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MEG’s approach to repatriations

With the recent statements from the French, Dutch, German and Norwegian governments or national museums on the repatriation of objects taken in the colonial era, the subject of restitution, repatriation* and decolonisation has come to dominate thinking in museums.

MEG issued guidelines in 1994 on human remains and sacred objects, addressing repatriation and the processes to be followed. These guidelines advised that each request should be considered on a case by case basis.

There is a long history of repatriations between museums and between museums and communities. Museums from nationals to local have returned material to originating communities and previous owners. Knowledge and expertise have developed amongst collections staff involved in returns.

MEG aims to bring such expertise together, to provide advice and support, and a network of contacts, both indigenous and curatorial, for museums dealing with claims for World Cultures material. The MEG website can be a portal for such advice and support, and a place of record for returns.  

The decision of the Culture Secretary to announce a blanket ban on the repatriation of any object from a national collection is disquieting, at a time when museums are under scrutiny as never before as part of the movement, both internal and external, to decolonise museums.

This is at odds with the recent decision of the Manchester Museum, administered by the University of Manchester, to return 43 sacred items to indigenous Australians through the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). In returning these objects, the museum recognises the importance of repatriation in healing and reconciling communities.

The MEG and MA guidelines advocate collaboration and partnerships with originating communities, and sensitive responses to claims for repatriation. The Collections Trust provides checklists on researching, recording and processing a claim. There are different ways of repatriating: it could be sharing rather than returning, exchanging, digital repatriation, or it could be outright return. The outcomes in terms of sharing knowledge, interpreting objects and building relationships by repatriating cultural property in some way, can be more important than the object itself.

MEG supports working with communities and museums to respond sensitively and build relationships, out of which will come the best response to claims. If that means that an object is returned to be buried or destroyed, as culturally appropriate, then that may be the best outcome if it heals communities and builds relationships.

*Restitution is the return of items to individuals or communities: repatriation is the return of items to a state at the request of government. For brevity, repatriation will cover both.

MEG Committee October 2019