Arts Council England (ACE) has published new restitution and repatriation guidelines for museums.
The long-awaited guidance is intended to clarify the process around the return of cultural material to its original owner or place of origin. It replaces previous guidance produced by the now-defunct Museums and Galleries Commission in 2000.
First announced in early 2020, the document was much-delayed amid the pandemic and the culture war that erupted over how British institutions deal with legacies of slavery and empire.
Museums Journal understands that publication of the document was held back on several occasions due to its increased political sensitivity. A source told us it was likely that the resignation of Boris Johnson had provided a "window of opportunity" for the guidance to be published before a new prime minister and cabinet are in place.
The guidance does not represent new policy but is intended to ensure museums and other collections-based institutions know how to interpret existing policy. While aimed at museums in England, the arts council says the principles may be applicable for museums across the UK and internationally.
The guidance states that, while restitution and repatriation cases can be complex and time-consuming, they "often present rich opportunities for
enhancing understanding for all involved".
"Considering a claim for restitution can offer the opportunity for museums to develop their collections knowledge and research, to build relationships with originating communities, to open up dialogue around contested items
and to create opportunities for discourse and discussion around cultural heritage," says the guidance.
The document acknowledges the public interest in the debate about restitution and says the guidance is "written in a way that can be accessible to everyone, whether or not they have any previous experience of the English museum sector".
Sector bodies have welcomed the guidance. In a statement, the Museums Association said: "The MA welcomes this guidance from Arts Council England which provides some useful practical advice for museums in England.
"It should be set in the context of the wider movement to decolonise museums and the Supporting Decolonisation in Museums guidance which encourages museums to: grow sustainable, meaningful and equitable relationships with those who are underrepresented and misrepresented within museums; value all forms of knowledge and expertise equally; build knowledge through the exchange of ideas; and most of all to be brave.
"The MA’s guidance specifically says that the repatriation or restitution of museum objects can be a powerful cultural, spiritual and symbolic act which recognises past wrongs and that decolonisation requires an open, proactive and positive approach that places justice at the centre of proposals for repatriation and restitution.
"The decolonisation guidance also says that while policy and procedure is important, it should not obscure the ethical imperative to pursue repatriation and restitution in a proactive and collaborative way. This aligns with The MA’s Code of Ethics, which states that museums should: 'Deal sensitively and promptly with requests for repatriation both within the UK and from abroad.'"
The guidelines come amid a sea-change in approach to repatriation across the international museum community. It was confirmed this week that Oxford and Cambridge universities will support a request to legally transfer ownership of 203 Benin bronzes in their collections to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments. The case has been submitted to the Charity Commission for approval.