Museums are in the midst of an identity crisis. The International Council of Museums’ attempt last year to rewrite its definition of “museum” exposed a rift in the global heritage community and the question of what a museum is, its purpose and who it is for has prompted much soul-searching. In the meantime, the answers have only become more complicated.
The pandemic has rewritten how we thought this coming decade would look, while the Black Lives Matter movement has forced western institutions to confront how their histories intertwine with racism, colonialism and slavery.
Over the past few months, Museums Journal has been following the progress of two groundbreaking UK museum projects that are approaching decolonisation and repatriation in new ways. Along the way, it has become clear that their work may provide fresh insights on some of the existential questions facing the sector.
Museums in the UK have been undertaking repatriation and developing relationships with communities of origin for years. This can sometimes be a fraught process, with institutions accused of obfuscating and stalling repatriation requests, maintaining the old colonial power structures that severed communities from their cultural heritage in the first place.
In 2017, the Pitt Rivers Museum – once described as “one of the most violent spaces in Oxford” – chose to take a new approach and launched the Living Cultures initiative. This developed from an encounter with Samwel Nangiria, a socio-environmental scientist and Maasai representative, who, when visiting the museum for an indigenous leadership programme, was shocked by inaccuracies in the displays and documentation of Maasai collections, and the way his society was represented as a “dead people”.
Nangiria proposed a partnership between Maasai representatives in Kenya and Tanzania, InsightShare, an NGO that supports indigenous communities to represent themselves on critical issues, and the Pitt Rivers Museum; it has since expanded to include London’s Horniman Museum and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge.
The project is unique in that it has been led by the Maasai traditional system. There are no restrictions on the access that communities have to the collections, the time they spend on the process or the eventual fate of the objects, whether that is reinterpretation or repatriation.
“It’s time museums start to make meaning of these objects by generating knowledge,” says Nangiria. “We want them to attach the same significance to them that indigenous communities do.”
The delegation has made two trips to the UK. On the first, they looked at 88 artefacts from the museum’s collection of 188 Maasai items. Many were wrongly described and documented, but did not present additional issues. However, the delegation identified five as being significantly problematic, including secret relics that are traditionally passed from father to son on the former’s deathbed. “These could not have been obtained by normal means,” says Nangiria.
On the second visit, which took place in January this year, the seven-strong delegation included the son of the Maasai’s spiritual leader, who came to offer guidance on the provenance of the five objects and what should be done with them.
This spiritual focus is at the heart of the project and has highlighted the violence present in the museum’s collections in a visceral way. The full story of how many of these objects came to the museum is lost to time, but for the Maasai, encountering them was akin to seeing dead bodies lying on the shelves, says Yannick Ndoinyo, another representative of the group.
“For us, these are things that connect one generation to another and help in the transfer of knowledge,” says Ndoinyo. “It was truly emotional when we saw them.”
The group found it difficult to understand why no attempt had been made to explore the significance or origin of the artefacts. They were particularly disturbed by the provenance of an item that their spiritual leader believes was forcibly stolen from a mother murdered in front of her child.
This raises a challenging question for museum staff, says Juliana Nainan Mashati, who came as part of the second delegation to ensure the voices of Maasai women – who are traditionally the architects and keepers of cultural heritage – are heard in the project.
“This item would never be sold or be a gift. The only way to take it would be by killing,” she says. “How do you feel about the circumstances that led to it being here?”
It is a question that Pitt Rivers staff are grappling with. A frequent source of tension in projects such as these is the gulf between the professional detachment of curatorial staff and the painful emotional toll the process can take on communities of origin. Being confronted with such terrible stories about objects that are held in the museum can be a jolting experience for staff.
“Hearing the violence of individual stories – things taken because people had to flee – gives a multi-layered picture. It’s almost like a movie,” says Marina de Alarcón, the museum’s joint head of collections. “I haven’t unpacked it in my own head yet. Being a keeper of collections, there’s a feeling of complicity in those injustices. That’s why it is so important for me to be involved in the process of healing. It’s what drives me.”
At the same time, it’s important to recognise that this trauma does not belong to museum staff, she stresses. “We can’t feel that pain and it would be offensive if we did. We can empathise but it’s not ours to feel.” De Alarcón says the experience has clarified for her that curators “are the stewards of the collections, not the keepers or the gatekeepers”.
Being an experimental partnership, none of the participants knew what lay ahead, but three years in, it is apparent that the process is intrinsically changing the fabric of the Pitt Rivers Museum. After the first visit, the Maasai delegation reported their experiences back to the community and debated a key question: is the museum a place or an idea? If it is simply a place that people visit, then “how do you bear to live with all these heavy facts?” asks Nainan Mashati. But if it is an idea? “Then maybe it can be brought to account,” she says.
