to the museum. It is important to recognise that people feel strongly about the museums they love, and may be afraid of change. There is rarely space to discuss what repatriation or restitution actually means in practice, why it is important, and what changes visitors might see, through examples and case studies. The result was that the museum was able to bring people on board who were initially resistant to a transparent and clear policy that might encourage claims.

Processing Claims

Something that comes up repeatedly is the lack of experience colleagues have in working on requests for restitution. This also means that there is a lack of transparency about process for individuals or organisations making a claim. This can be a source of mistrust and misunderstanding for all those involved. It is difficult to provide reassurance that claims will be dealt with respectfully when there are no other examples to point to, likewise inexperience can mean that the integrity of a request is not taken seriously.

Stephen Welsh was invited to talk about his experience working with AIATSIS (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies) during the unconditional repatriation of secret, sacred and ceremonial objects to Aboriginal communities in Australia. AIATSIS is a collecting, publishing and research institute dedicated to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and peoples, and led the Return of Cultural Heritage project. Stephen highlighted how once the formal claim was made by AIATSIS, the processing of the claim by the museum took 10 months. This accelerated timeframe was enabled by existing research and experience of repatriation at Manchester Museum, and the experience of AIATSIS working with external repatriation processes and policies, as well as the fact that they had been able to resource their own research process into the collections.

This is of course vital when museums are themselves under resourced to do this work themselves. Agreements had further already been made on the costs and logistics of the return, including clarity about where the belongings would be returned to. There are a total of 3039 Aboriginal and Torres Strait objects in the collection at Manchester, and 43 of these were subject to the request. It is worth adding that although AIATSIS has been incredibly successful acting as an intermediary between communities and museums in supporting the return of objects, some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities approach relationships with museums, cultural rejuvenation and repatriation in other ways.

This case study highlights the importance of building strong relationships prior to the claim, but also how the processing of the AIATSIS claim was relatively uncomplicated because the senior management at the Manchester Museum trusted the organisation and its research methodology. It is important to consider the power of governmental legitimacy, and how this is difficult to translate in contexts where communities do not have that platform nor its resource to make their case, or where the case for return sits in tension with a national position. It is also worth considering the fact that there are strong claims for the return of objects that were clearly taken under duress and have significant spiritual value in other contexts, that have not been answered. This highlights how although policies often state that claims will be answered on a case by case basis, it is not only the details of the case that determine the outcome, but also the way in which a case is articulated and by whom, and how it is resourced. This brings us back to the importance of trust, and access. Without trust and the conversations it enables, we are scrambling around trying to pull pieces together into a mold that was not built to accommodate them.



At MEG we feel as a collective that enabling the possibility of restitution to become a normal part of museum work is the way to building a better and more humane future for museums with colonial era collections. Crucially, it will help build the trust that is so vital to enabling good work, to understanding our collections better, being more representative, creative and useful to community members and visitors alike. If you have ideas or suggestions as to how we can support you, please get in touch.

Job: Programme Manager: African Histories and Heritage Collaborative Programmes, British Museum

Programme Manager: African Histories and Heritage Collaborative Programmes 

Fixed-Term (5 years)
£49,962 per annum
Application Deadline: 12pm on 27 April 2021

The British Museum is seeking an experienced Programme Manager to plan and deliver an exciting and complex externally-funded research and public engagement programme in collaboration with curatorial and research staff. The African Histories and Heritage Collaborative Programmes will involve working with partners nationally and internationally in the development and delivery of innovative, collaborative projects with a focus on diverse African histories and heritage, including pre-colonial African histories and global connections, and shared African-British history and heritage.

In this role you will lead on strategic budget and resource planning, and the reporting and management of the programme and its projects. This will involve the development and delivery of operational, financial, contractual and governance frameworks to ensure successful collaboration and the timely delivery of the programme. You will be responsible for coordination of the programme and activities with partners, managing dependencies and the different priorities of collaborative partners.

Full details on the British Museum website 

Survey: Developing Ethnographic Collections in Museums

 This survey is part of a research project carried out under the supervision of the Archaeology Department and the Oriental Museum, Durham University. The survey will be asking questions regarding how you or your museum approach the development of ethnographic collections and the process of acquiring ethnographic material. The responses of the survey will be beneficial for museums planning to further develop their ethnographic collection in the future, as it will provide insights into how different museums approach the practical and ethical issues relating to the process. It will take approximately 10 minutes. 

The results of the survey are not for redistribution purposes and will not be published without consent, but please feel free to contact wzgq56@durham.ac.uk for a copy of the survey outcome. A link to the survey:  https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/J5P72Y5  Thank you very much for your time.