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


Memorandum submitted by Moira Simpson, BA, MA, PGCE, Lecturer, University of Warwick


The issue of repatriation is highly complex and political. All too often media attention focuses upon the case of the Parthenon Marbles. This narrow approach does not in any way reflect the true complexity of the repatriation issue which involves items in many categories and from many countries obtained in a variety of circumstances. These include materials collected by a variety of means during the colonial era; art works looted during World War Two; and the on-going problem of stolen, illicitly excavated and/or illicitly exported material. Objects may have been collected by legal means but other issues need to be considered, not least the status of the objects and their continuing importance to the societies from which they were removed. Also, consideration must be given to questions concerning legality of ownership according to indigenous or customary laws.

  Items in the collections of British museums are of importance for many peoples all over the world, not just the scientific and academic communities and the museum-visiting public in the UK. The scientific, educational and artistic value of museum collections is inestimable and I would never condone the wholesale return of artefacts from museum collections; indeed, few of those seeking the repatriation of particular items would do so. However, in responding to requests for repatriation, museum staff must consider many points and address the concerns and needs of those making the request as well as those of the scientific community, academia and the museum visitors, present and future. The growing pressure upon museums to address the issue of repatriation is part of a worldwide change of attitude—a paradigm shift—in which the rights of indigenous people are being recognised. Repatriation issues are linked to other developments in indigenous affairs such as land rights, fishing and hunting rights, and intellectual property rights. In this submission I would like to highlight some of the more complex aspects of the repatriation debate regarding acquisition, ownership rights and significance of the objects.

  The need to rectify the situation concerning the loss of artworks looted during the war by the Nazis has been recognised. Art galleries and museums are now taking steps to identify the rightful owners of these works and to address the question of future custodianship. The same approach should be taken to other categories of material. In particular, there is a need to safeguard archaeological sites which are subject to looting; to take action to halt the trade in stolen artworks, artefacts and other items of cultural heritage; and to address the issues associated with some categories of material in museum collections which were acquired during the colonial era. Although I will refer briefly to the illicit trade in artefacts and works of art, my main focus will be upon material collected in past centuries which is not subject to International Conventions.

  In order to illustrate the powerful arguments that exist for the repatriation of certain artefacts, this submission draws upon examples from other countries where there has been greater experience of handling such requests, and upon the words of indigenous spokespeople and curatorial staff directly involved in these issues. These examples will also serve to illustrate the positive outcomes that have been achieved for both communities and museums when repatriation requests have been handled sensitively and with a desire for constructive and mutually acceptable resolution which may or may not involve the return of the item in question.


  Most requests for repatriation of items from museum collections in the United Kingdom are associated with artefacts taken in past centuries, particularly during the colonial era. However, the continuing looting of artefacts from archaeological sites and the illicit export and trade in these and in other stolen artworks and artefacts will ensure that countries continue to be robbed of their cultural heritage. Despite the best efforts of curatorial staff to check the provenance of new acquisitions and ensure that they are legally owned by vendors, the illicit trafficking of stolen artefacts will continue to present challenges to museums and collectors, and so raise questions of legality of ownership and create future requests for repatriation.

Possible future action:

    —  For the protection of British cultural heritage, and that of other countries, the British Government should commit itself to halting this illicit trade by making every effort to resolve its past concerns with the UNESCO and the UNIDROIT Conventions; by acceding to both; by introducing national legislation to support application of the Conventions; or by actively seeking alternative means of addressing the problem of illicit trade.


      The items in museum collections were acquired under a variety of circumstances; quite probably most of these items are legitimately owned by museums but there are some items that were taken under questionable circumstances. Furthermore, legal systems other than those of western cultures may apply different interpretations to the circumstances of acquisition and the rights of traditional owners.

