The conversation

Neil Curtis, Nick Thomas, Issue 118/05, p17, 01.05.2018
Are long-term loans a good solution to repatriation claims?
Dear Nick: Repatriation from museums has not only had a positive effect on the people to whom objects have been returned, but also on museums, as it has challenged them to rethink the meanings of their collections and their relationships with people. I therefore don’t think that a request should be seen as a problem that needs a “solution”. Whether a long-term loan is good or not really depends on whether it is what both want or if it is a least-worst compromise, with the museum grimly holding on to legal title. Best wishes, Neil

Dear Neil: Arguments about the repatriation of artefacts can seem versions of the same debate, whereas every case is truly different: things were collected differently, communities have varied connections to them, and want them back, if they do, for different reasons. So there is no standard answer. An extended loan may seem just a compromise. But it is potentially a more positive option than retention or permanent repatriation. It can mean sustaining relationships, enabling joint research, conservation and interpretation. Collections are not so much possessions as a means to collaboration, capacity-building and community participation. Best wishes, Nick

Dear Nick: Indeed. These discussions are primarily about relationships – among living people, “objects” and ancestors – so the outcome  of each discussion will be unique. Long-term relationships may develop, such as extended loans, joint working or community participation, but we should not demand this from people who may be living thousands of miles away and who may have no desire for continuing connections. Museums should therefore try to enable these relationships to be based on trust and mutual respect, and so approach discussions with humility and sincerity. Best wishes, Neil

Dear Neil: I agree. And it’s vital to that humility that we go the distance, and take the trouble to understand the situations and perspectives of particular communities. For me, this is part of the late Martin Roth’s ideal of “total accessibility”. We hold collections that are of great significance to communities of origin. Artefacts also have cross-cultural significance for British and European publics. It’s important that we maintain displays for those publics and for diasporic communities. The loan model is positive because we can anticipate continuing circulation, and public benefit across many settings. Best wishes, Nick

Dear Nick: Nonetheless, some repatriation requests are for ancestral remains or sacred items that aim to stop them being treated as museum artefacts. We may believe in the importance of multiple, shifting and cross-cultural meanings, and are committed to “total accessibility”. So, repatriation can be a real challenge if it aims to stop something from being a “museum object”, such as permanent removal from display or study, physical alterations or reburial. Sometimes, we need to be willing to go the full distance by accepting a future that is about significantly restricting access. Best wishes, Neil

Dear Neil: There’s now a consensus that human remains are treated separately, and more support than ever for their repatriation. With respect to artefacts, many indigenous people feel strongly that ancestral works should be preserved in museum settings. I don’t personally support the removal of culturally significant material from curated collections. Individuals, communities, nations, diasporas and global citizens all have interests in heritage; no group should preclude future access. We need to sustain open-minded debate about the philosophical and ethical issues. In the short term, loans give us the chance to reconnect artefacts, people and places. Best wishes, Nick

Neil Curtis is the head of museums at the University of Aberdeen and is a member of the Museums Association’s Ethics Committee

Nick Thomas is the director of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Comments

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Jonathan Gammond
Access , Wrexham County Borough Museum
18.05.2018, 09:02
Great discussion.

Only one question why is there a presumption that "we believe" should trump "we think", "we feel", "we wonder" or "we question".