University museums should reconsider holding items that were acquired illegally or unethically, according to new guidance from the International Council of Museum’s committee for university museums and collections.
The Guidance for Restitution and Return of Items from Museum University Collections is intended to inform and support universities regarding requests for the return of items from their museums and collections. The document emphasises the need to involve other stakeholders and says the guidance is not intended to supplant laws or other formal frameworks that may be in place.
Acknowledging the “intense debate” around the issue, the guidance states: “University museums often have long and complex histories of acquisition, and many hold items in their collections which were acquired unethically and/or illegally by their collectors/donors. It is only now becoming more widely recognised that the circumstances of acquisition of some of these items should be considered unacceptable, and that holding certain items should be reconsidered.”
According to the guidance, such items can include but are not restricted to:
- ancestral (human) remains
- items which are recognised to be culturally significant by their communities of origin
- items recognised as having ancestral and/or contemporary value by communities, including secular, ceremonial, and secret or sacred items.
The guidance adds: “In general terms, it is unacceptable to acquire cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property without the free, prior and informed consent of the peoples or communities from which the items originate or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs.”
The guidance states that such items include but are not restricted to:
- items acquired as spoils of war
- items acquired through the desecration of graves or sacred sites
- items acquired without necessary permits and authority that were in place at the time of collecting
- items subject to spoliation in Europe between 1933 and 1945
- data unjustifiably extracted for research purposes.
The guidance states that originating peoples and communities are best placed to understand their materials, and urges university museums to establish procedures that regulate the process and create clear points of contact for parties regarding information and restitution requests.
It states: “University museums should invite collaboration by freely and honestly sharing their knowledge, thus enabling an open dialogue with the communities whose items they hold [...]
“Most fundamentally, the process of return and restitution can contribute to healing some of the deep wounds caused by past actions and acknowledges the power of collections to make and remake relationships. It contributes to a future of new cultural practices, new knowledges and new ways of sharing and learning.”