Far from home: Working with Indigenous communities - Museums Association

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Far from home: Working with Indigenous communities

Momentum is gathering behind this work, but the UK’s efforts lag behind those of some other countries
Torres Strait artist Alick Tipoti (far left, no headdress) and his accompanying Zugubal Dancers present a dhoeri, or headdress, to curator Anita Herle at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge in 2015

In 2020, the University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum withdrew some of its best-known objects from display. The items in question were shrunken heads – tsanta – which originated from the Indigenous Shuar people in Ecuador.

They were removed from public view on the grounds that their display encouraged “stereotypical and racist” thinking. The tsanta’s former cabinet now includes information on the museum’s human remain collections and its work towards restitution.

This change is part of a wider programme of work addressing the anthropological museum’s colonial legacy. Pitt Rivers director Laura van Broekhoven says that the museum is putting an increasing strategic emphasis on “cultural care”.

This means trying to honour intended cultural context and societal function of objects, even though this might sometimes conflict with traditional museum aims of preservation.

“From a cultural care perspective, objects might need to be sung to, might need to be smudged with sage or other herbs, they might need to be smoked, or food might need to be consumed from them or around them,” Van Broekhoven says.

“Considering issues such as these is part of becoming an institution that is listening more, and thinking about not only equity of access, but also equity of authority – who decides what happens with objects.”

Laura van Broekhoven, director of the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University, which works with a number of different Indigenous peoples on how its collections are stored, interpreted and displayed Photo by Philip Sayer
Reaching out

The museum has been working with the Shuar since 2017. But its relationships with some Indigenous communities, such as the Haida First Nation in Canada, go back decades. This involves projects to increase the Haida’s access to their heritage and the museum’s understanding of it.


In 2014, for example, two Haida carvers developed their practice by visiting the museum to carve a replica of a box in the Pitt Rivers collection. The museum currently works with about 15 Indigenous communities, including from areas such as Tibet, India and North America. Sometimes this leads to the repatriation of objects or ancestral remains. At other times, it has resulted in loans, or involved ceremonies held at the museum to help towards reconciliation.

Van Broekhoven, who worked in the Netherlands before joining the Pitt Rivers in 2016, says Indigenous people can react in different ways to discovering that museums hold parts of their heritage.

Communities from Brazil and Suriname were pleased that their heritage was represented among peoples of the world. “Other communities are not pleased at all,” Van Broekhoven says. “They feel that there’s a huge sense of loss, and that there is a sort of disrespect in the fact that we haven’t reached out before.”

When representatives of Indigenous communities come to discuss objects with Pitt Rivers staff, “sometimes there’s crying and almost wailing because it’s so emotionally charged,” Van Broekhoven says. “Such reactions underline the difference in attitudes to artefacts that for us in our collections are labelled objects – but actually, for lots of Indigenous people, they are ancestors, they’re alive.”

Conversation pieces

This contrast is explored in an exhibition (until 13 November) at Birmingham’s Ikon gallery that includes objects from Japan’s Ainu people held by the Pitt Rivers. Meanwhile, Paisley Museum has reassessed its Pacific islands collection after working with the Indigenous activist group Interisland Collective. In summer 2019, 15 collective members visited to see Paisley’s collection. They advised on interpretation and display, and are now making a film that will contribute to this.


A briefing from the collective shifted staff perspectives, says Paisley’s content delivery manager Aileen Strachan, and the museum now uses the Maori word taonga to refer to the items.

Members of Interisland Collective with staff of Paisley Museum on a visit to the museum stores in 2019 © Crystal Te Moananui-Squares 2019/Paisley Museum

“We now understand the taonga are living, breathing beings, an embodiment of ancestors, that carry ancestral history and knowledge,” says Strachan. “Staff are encouraged to speak with the taonga and we have asked Interisland Collective for suggestions of particular language to be used.”

University museums have often been at the forefront of work with Indigenous communities, and continue to break new ground. Nicholas Thomas, director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) in Cambridge, says his institution has worked extensively with Indigenous and local communities since the 1990s.

