Following breakthroughs in the Benin bronzes dispute last week, Manchester Museum has announced preparations to recruit a new curator of living cultures, with a focus on proactive identification of contested materials within the museum’s collection.
Georgina Young, head of exhibitions and collections at Manchester Museum, will be recruiting for the new curator to join her team in April. Curator of living cultures is an existing role within the museum, but responsibilities associated with the position have shifted.
“What has changed is that it is much more explicit than it was a decade ago about repatriation and restitution being a core part of the job,” Young said. “The expectation is that the new post will proactively look for contested items in the collection and not simply wait upon requests from various parties.”
Understanding an object’s provenance and how it became part of the museum’s collection is essential to curation. “It means that we are honest about where it came from and how we claimed it. That’s part of the duty of care anyway; understanding your collection is not controversial,” Young added.
Manchester Museum partners with Pitt Rivers Museum in its research on African restitution, alongside 12 other organisations across the UK. Led by Dan Hicks, professor of contemporary archaeology at the University of Oxford and a Pitt Rivers curator, the research focuses on supporting efforts to return objects of cultural heritage from European collections back to Africa on a case-by-case basis.
November 2019 saw Manchester Museum return 43 secret sacred and ceremonial items of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities back to Australia, and the museum’s partnership in current African repatriation research builds on the same commitment to restitution in other areas of the world.
“It's about knowing our collection better, but it’s also about understanding that in some instances what we discover may mean that ethically we don’t feel that we ought to hold those items,” said Young. “It’s a transference of expectation; it is part of our duty of care to identify items that might be contested and open up the conversation.”
The museum, part of the University of Manchester, also announced its support of a Diverse Curriculum Charter this week. Conceived in the wake of international Black Lives Matter protests and launched by Afzal Khan, MP for Manchester Gorton, the charter promotes diverse and anti-racist education for primary and secondary school children. Schools are being invited to sign up for the charter to show a commitment to diversifying education.
Khan, who is leading the scheme, spoke of the important role that museums can play in reshaping young people’s understanding of their history and heritage. He said: “All children – no matter their race or background – should be given the opportunity to engage in a wide-ranging curriculum which truly reflects the make-up of British society today. We know that our museums can play a crucial role in this by serving as spaces for identity-forming, truth-telling and educating.”