    Recognition of Customary Law and The Concept of Cultural Patrimony

      In some traditional societies, religious and other cultural practices operate within a closed system of knowledge in contrast to the open system of religious and scientific knowledge that operates in western cultures. For example, ritual items in many Native American communities are cared for and used by specific individuals such as medicine men but are regarded as being communal property which, under customary law, cannot be alienated from the tribe. Similarly, secret/sacred materials in Australian Aboriginal communities are intended to be seen only by those who are in the appropriate initiated group within the community. In the past, materials of this nature have come to be in the collections of museums and collectors through various means including accidental discovery and theft from tribal lands or, occasionally, by trade with or purchase from a tribal member who had no legal authority to conduct such a transaction. Under tribal law, the acquisition of such material by a collector or museum, by whatever means, would have been illegal.

      Museums and governments in Australia and North America now acknowledge the status of this type of material as cultural patrimony and the illegality under customary law of its alienation from the community. Recognition of the validity of customary or tribal law and the concept of communally-owned property is inherent in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in the USA. It is also acknowledged in the policies of the Canadian Museums Association and Museums Australia which take account of the continuing interests and custodianship rights of traditional owners (AFN/CMA, 1991; ATSIC, 1993).


      Acceptance of the concept of cultural patrimony and recognition of the primary rights of indigenous peoples, have formed the basis for the return of Aboriginal secret/sacred material in Australia and, in North America, have been grounds for the successful repatriation of certain types of artefacts of religious or cultural importance. In Australia, the Council of Australia Museum Associations (CAMA) (now known as Museums Australia) published a policy document entitled "Previous Possessions, New Obligations: Policies for Museums in Australia and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples" (1993). In this, it is stated that "custodianship of secret/sacred material is vested in those people—the traditional custodians or their descendants—who have rights in and responsibilities for it under Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander customary law" (CAMA, 1993:13). The policy also emphasises that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have "primary rights" with regard to their cultural heritage and in this they included intellectual property rights. "They own their intangible cultural property, the meaning of the items expressed through the design, the dance, the song, the stories" (CAMA, 1993:1).

      The return of an object may result in the re-awakening of cultural pride in a community that was devastated by contact and colonialism, and lost much of its material cultural heritage. It may also bring about the renewal of traditional cultural or religious practices that had almost died out. Repatriated objects may be placed in one of the community museums which have been established by indigenous communities in recent decades (see case study of the Cranmer potlatch collection in section 5). The establishment of museums run by indigenous peoples offers opportunities for repatriated artefacts to remain in the public domain with new forms of culturally-sensitive interpretation and conservation adding to their interpretative value and to anthropological knowledge of their function and modes of use. Repatriated sacred or ceremonial materials are normally returned to the care of the traditional custodians and are then used for the purposes for which they were intended or placed in secure storage facilities to protect them from theft. In rare cases, the intended religious function of an object may involve its eventual destruction, as is the case with Zuni ahayu:da (see case study below).


      Ahayu:da (or War Gods) are wooden carvings of the twin figures of Masewi and Oyoyewi. They are believed to protect the Zuni people and to provide stability and harmony to the world. To the Zuni, ahayu:da are far more than mere inanimate wooden carvings; they are believed to be living beings and their creation is analogous to the physical development of a human. They are carved by members of the Dear and Bear Clans and then placed in shrines on Pueblo land where it is intended that the elements will eventually destroy them, returning them to the earth and so completing a natural cycle of creation and decay.

      In recent times, ahayu:da were found by non-Zunis and removed from the shrines, ending up in the collections of museums and private collectors. Removal of the ahayu:da is believed by the Zuni to be the cause of extreme weather conditions, natural disasters and other misfortunes affecting the well-being of the Zuni people and the wider world and they have for many years been campaigning for the return of all ahayu:da. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Zuni were successful in achieving the return of over sixty-five ahayu:da, representing all those identified in the collections of American museums. In their campaign for repatriation, they have argued that these objects were items of cultural patrimony, communally owned by the tribe as a whole and therefore, whatever the means of acquisition, their removal from the Pueblo was illegal. This argument was recognised by a US court of law considering a case in the 1980s and has since been incorporated into US federal legislation in the form of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990). When ahayu:da are returned to Zuni Pueblo, they are placed in secure outdoor shrines where wind and rain will cause their eventual decomposition enabling them to complete the cycle and so fulfil their intended function.