There has been a particular focus on the Pacific region, reflecting the make-up of the museum’s collection. The MAA has also worked with First Nations groups, researchers, curators and artists from both North and South America and many African and Asian nations.

Some ongoing work relates to an expedition to the Torres Strait (between Australia and New Guinea) in 1898, led by anthropologist Alfred Haddon. Through this the museum acquired thousands of objects – including photographs, artworks and documentary records – that are now of exceptional importance to Torres Strait Islanders’ research into genealogy and history. The museum has hosted visitors, taken objects to Australia for exhibition, returned the photographic archive digitally and published manuscripts (such as a recent edition of Haddon’s journals).


In 2020, Manchester Museum appointed a curator of Indigenous perspectives, Alexandra P Alberda, to take forward work to indigenise the institution, including speaker events and school workshops.

The previous year, after much provenance research work with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (Aiatsis) and communities, the museum repatriated 43 ceremonial and sacred objects to Indigenous peoples; it continues to work closely with Indigenous people in this part of the world.

Mangubadijarri Yanner (Gangalidda) and Donald Bob (Garawa), representatives of the Gangalidda Garawa Native Title Aboriginal Corporation, with the returning items at Manchester Museum AIATSIS

But significant barriers to developing such work remain. Van Broekhoven says it can be difficult to determine how far someone in discussions with her museum really represents a wider community’s views. And if communities do want objects returned, it isn’t always obvious how to proceed, since in many cases they lack political power and often still live under oppression. “It’s not always clear cut, and that’s why it always needs a case-by-case approach,” she says.

Internationally, Van Broekhoven believes that the UK has some catching up to do compared with other European countries such as France, Germany and the Netherlands, which have made significant investments in work to support restitution. Last year the Dutch government promised to create an independent assessment committee to consider restitution claims. And further afield, the Australian government has also created and funded organisational structures, such as Aiatsis, to support cultural equity.

Van Broekhoven laments the lack of state coordination in the UK, saying that Australia has to go “cap in hand almost to every [UK] institution, having to negotiate, having to jump through all of our hoops. And I think that is quite problematic and really colonial that we continue to do that.”

Van Broekhoven wants to see a much more joined up approach to facilitating restitution claims, preferably backed by the UK government.

Restitution discussions tend to move slowly in the UK museum sector, but there are signs of growing momentum. In August, Arts Council England published long-awaited guidance on restitution and repatriation, saying these processes “often present rich opportunities for enhancing understanding for all involved”. And new legislation is due to pass in England and Wales this autumn that would give national museums leeway to return objects on moral grounds.

Major recent UK restitution announcements include the planned return of 72 objects from Benin (including 12 bronzes) to Nigeria from London’s DCMS-funded Horniman Museum and Gardens. And the universities of Oxford and Cambridge have similarly agreed to return more than 200 objects held by their museums, also including bronzes, pending the Charity Commission’s approval.

Need to know

To support meaningful conversations about Indigenous heritage, research involving the communities it belongs to is vital. The historic emphasis of UK museums on western European cultures means resources for this are limited, but some initiatives are starting to redress the balance.

Since 2011, work coordinated by the British Museum has identified about 40,000 Indigenous Australian objects held by UK and Irish museums. And this year the Wellcome Collection in London and three US partners launched a pilot programme using digital tools to incorporate Indigenous knowledge into curatorial practice.

Van Broekhoven acknowledges a shift in attitudes in the UK sector, but wants to see more financial support for such work.

At the Pitt Rivers, work includes ongoing discussions with the Shuar, academics and government organisations in Ecuador to better understand the tsanta. Last summer, Van Broekhoven visited Quito, capital of Ecuador, to contribute to research involving DNA analysis and CT scanning. This is to help determine which of the tsanta held by the museum were actually used ceremonially by the Shuar: it is suspected that some had a commercial origin, made by dealers to cater for collectors’ demand.

It would not make sense to return the latter to the Shuar, and they have not yet made any specific restitution requests. “But one of the things that they are very specific about,” says Van Broekhoven, “is that if we’re going to be curating displays about the Shuar – with or without tsanta – they want to be involved.”

Jonathan Knott is a freelance journalist

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