Heritage Day: Repatriation of Museum Artefacts

Heritage Day: Repatriation of Museum Artefacts

As a part of Serendipity Institute for Black Arts and Heritage’s programme of heritage events, we have a Heritage Day about the repatriation of museum artefacts on Wednesday 20 March, from 6.00 pm – 8.00 pm.  The term repatriation refers to the process by which cultural objects are returned to a nation or state at the request of a government (Collections Trust).

The issues around repatriation have been widely discussed in the media for years, and museums and heritage organisations have each taken a different approach to repatriation.  The complexities surrounding repatriation have led to museums and heritage organisations grappling with the colonial origins of the collections they care for, together with the calls for reparations through the repatriation of artefacts to their country of origin. 

Image credit:  Benin bronze sculpture. Courtesy of Photos.com

A recent example is the V&A and the British Museum loaning 30 items of gold and silver to the Manhyia Palace Museum in Ghana.  The items will be used as a part of an exhibition to celebrate the 2024 Silver Jubilee of His Royal Majesty, the Asantehen, Osei Tutu II.  There is also the 150th anniversary of the 1873-4 Anglo-Asante war.  The items, which are on loan for three years, are being defined as a ‘cultural partnership’ between the V&A, the British Museum and Manhyia Palace Museum in Ghana (Museum + Heritage Advisor 2024).

On the surface, it looks like a fantastic partnership where priceless artefacts are shared with another country, and the artefacts can tell their stories to an international audience.  However, the artefacts on loan to Ghana are rooted within the narratives of colonialism.  Many of the items that form a part of the loan to Ghana were looted or were part of a British indemnity payment that was enforced during the Anglo-Asante wars (Museum + Heritage Advisor 2024).  The loan agreement does create questions about whether this is a suitable solution for artefacts that were forcibly taken by the British, or is it diverting attention away from the discussions around repatriation?  London museums have been identified as falling behind their peers with the initiatives to repatriate artefacts (Brown 2023).

The British Museum has become the most prominent example in the UK for resisting calls to repatriate artefacts.  Famous examples include the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Greece and the Benin Bronzes from Benin City in Nigeria.  Applications for repatriation from foreign governments are frequently denied.  A Freedom of Information request was made to the British Museum on 10 December 2020, regarding the number of requests for repatriation received by the British Museum from the financial year 2014/15.  The request showed several countries made repatriation requests, including Australia, Italy, Rapa Nui (Chile), Andhra Pradesh (India) and Ethiopia (WhatDoTheyKnow 2020).  Under the British Museum Act of 1963, the British Museum’s board of trustees cannot return any artefacts unless they are duplicates, physically damaged or unfit to be kept in the collection (legislation.gov.uk).  When the act was passed repatriation was not a concern at the time.  The focus was to safeguard the collections from short-term political decisions (Tremayne-Pengelly 2023).  There are arguments that the clause in the British Museum Act of 1963 could be changed if there was the political willpower to do so.

The Heritage Day on Wednesday 20 March is a seminar that explores the issues around repatriation, both for museums and the country of origin for the artefacts in question.  The workshop will talk through case studies and investigate the different parts of the argument, as well as potential legal frameworks.  By the end of the workshop, participants will be empowered with the knowledge of the arguments and will know what they can do to advocate for change.

References

Brown, M. (2023) ‘London museums lag behind regional peers in returning disputed objects’. 

Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2023/sep/18/repatriation-london-museums-institutions-returning-objects

Accessed: 29/01/2024

 

Collections Trust. ‘Restitution and repatriation’ 

Available at: https://collectionstrust.org.uk/cultural-property-advice/restitution-and-repatriation/#:~:text=Repatriation%20is%20the%20process%20by,the%20request%20of%20a%20government.

Accessed: 29/01/2024

 

Legislation.gov.uk., ‘British Museum Act 1963’

Available at: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1963/24/contents

Accessed: 29/01/2024

 

Museum + Heritage Advisor. (2024) ‘News: British Museum and V&A partner to loan looted ‘crown jewels’ to Ghana’.

Available at: https://advisor.museumsandheritage.com/news/british-museum-va-partner-to-loan-looted-crown-jewels-to-ghana/

Accessed: 29/01/2024

 

Tremayne-Pengelly, A. (2023) ‘Arts: The UK Has a 60-Year-Old Law Prohibiting Repatriation of Art. Is that About to Change?’

Available at: https://observer.com/2023/02/the-uk-has-a-60-year-old-law-prohibiting-repatriation-of-art-is-that-about-to-change/

Accessed: 29/01/2024

 

WhatDoTheyKnow. (2020) ‘Repatriation of Items’

Available at: https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/repatriation_of_items_2/response/1704818/attach/3/207920201110%20R.pdf?cookie_passthrough=1

Accessed: 29/01/2024

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