Collections, part three - Museums Association

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Collections, part three

Repatriation and restitution

The repatriation or restitution of museum items can be a powerful cultural, spiritual and symbolic act which recognises past wrongs and restores items to their original community. Decolonisation requires an open, proactive and positive approach that places justice at the centre of proposals for repatriation and restitution.

Defining repatriation and restitution

The terms ‘repatriation’ and ‘restitution’ are often used interchangeably, but they have slightly differing meanings: repatriation refers to the return of cultural property to its place or country of origin, while restitution refers to the return of cultural material to its original owners. Repatriation and restitution are often discussed as being synonymous with decolonisation, yet they are only part of the work that needs to be undertaken by museums.

Procedures for repatriation and restitution

There are few legal obstacles to repatriation and restitution for most museums. With the exception of some national museums, most items in the ownership of museums in the UK are covered by UK property laws, and the owners can determine if and how to transfer ownership or repatriate an item, subject to any conditions placed on individual items (such as via a legacy). In the vast majority of cases of repatriation and restitution, museums should not be restricted by legal statute.

Good procedures are vital in ensuring that items are properly considered and returned to the appropriate person or group. All museums should have a repatriation policy or procedure in place that sets out how any proposal for repatriation will be managed.

Most UK museums able to make returns will include the standard clause on repatriation in the institution’s collections development policy, but developing a more detailed policy or procedure can be helpful. In England, Arts Council England (ACE) guidance will provide practical advice on how museums can implement effective repatriation and restitution procedures.

While policy and procedure is important, it should not obscure the ethical imperative to pursue repatriation and restitution in a proactive and collaborative way. This aligns with our Code of Ethics, which states that museums should: “Deal sensitively and promptly with requests for repatriation both within the UK and from abroad.” Here we set out some key issues to consider when working in this area.

Case study: The University of Aberdeen – Return of Benin Bronze

Although the University has previously repatriated items from the museum collections, the decision to return a Benin bronze Head of an Oba was the first time the process was initiated by the University. Provenance research showed that although it had been bought in 1957, it was one of those looted during the attack and destruction of Benin City in 1897.

The first step was to contact relevant people in Nigeria, helped by a professor of law based in Nigeria who arranged for a proposal to be made in July 2020 by the Nigerian Federal Government, with the support of the Royal Court of the Oba of Benin and the Edo State Government.

The University’s published procedure was followed, which has non-prescriptive criteria to guide discussion by an Advisory Group on Repatriation involving academic, curatorial, and managerial staff from the university, a representative of the governing body, the director of another museum in Scotland and a member nominated by the people making the proposal. The Group’s recommendation to return the item was based on the history of looting and so the lack of moral title.

The University’s governing body agreed and the decision to return was announced in March 2021, after which immediate and long-term plans for what to do with the Head of an Oba and the arrangements for its return were determined by the Nigerian parties. Their discussions led to them proposing a ceremonial return in Aberdeen in October 2021 to coincide with a visit by a high status delegation to a meeting of the Benin Dialogue Group.

Bronze sculpture depicting an Oba (king) of Benin
Bronze sculpture depicting an Oba (king) of Benin

Repatriation and restitution: issues to consider

– How can you take a proactive and collaborative approach? Be proactive in researching collections, identifying priority items that may be of interest for repatriation and restitution, and communicating about them with potential stakeholders. Collaborate with the person or group to whom an item may be returned, working together to understand the issues, concerns and motivations at play, and exploring all possible outcomes.

– Collaboration can result in a positive ongoing relationship with the museum – but this should not be expected or used as a main motivation for repatriation and restitution. Returning an item does not place any obligation on those involved to continue the relationship.

– Can you take a co-ordinated approach with other museums when contacting a person or group about a possible repatriation or restitution? Where more than one museum is working on items relating to a specific person or group, it is important to avoid duplication or overwhelming partners. There is a growing role for Subject Specialist Networks in this area of practice.

– How can you create an equal and respectful relationship? Many groups undertake cultural work on a voluntary basis and have no or limited recourse to funds. Provide guidance which supports groups to understand your museum, your motivations and your processes. Ensure that this is available in the relevant languages.

– Recognise and be respectful of the interests and expertise of partners and stakeholders. Wherever possible observe the appropriate cultural and spiritual protocols in terms of collections care and management. If full restitution or repatriation is not requested, explore other collaborative models to inform the care, storage, display and interpretation of collections material, for example via collections management agreements or memoranda of understanding.

– The language of repatriation and restitution tends to encourage a reactive and adversarial stance from museums. Instead of talking about ‘claims’ and ‘claimants’, you could instead refer to ‘proposals’ for restitution. A proposal for repatriation or restitution could be made by the museum as well as an originating community or national government.

Further resources

Museums can access support, including templates and advice on recording and researching the process of repatriation and restitution, here.

The Museum Ethnographers Group also has a regularly updated resource relating to repatriation here.