Memorandum submitted by the Museum Ethnographers'
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
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
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
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.
2. WHAT IS
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.
3. RETURN ISSUES
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
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
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.
4. OTHER RELATED
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.
5. ILLICIT TRADE
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.
6. NEED FOR
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.