From acquisitions to loans, due diligence is vital to many areas of collections work in museums. But such policies have come under greater scrutiny as the debate over repatriation and decolonisation intensifies.
Earlier this month, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Exeter found itself in the headlines after repatriation negotiations with the Siksika nation in Canada stalled. Siksika representatives expressed frustration at the process and subsequent media reports accused RAMM of “refusing” to return the items, which include a buckskin shirt, bags and pouches belonging to the 19th century indigenous leader, Chief Crowfoot.
But according to the museum, its position was misconstrued; a spokeswoman said the process had come to a halt because of a delay in receiving accreditation information and details on how the artefacts will be cared for at the Blackfoot Crossing Heritage Centre, where they will be housed after they are returned.
“Under RAMM’s current policy, the museum has an ethical obligation to carry out due diligence to ensure the long-term preservation of the returned material,” Camilla Hampshire, the museum manager at RAMM, told Museums Journal.
The case has highlighted the complexities involved in the repatriation process, where traditional museum standards and conditions of care can sit uneasily alongside the priorities and capacity of communities of origin. Manchester Museum reached a milestone last year when it became the first UK institution to repatriate secret and sacred material to Aboriginal communities without precondition.
Elsewhere in the world, countries where repatriation practice is more extensive are adopting a similar approach. As one Twitter user pointed out in relation to the RAMM dispute, a groundbreaking 2017 symposium in Canada that brought together museums and indigenous communities agreed that repatriating institutions should, among other things, return objects on an unconditional basis and recognise that “only the relevant First Nation and/or hereditary owners can determine appropriate handling, storage and interpretation”.
However, rethinking due diligence requirements could have legal and ethical implications for UK institutions – and, as in the case of RAMM, the final decision to return an object often rests with a governing body or local authority that may have less awareness of the complexities or principles involved.
Arts Council England is intending to produce further guidance on restitution and repatriation this year. It is clear that the sector has a responsibility to take a much deeper look at these sensitive issues as the debate moves forward.