The policy column
Neil Curtis, Issue 119/02, 01.02.2019
Repatriation is a complex issue
With the French president Emmanuel Macron calling for the return of African cultural heritage that is held in French museums, restitution and repatriation have re-emerged as critical issues for museums.
While acknowledging the inequities of colonial collecting is welcome, will this report aid the decolonisation of museums?
Western moral outrage and simplistic arguments may push repatriation on people faster than they would like, and drown out the subtler – yet powerful – challenges to museum practice made by indigenous people.
For example, debating property ownership can be inappropriate for people claiming the return of sacred items or ancestral remains, while the very focus on material cultural, rather than intangible cultural heritage, comes from a specifically western intellectual tradition.
The Museums Association’s Code of Ethics recommends dealing sensitively and promptly with requests for repatriation from within the UK and abroad. Repatriation from museums should not be about clearing the west’s conscience, and a cheap way of avoiding social and economic restitution.
It should be about acknowledging different ways of thinking about the world and developing new roles for museums. Each discussion will be unique, and must be approached not with fear and rigid procedures, but with sincerity and open minds.
Rather than trying to deny the legacies we inherit, we are responsible for our willingness to listen to others, the decisions we take and the legacies we create and pass on to others.
Neil Curtis is the head of museums and special collections at the University of Aberdeen, and is a member of the Museums Association’s Ethics Committee