This call for accountability, and the idea that a museum can be reborn as an arbiter of healing rather than a site of violence, has been transformational, says Laura van Broekhoven, the director of Pitt Rivers. “That’s our main driver now,” she says. “That’s the change we’ve committed to.”
The next phase of the Living Cultures partnership will focus on reparation and reconciliation, taking the lead from the Maasai community’s traditional methods of resolving disputes. It may involve the Pitt Rivers brokering talks between Maasai families and the descendants of people on the British side known to have brought the artefacts to the museum.
Another institution exploring fundamental questions about its collections is Manchester Museum, whose partnership with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Studies (AIATSIS) has seen it return 43 secret and sacred ceremonial objects to Aboriginal people in Australia over the past year.
Although the museum has a long track record of returning human remains, the repatriation broke new ground in the UK as the first time secret and ceremonial material had been returned to Australia.
It was also set apart by the fact that the return was unconditional, with the museum acknowledging that Aboriginal people have the primary and sole right of ownership and control over the objects. The project came about after AIATSIS, which runs a Return of Cultural Heritage programme funded by the Australian government, approached Manchester Museum to ask if it would be interested in repatriating items from its Aboriginal collections ahead of the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s first voyage to the country.
It is the first time the museum has taken a systematic approach to the return of objects.
Covid’s impact on repatriation
The pandemic has had a big impact on the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Studies’ (AIATSIS) Return of Cultural Heritage programme.
The organisation had to cancel a visit by two more Aboriginal communities to Manchester Museum for a second handover ceremony in March. The museum instead arranged for the material to be sent to Australia.
“AIATSIS staff and a senior Yawuru Lawman were able to collect the Yawuru material on its arrival into Perth and safely escort it to the countryside where it was welcomed in a private ceremony,” says Tamarind Meara, the project research manager at AIATSIS. But material that was due to be returned to the Aranda group was affected by lockdown and border restrictions, and is being stored in a facility in Sydney.
AIATSIS had also intended to meet key individuals involved in the repatriation, particularly elders and other knowledge holders, to discuss the material and the impact of its return on their community.
This research phase is intended to document each community’s perspective on the significance of repatriating cultural heritage material to First Nations people for cultural revitalisation and maintenance. The institute hopes that this research can restart when Covid restrictions ease.
“We decided to focus more intently not just on how we care for collections but how we care for people,” says Esme Ward, the director of Manchester Museum. In recent years, there has been a growing sense of urgency among First Nations communities about repatriation, says Lyndall Ley, the executive director of AIATSIS’s cultural heritage programme.
“I’ve noticed a shift in how people are talking about emotional trauma,” says Ley. “It’s moved away from the materiality of the object; people are exploring what it means to be missing these items from their lives. That’s getting louder as a way of thinking about collections.”
This led the partnership to take a people-centred approach. The process of repatriation can be quite transactional, says Ward. “If we can be a bit more relational that’s got to be a good thing.”
For the first handover, in October 2019, two representatives of the Gangalidda Garawa group, Mangubadijarri Yanner and Donald Bob, spent a week in Manchester before the official ceremony. “It was a full-on week,” says Stephen Welsh, who was the museum’s curator of world cultures at the time of the project. “There were emotional farewells at the end and none of us knew quite what to do with each other. It was quite intense.”
The impact of the objects’ return to their communities was even more profound; busloads of people came to welcome them home and one community leader observed an all-night vigil with the material.
Caring and curatorship
The project has caused those involved to examine what it means to care for collections. “I’ve been questioning where the word ‘curator’ comes from,” says Welsh. “It means care for, watch over. That applies to collections, but it’s also about the encounter and the notion of stewardship and curatorship. We have to broaden our sense of what that means. It should mean caring for people first and foremost.”
The project touched the entire museum, Welsh says, but it also had a significant impact in the wider sector because of the partnership’s decision to be “as transparent as humanly possible” about the process. “So many of the conversations around repatriation happen behind closed doors, but that’s a mistake because it is terrifying if you don’t know what it looks like,” he says.
For him, the next step is looking at how museums can be supported to put this work at their core. “There’s an opportunity for museums to come together and think collectively about this,” he says.
Back at Pitt Rivers, staff are developing a plan for what this might look like. The museum is remaking itself as an anti-racist institution, says Van Broekhoven, and recently announced that it would remove its famous shrunken heads from display as part of this transformation. She takes inspiration from the idea of radical hope, an academic theory that considers how cultures or institutions can rebuild when their founding concepts become obsolete. “What happens when you fall out of love with the culture that you have?” she asks.
As the museum community explores how it can recover after Covid, it might be that the answers to some of these searching questions are within reach.
Laura van Broekhoven is among the speakers in a panel discussion about repatriation at this year’s Museums Association conference at 1330-1430 on Wednesday 4 November