In the past two years Glasgow has become the first UK museum to repatriate objects to India. Newcastle and the Horniman in south London followed an example set by Aberdeen and Cambridge by returning looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria. Exeter handed sacred regalia to the Siksika Nation in Canada. Oxford returned the remains of 18 indigenous people to Australia.
Earlier this month Manchester completed a landmark return of 174 objects to the to the Anindilyakwa community, who live on an archipelago in the Gulf of Carpentaria, off the northern coast of Australia.
It was a tearful handover, one hailed by Unesco as a “historic and moving” example of repatriation which it hoped others would see as a model.
The scale of repatriation – or rematriation as it was proudly labelled by a Scottish national museum returning a totem pole to Canada – is unprecedented but missing from all this, campaigners say, are the nation’s London-based national museums who look increasingly isolated.
“Regional museums are so far ahead of national institutions,” said Lewis McNaught, who runs the not-for-profit Returning Heritage project.
“It has been led by Glasgow and it really just remains for national collections to wake up to the trend which is, actually, now global. The UK is really falling behind quite dramatically.”
Dan Hicks, a professor of contemporary archaeology at Oxford University as well as curator at the city’s Pitt Rivers Museum, said repatriation has become part of the “fake culture wars” with some on the right seeing it as “wokery”.
“What that means, sadly, for our national institutions is that they are being forced into a position of inertia and making themselves increasingly irrelevant with every week that goes by and every restitution that we see from the regions and elsewhere around the world.
“Everyone else is getting on with it.”
The big reasons for the two different narratives is that the London-based national museums are hamstrung by legislation.
The British Museum Act 1963 specifically forbids the museum from disposing of its holdings. The National Heritage Act of 1983 prevents trustees of institutions, including the V&A, Science Museum and others, from deaccessioning objects unless they are duplicates or beyond repair.
Regional museums, whether they are run by local authorities, universities or are regimental museums or private, don’t have the same issue.
But the picture is more complicated, said Hicks, and repatriation is also not a new issue or debate.
“There is a deep and long history to restitution in this country. Edinburgh university was returning human remains two generations ago, never mind one generation … there are scores if not hundreds of stories over the past 40 to 50 years.
“It should be part of what museums do. It’s a part of the job.”
Glasgow is seen as a leader in the repatriation conversation since an agreement in 1998 to return a Sioux warrior shirt acquired at the end of the 19th century from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
The return of the Lakota Sacred Ghost Dance Shirt to the Wounded Knee Survivors’ Association established criteria that have been widely adopted in the museum sector.
Duncan Dornan, the head of museums and collections at Glasgow Life, said repatriation should be seen as a two way process and recalled the joy at the signing ceremony last year for the repatriation of artefacts to India.
“It was a very emotional event and Glaswegians of Indian heritage were very emotional. Their response was that they were very proud of their city.
“We see repatriation as establishing a relationship of equals and emphasising Glasgow as an outward-looking modern city.
“This is about a 21st-century relationship rather than a historic relationship.”
Hicks, author of the book The Brutish Museums, said there was a London-based conversation going on that was “completely out of step” with ones going on regionally and internationally.
“Here there are conversations about restitution, but also more broadly questions about how you deal with the enduring legacies of colonialism, imperialism and the periods when our cultural institutions were co-opted for ideas which have no place in our culture today.”
The recent Manchester Museum return of objects was seen as important because they were not giving back things that had been looted. They were everyday objects, including dolls made from shells, baskets and boomerangs.
“We believe this is the future of museums,” said Esme Ward, the director of Manchester Museum. “This is how we should be.”
Unesco hopes that Manchester will be a model for other museums to follow. Krista Pikkat, Unesco’s director for culture and emergencies, said: “It is a truly historic and moving moment. This is a case we have shared with our member states because we felt it was exemplary in many ways.”
The UK government has no plans to change the law that could then lead to movement in some of the most high-profile repatriation debates such as the Parthenon marbles and the Benin bronzes.
Campaigners say the UK is looking increasingly isolated and there is a growing movement for a change in the law.
Lord Vaizey, a former long-serving Conservative arts minister, has said the 1983 act “makes it almost impossible for UK museums to establish themselves as outward-looking, modern institutions fit for purpose in the 21st century”.
There are ways of getting around it. The V&A announced last year that it was returning the Head of Eros, a life-sized marble carving dating back to the 3rd century AD, to Turkey to be reattached to the famous Sidamara sarcophagus.
It made good a promise made by the British government in 1934 but the return is essentially a long-term loan, not an unconditional return.
Across the world, from the US to France to Germany and the Vatican, countries are repatriating objects. “Almost everywhere you look, items are being returned,” said McNaught.
In July, for example, the Netherlands repatriated nearly 500 looted objects to Sri Lanka and Indonesia.
The objects going to Sri Lanka include the famous and fabulous ruby-inlaid Cannon of Kandy dating from 1745, one of six objects from the Rijkmuseum that represented the very first return of colonial items from the museum’s collection.
Items being returned to Indonesia included the Lombok treasure, 335 precious stones, gold and silver jewellery looted by Dutch troops from a Balinese royal palace.
The Vatican has also voiced willingness to return indigenous artefacts. “The seventh commandment comes to mind: If you steal something you have to give it back,” Pope Francis said in April.
The London-based national museums are undoubtedly hamstrung by law but that does not stop the regular calls for the return of objects.
Some cases are indisputable, say campaigners.
McNaught pointed to Ethiopian tabots that have been in the British Museum’s stores for more than 150 years.
The wood and stone tabots are altar tablets, considered by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as the dwelling place of God on Earth and the representation of the Ark of the Covenant.
“They have never been exhibited and they never will,” said McNaught. “They have never been studied. They have never been photographed. The only people who can release these items are trustees and they can’t see them either.
“So if you are a trustee and you say, ‘Let me see what all the fuss is about,’ then you can’t.”
Diğer gönderilerimize göz at