Policy Statement on Repatriation of Cultural Property

September 2006
1. Introduction

1.1. The Museums Association (MA) is an independent membership organisation representing museums and galleries in the UK and people who work for them. The Association has over 5000 individual members and 600 institutional members. Formed in 1889, it receives no regular government funding. It seeks to inform, represent and develop museums and the people who work for them in order that they may provide a better service to everyone.

1.2. This document amalgamates previous advice and opinion given by the MA regarding repatriation of cultural property in response to consultations. It discusses repatriation in general terms, rather than involving specifics of issues such as spoliation and it excludes human remains.

1.3. Repatriation is a complex issue involving a range of emotional, ethical, legal and political factors. It has been a hotly debated topic since repatriation requests began to be received by UK museums in the 1980s, with a report commissioned from Moira Simpson by the MA in 1997 entitled 'Museums and Repatriation' and a Museums and Gallery Commission publication 'Restitution and Repatriation: guidelines for good practice' in 2000.

Repatriation can occur in a variety of circumstances involving a number of different parties. Although individuals have requested the return of property, for example following spoliation in World War II, requests are more often initiated abroad by indigenous communities in former colonised nations of the Western world including the USA, Canada and Australia.

1.4. For example, Glasgow Museums received a request for return of a Lakota Ghost Dance Shirt along with some other items to the Wounded Knee Survivors Association (WKSA) in 1992. After seven years of consultation involving the museum community and public, Glasgow Museums built a relationship with WKSA and proposal for the safe future housing of the shirt with the South Dakota Historical Society, so the Ghost Dance Shirt was repatriated. Glasgow City Council has since set up a Repatriation of Artefacts Working Group.

1.5. The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre Inc (TAC) are involved in ongoing efforts to seek the return of material. In the case of Truganini's necklace and bracelet, held by the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM), Exeter, museum staff investigated the significance of the objects due to Truganini's profile as the last full-blooded member of her community and made contact with TAC.

Exeter City Council approved the return of the objects in 1995 and in 1997 they were collected by TAC for their new home in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. The RAMM has been able to continue its relationship with TAC on the basis of their proactive professionalism in this case.

1.6. In dealing with repatriation requests, and therefore potentially with iconic, sacred or funerary objects, there is no guarantee that repatriated cultural property will be preserved in perpetuity or be publicly accessible. In addition, the museum holding the property in the UK may have restrictions on whether it can deaccession the object. Balancing all of these considerations and taking into account the interests of all parties is what makes careful repatriation decisions so difficult.

1.7. The MA has included repatriation in its statements on illicit trade as the two issues are closely related, so would like to highlight the relationship again here. Illicit trade has looted cultural property from areas across the world, and continues to do so today. While the majority of UK museums now avoid acquiring illicitly traded objects there remains a body of material in UK collections that would not be accepted if it arrived today. Some believe that the presence of this material in UK collections continues degradation of the culture of other countries and communities.

2. Policy Information

2.1. Section 7 of the MA's Code of Ethics recognises the interests of people who made, used, owned, collected or gave items in collections. Specifically, this means museums should:

'7.4 Inform originating communities of the presence of items relevant to them in the museum's collections, wherever practical.'

'7.5. Respect the interests of originating communities with regard to elements of their cultural heritage present or represented in the museum. Involve originating communities, wherever practical, in decisions about how the museum stores, researches, presents or otherwise uses collections and information about them.'

'7.7. Deal sensitively and promptly with requests for repatriation both within the UK and from abroad of items in the museum's collection, taking into account: the law; current thinking on the subject; the interests of actual and cultural descendants; the strength of claimants' relationship to the items; their scientific, educational, cultural and historical importance; their future treatment.'

2.2. We believe that most museums would benefit from clearer government-funded support and assistance in addressing the issue of repatriation claims, but emphasise the need for flexibility so that cases can be considered individually and remain, as far as possible, at a museum-to-museum level. In addition, we believe that contentious areas of repatriation, for example associated with sacred objects, would benefit from further government inquiry as has recently been undertaken for human remains. Such an inquiry was recommended in the report of the DCMS Working Group on Human Remains.

3. Sector views

3.1. The 'Museums and Repatriation' survey in 1997 showed that 97 per cent of Museums Association individual members thought that items should be repatriated under certain specified circumstances (for example, if the items would be preserved in a museum after repatriation). Almost 50 per cent agreed with the statement 'Circumstances have changed and in many cases there are grounds for repatriation, even if the items may not be preserved in a museum'.

3.2. The last ten years of increased attention in this field has also shown that the argument that returning one item will begin a 'slippery slope' leading to large amounts of repatriation is not justified. In 1999 the MA, Museums and Galleries Commission and National Museum Directors' Conference set up a joint standing advisory committee on repatriation and restitution; however by 2001 there were so few new cases to consider that meetings were suspended.

3.3. As repatriation requests from indigenous source communities tend to come from overseas, UK museums have not had to reconsider responsibility for collections on the same scale as museums in Australia, New Zealand or North America. However, the MA generally finds that UK museums are increasingly keen to solve repatriation issues. We are pleased that this is the case and happy to offer advice upon request.