      (Refs: Merrill, Ladd and Ferguson, 1993; Simpson, 1996; 195-199; 219-220).

      In addition to the issue of customary law, there are other aspects of acquisition which give rise to questions about the ethics of museum ownership or the validity of a transaction. Many artefacts were acquired by legitimate means; many were purchased or received as gifts; but many others were taken as loot during military campaigns and periods of colonial rule, or were confiscated by European missionaries intent on wiping out indigenous religions and replacing them with Christianity. Other sacred items were found by European collectors, stored in caves, placed on shrines, or secreted in other sacred places. Such items were taken without consideration of their importance to traditional owners; indeed, Europeans finding such items may well have thought that they had simply been discarded.

      Fourmile (1990:58) has observed that "obviously there are a whole host of circumstances by which museums acquired their collections of our cultural property, but virtually all on a basis which could not be seen as constituting transactions under fair and equal conditions for both parties". Some objects were given as tokens of friendship and symbols of trust between peoples of different cultures; such gestures were surely nullified by subsequent events in which the indigenous population was subjugated and forced or misled into complying with inequitable treaties, or those which were later violated or revoked. Even if items were purchased, there may be little actual evidence of transactions when items were acquired 50, 100, or more, years ago and the circumstances of a transaction may give rise to questions about the ethics, if not the legality, of the sale. Objects may have been compulsorily "purchased", looted or confiscated, thus invalidating any earlier bilateral agreements. They may have been purchased from individuals with no right to sell communally-owned objects, making the sale illegal. They may have been purchased at prices that were exploitative and mercenary, or simply purchased from a party lacking adequate legal knowledge or linguistic skill to fully understand the implications of their actions. The following case study illustrates this point.


      Amongst the tribes of the Iroquois confederacy of the north-eastern United States, strings of white and purple shell beads were strung together to create patterned belts, which serve as tribal records of treaties, agreements and other significant events. They are considered to be the property of the Iroquois nations rather than any individual. In 1891, the official Onondaga wampum-keeper sold four important belts to a collector without sanction from the tribal government. When their loss was realised in 1898, the Onondaga sought to recover the belts. Tribal leaders were advised by non-Indians to appoint the New York State Board of Regents as their authorised wampum-keeper in order that the Board could act on their behalf in a lawsuit. Acting on this advice, the Onondaga transferred custody of a number of wampum belts to the Board of Regents. In total about 26 belts were transferred to the Board of Regents and hence to the collections of the New York State Museum, of which they were trustees. The Onondaga failed in their attempt to recover the four belts which had been the subject of the lawsuit and, in 1927, the belts were bequeathed to the State Museum by the widow of the collector.

      Although the Onondaga repeatedly requested that the Board of Regents return custody of the wampum belts to the Onondaga, it was over 90 years before the tribe regained possession of 12 of their belts. When Martin Sullivan was appointed to the post of director of the New York State Museum in 1983 he found that with that position came the title of Ho-sen-na-ge-tah or wampum-keeper. As director of the Museum, he was their principal negotiator in the on-going repatriation negotiations. After examining the circumstances of the acquisition, Sullivan pointed out that the Onondaga signatories of an 1898 bill of sale "had very little command of the English language or of Anglo-American legal practices and were not likely to have given the informed consent to the transaction that modern legal standards would require" (Sullivan, 1992:12). The wampum belts were repatriated to the Onondaga in 1989 and, once more in the care of the Onondaga, are now kept in a bank vault but withdrawn for use on ceremonial occasions.

