Marble statue from the east pediment of the Parthenon. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Are museums responding well to the growing public discourse on repatriation?

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 12.02.2019
Efforts stepped up to improve provenance research and transparency
The debate about the provenance and repatriation of museum objects – particularly those acquired during the colonial era – has been gaining ground among the general public over the past year.

A number of museums in the UK are stepping up their efforts to conduct provenance research, acknowledge the colonial roots of their collections and provide greater transparency to visitors about how objects were acquired. The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum are among those that have dedicated specific resources and staff to the task. 

Meanwhile, the report commissioned by the French president Emmanuel Macron – published last November – ignited a global conversation about restitution, particularly to sub-Saharan Africa, where an estimated 80% of cultural heritage objects are no longer in their countries of origin. 

These discussions are part of a wider decolonisation movement – talks are currently underway about creating a museum in Glasgow to examine Scotland’s role in colonialism and the slave trade.

Recent controversies have ensured a spotlight stays on the issue. The British Museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, caused a storm last month over comments he made about the Parthenon marbles, the UK's most high-profile contested artefacts.

Fischer was criticised after giving an interview to the Greek newspaper Ta Nea, in which he described the displacement of the sculptures as a “creative act” that had allowed them to be viewed in a new context, and ruled out returning them to Athens on loan.   

His words sparked outrage in some quarters. The secretary of the international association for the return of the Parthenon marbles, George Vardas, took to Twitter to slam Fischer’s “astonishing historical revisionism and arrogance”, saying “the imperial condescension of the British Museum knows no bounds”.

The National Museum of Scotland also hit the headlines last month after the Egyptian authorities asked it to prove ownership of a rare casing stone from the Great Pyramid of Giza, which was brought to Scotland by the royal astronomer Charles Piazzi Smyth in 1872.

The stone has never been displayed and was only rediscovered when archives were being moved during the museum's refurbishment. It is now a centrepiece of the institution's new Egyptian gallery, which opened to the public last week. The museum’s director, Gordon Rintoul, said documentation had been sent to Egypt proving the object was not stolen.

Rintoul also pointed to the museum’s “robust processes” for the repatriation of human remains, including the return last month of two skulls to the Beothuk people in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Speaking to the Herald, he said: "We cannot re-write the past, but what we can do is be honest about what that past is, and how we acquired some of that material."

Writing in this month’s Museums Journal, Neil Curtis, the head of Aberdeen museums and special collections, warned against “Western moral outrage and simplistic arguments”, which he said “may push repatriation on people faster than they would like, and drown out the subtler – yet powerful – challenges to museum practice made by indigenous people”.



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