Back to Where They Once Belonged?

As Glasgow Museums repatriate a record-breaking number of objects to other countries, Susan Mansfield asks what it means for the future of other museums.
14th century ceremonial Indo-Persian tulwar (sword) to be repatriated to India from Glasgow Museums
The Benin bronze head of an Oba, repatriated by Aberdeen University
The Benin bronze head of an Oba, repatriated by Aberdeen University

There was a sword involved, but the event was a peaceful one. The ceremonial Indo-Persian tulwar, a curved sabre believed to date back to the 14th century, was one of seven ancient artefacts being returned recently by Glasgow Museums to India in a ceremony at Kelvingrove Museum.

As the Transfer of Ownership documents were signed, Duncan Dornan, Head of Museums and Collections at Glasgow Life, said that the act symbolised “a positive step for Glasgow, with the city continuing its positive repatriation history by ensuring these cultural artefacts are placed back in the hands of their legitimate owners.” Sujit Ghosh, India’s Acting High Commissioner, called the objects “an integral part of our civilisational heritage”.

The artefacts, the majority of which were removed from temples and shrines in Northern India in the 19th century, are part of a larger picture. Earlier this year, Glasgow’s cross-party Working Group for Repatriation and Spoliation agreed to the return of more than 50 objects from the city’s collections, including 25 artefacts to the Cheyenne River and Oglala Sioux tribes of South Dakota and 19 Benin bronzes to Nigeria, the current hot topic in the repatriation world.

The objects, the largest group ever repatriated from a museum in Scotland, are symbolic of shifting attitudes towards repatriation. Duncan Dornan said: “I think the (museum) sector is much more open. There’s a recognition of the issues at play and the need to respond in an appropriate way. It’s a very complex, nuanced process and it’s important to evolve the best outcome for the object and the community, not to impose what we in the west think is important.”

He added that, for Glasgow Museums at least, there were no concerns that returning these objects would “open the floodgates”, saying: “The number of objects from international sources in our collection is relatively modest. Other institutions might have a different balance.”

It is true that some museums are much more cautious in their approach to repatriation. The British Museum, in particular, has been slow to embrace the idea, partly because it is locked in a bitter and politicised dispute with Greece over the Parthenon Marbles, brought to the UK by Lord Elgin in 1801.

In a recent interview, the museum’s Deputy Director Jonathan Williams seemed to indicate that attitudes were shifting when he spoke of a “positive partnership” with Greece. However, it was later clarified that any partnership would concern loans, not a change of ownership. A 1963 Act of Parliament prevents the British Museum from “de-accessioning” items from its collection without a legal process.

Last year the National Museums of Scotland, where the collection is also governed by statute, became the first national museum in the UK to announce a procedure for repatriation, indicating that it would now consider ‘in exceptional circumstances, requests for the permanent transfer of collection objects to non-UK claimants… where the request meets certain criteria’.

The question of returning objects is one which touches almost every part of the museum sector. Anthony Schrag, senior lecturer in Arts Management and Cultural Policy at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, said: “I think most museums understand that repatriation is valuable, but many are concerned because they don’t have the resources to deal with it. If you commit to repatriation, you’re in it for the long haul. There is a nervousness about, if you start, where do you stop?”

Schrag believes that the issue is part of a larger process of rethinking the role of a museum in the 21st century, whereas most museums have their roots in the Victorian age and in now outdated colonial and paternalistic attitudes, and that if approached in the right way, change can happen in a positive manner.

He says: “Rather than thinking about cultural exchange in binary terms – if we give everything back, we’ll have nothing – can we think about things as collaborative? If it’s right and proper to return something, can we start a conversation about new things which could come to us on loan, or how our curators could learn more about the objects we have?”

The repatriation movement began when indigenous communities in North America, Australia and New Zealand sought the return of artefacts – often sacred objects or the remains of ancestors – from museums in their own countries. Gradually, attention turned to collections overseas.

Now the scope of repatriation is widening to include post-colonial nations such as India as well as countries in Africa and the Caribbean. The Benin bronzes, for example, are an important test case because of the number of objects involved and the way in which it touches many of the world’s most important museums.

Some 2,500 metal plaques and sculptures which decorated the Benin Royal Palace were looted in 1897 when British troops ransacked and burned the palace in retaliation for an ambush which killed a party of Europeans. Many are now in museums around the world.

Major museums which have returned or are negotiating to return Benin bronzes include the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Smithsonian in Washington, the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris and the Ethnographical Museum in Berlin.

The first western museum to agree to fully repatriate a Benin bronze was the University of Aberdeen, which handed the artefact back in October 2021. Neil Curtis, Head of Museums and Special Collections at Aberdeen University, says there had been several earlier attempts to return the bronze, which was bought at auction by the university in 1957, but that it had not been possible to make the right connections on the ground.

He explains: “We decided there is real, clear evidence that this was looted in a violent, dreadful way. What do we do with stolen property? We return it to the owner. But it’s not just a matter of saying, ‘Let’s return it, that makes us feel good.’ It took years before we were able to establish a formal claim from the Nigerian Federal Government, supported by the National Museum of Nigeria and the Court of the Oba (the ruler of Benin).”

Beaded waistcoat to be returned to the Lakota Sioux by Glasgow Museums
Beaded waistcoat to be returned to the Lakota Sioux by Glasgow Museums

Curtis believes that museums need to be flexible about discussions on repatriation, to examine each case on its merits and not set strict criteria, for example that objects must be looted in order to qualify or be considered ‘sacred’, the definition of which varies in different cultures.

He adds: “It’s about different understandings of what an object is. When we returned a headdress to the Kainai nation in Canada in 2003, it was catalogued as a war bonnet and trailer, but to the Kainai it was a ‘sacred bundle’. It was an alternative way of looking at something, and the way they were looking at it was much more powerful and to them than the way we were looking at it was to us.”

Moccasins believed to have been taken from the site of the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, to be returned to the Lakota Sioux by Glasgow Museums
Moccasins believed to have been taken from the site of the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, to be returned to the Lakota Sioux by Glasgow Museums

He also does not believe that Western museums would be significantly depleted by demands for large numbers of objects, saying: “In my experience it is things that really matter to people that they want back, not large quantities of items. I remember taking a Nigerian round the museum store at the time when we were talking about the Benin bronzes. She came in thinking she was going to be seeing a lot of imperial loot, but most of it was the stuff of daily life, not high value or unique.”

However, he says that the repatriation question will not go away. “I think it is going to be a permanent part of working in museums. It’s not about losing things, but about working with people as equals. We will add to collections and to the knowledge and understanding we have about them in a much richer and more consensual way. We continue to collect and we continue to return.”

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