Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Museum Ethnographers' Group (MEG)


  This submission is being made by the Museum Ethnographers' Group (MEG). The main points it wishes to make are as follows:

    1.  Every request for return of cultural property must be understood as part of a continuing contact between the current guardians of the property and the present-day representatives of the originating community that had ownership rights over the property.

    2.  Each request for return should be considered on its own merits, since each arises from a unique set of circumstances.

    3.  MEG recommends the acceptance of the recently published MGC Restitution and Repatriation Guidelines for good practice as a basis for responding to requests for return.

    4.  MEG recommends that the forthcoming MA/ICOM report on the Illicit Trade should be discussed widely among interested parties and that appropriate action be taken to implement its recommendations.

    5.  The MGC requires that registered museums comply with the UNESCO Convention 1970 and the Museums Association recommends that all museums observe the UNIDROIT 1995 Convention. MEG urges that the Government should become a signatory to these Conventions.

    6.  Given that many museums in the UK do not possess the range of expertise needed to deal appropriately with requests of this kind, MEG recommends the establishment of a resource centre to provide specialist advice. This will require an appropriate level of central funding to be effective.


  1.  The Museum Ethnographers' Group is pleased to have the opportunity to submit written evidence to the Committee. The Group would also be willing to give oral evidence in support of our submission should this be required.

  2.  The Group has discussed this set of issues on a number of occasions in recent years. It published Guidelines on the Management of Human Remains in August 1991, having adopted them at its AGM in May 1991. It has contributed to the deliberations of the Museums and Galleries Commission (MGC) which resulted in the publication of Restitution and Repatriation: Guidelines for good practice in March 2000. Its forthcoming Annual Conference in May 2000 will focus on the theme of Developing Dialogues between museums and originating communities. It is planning a seminar specifically on ethical issues affecting museum ethnography in the autumn of 2000 in collaboration with the Museums Association.


  1.  MEG was established in 1975 to facilitate the exchange of information and resources between museum staff and others concerned with ethnographic collections (inter alia). Its business is organised and administered through a committee. Its activities consist of meetings in museums throughout the UK, study tours (eg to Paris, Denmark, Cyprus, Uzbekistan) and the regular publication of the Journal of Museum Ethnography. Members communicate by means of the MEG Newsletter, published four times a year. This submission has been put together by Len Pole, the present chair of MEG, (also Curator of Ethnography at Exeter City Museums & Art Gallery), together with members of the committee.


  Each request for return is usually the culmination of a complex of events, discussions and other contacts between the current guardians of the property and the present-day representatives of the originating community that had ownership rights over the property. Each set of negotiations about return of any item of cultural property must therefore be looked at as an individual and unique case. There should be no assumption that a decision about the destination of one item will provide a precedent for the outcome of discussions about that of others. Nevertheless, there are distinct but overlapping categories of objects as well as arrangements by which they have been transferred from the stewardship of one group to other individual groups which it would be useful to distinguish.

    A:  human remains, that is, prehistoric or historic biological specimens as well as artefacts made from them.

    B:  sacred artefacts, that is, objects which hold particular symbolic power and significance for their original owners. In some cases access to these objects should be restricted to initiated members of a well-defined group. In some cases they may not have a ceremonial function, but may be believed to possess a spiritual presence or be the living embodiment of an ancestor or a life force.

    C:  items which have been acquired illegally or removed illegally according to the accepted tenets of the community which originally had ownership rights over the objects vested in it.

    D:  items which, though not acquired illegally, were acquired in a context in which a degree of coercion or duress may be inferred.

    E:  items which have been exported and/or acquired contrary to the terms of national legislations in force in originating countries, aimed at protecting and monitoring the movement of cultural property within and beyond national boundaries.


  It is important to be aware that requests for return are often not the only means by which concern for the care of or respect for cultural property is mediated. Such requests should be set within the context of processes of contact and communication which need to be encouraged. This kind of work is being done in an ad hoc way by professional staff in a number of museums and university departments in this country. There is a clear need to encourage the further development of these links on a national and international basis, by means such as the resource centre recommended below. A principal outcome of this kind of dialogue is an increase in the emphasis to be placed on respect for cultural patrimony and on the knowledge of care considerations within which context requests for the return of cultural property can be understood.


  Illicit trade is an important issue for curators within all disciplines in UK museums. Many curators are not aware of the laws governing the movement of cultural property in other countries. For example, the term antiquity in some national legislations covers artefacts of indigenous origin used in the performance of any traditional ceremony. An artefact can therefore be an antiquity even though made very recently. Even if it is not so defined, recently manufactured traditional items can still be covered by legislation relating to movable cultural property. It is therefore crucial that information about these legislative contexts be made available as widely as possible within this country.


  1.  The MGC's Restitution and Repatriation: Guidelines for good practice include a comprehensive consideration of the implications relating to the wide range of issues which may result in requests for the return of cultural property to be made. It is the view of MEG that these guidelines should become the basis of accepted practice in museums in the UK whenever such requests are received.

  2.  MEG is now examining the more general issue of developing contact and dialogue with originating communities. The Group is likely to be preparing guidelines relating to this; they may be discussed at the forthcoming Annual Conference to be held in Exeter in May 2000.


  1.  As the representative body of ethnographers working in museums in the UK, MEG wish to recommend that the Government adopt both the UNESCO (1970) Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and the UNIDROIT (1995) Convention on the Return of Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. The MGC Registration Scheme and the Museums Association require museums in the UK to observe the former, and the MA requires UK museums to observe the latter Convention. However, it would both strengthen the case against illicit trade and provide a substantial indicator of the UK's attitude to these issues if these Conventions were to be adopted by government.

  2.  In view of the need for priority to be placed on raising awareness of various aspects of these issues, as mentioned in paragraph 5 above, and, in particular, to enable museums to more easily comply with the terms of the UNESCO (1970) Convention, MEG recommends that a central source of advice and information be established and adequately funded. MEG will be keen to contribute to this centre by supplying data and evidence in the form of case studies as well as any information its members may possess about the content and implications of work affecting the research, collecting and export of cultural property in and from originating countries.

April 2000

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