      (Refs: Gonyea, 1993; Simpson, 1996: 193, 199, 216-218; Sullivan, 1992).

    Possible future action:

      —  Recognition should be given to traditional legal systems and customary law within indigenous communities and the concept of inalienable cultural patrimony accepted and acted upon.

    —  Museum staff should be encouraged and enabled through financial assistance from government to research the circumstances regarding the acquisition of items in their collections and to generate inventories of their collections.


  There is no question that the items in museum collections are valuable as objects which are of artistic, scientific, cultural and educational significance within the context of the museum collection and the culture in which they are located today. However, some of these objects are, in the eyes of their traditional owners, far more than mere artefacts and involve concepts or beliefs that over-ride their educational and artistic importance. The cultural significance of such items needs to be considered, also the impact that the return of these items would have upon the societies of the traditional owners.

  Ray Gonyea, an Onondaga Indian and a museum curator, points out that "the museum community must realise that sacred objects are of even greater value to Native Americans than they are to museum professionals... returned sacred objects will be used. That is how they fulfil their intended purpose in the Native American community to which they belong" (Gonyea, 1993:7).

  However, it must also be noted that communities, although wishing to reclaim sacred materials, may be unable to provide suitable secure storage. For example, for thousands of years, traditional custodians in remote Aboriginal communities, stored sacred objects in secret caches in the desert. Settlement by Europeans led to relocation and the establishment of missions and larger settlements with the result that traditional custodians today may find it difficult to provide appropriate and secure storage for repatriated secret/sacred objects. In these circumstances, museums should be prepared to accept the on-going responsibility for their care and appropriate storage, even though the nature of such objects means that they can no longer be displayed and cannot be made accessible to researchers without the consent of the traditional custodians. The CAMA policy document takes account of this, noting that "secret/sacred material may be retained by a museum as custodian if requested by the traditional custodians" (CAMA, 1993:13).


  In the early 1980s, the South Australian Museum began working with senior Aboriginal men to identify sacred objects in the collections. Some of these were secret/sacred objects to which access was restricted and they had been removed from display during the 1960s and 70s. As a result of these early meetings, the museum developed a Custodianship of Sacred Objects Project, designed to apprise Aboriginal peoples about the museum's collection of restricted material, such as tjurunga and sacred boards. They also wanted to obtain the views of traditional custodians concerning storage arrangements and the possibility of repatriation. The Project involved the re-organisation of the storage facilities to create a separate Restricted Collection storage area, the computerisation of all data in the collection and the production of photographs of every item in the Restricted Collection. Museum anthropologists undertook a series of field trips to Aboriginal communities in South Australia and the Northern Territory, including Yuendumu, Walungurru, Papunya, Ernabella, Marree, and Oodnadatta using these photographic records to initiate discussions concerning the custodianship of the collections. Groups of senior Aboriginal men visited the Museum on a number of occasions to view the storage facilities and discuss the restricted material. This consultative process resulted in approximately 300 secret/sacred objects being returned to the custodianship of these communities.

  Anthropologists in the Australian Museum in Sydney have also developed close working relationships with a number of Aboriginal communities, undertaking community consultation as a natural feature of their work. They found Aboriginal elders to be satisfied with the current level of care that the objects receive, and happy to see the objects remain in the museum, although some have expressed the desire to see them returned to the community if and when they establish their own Keeping Place. Paul Tacon, a Scientific Officer in the Division of Anthropology, has visited a number of Aboriginal communities in Central and Northern Australia and shown them photographs of the museum, members of staff, the offices, display areas and the main ethnographic stores. He described to them the secret/sacred storage area, the methods used by staff to handle and store the secret /sacred material, explained the restrictions imposed upon access and arrangements made for viewing by authorised individuals. Although some secret sacred objects have been repatriated, for the most part, they remain in the collections of the Museum with the consent of the Aboriginal communities.

  (Refs: Anderson, 1990a, 1991; Clarke and Anderson, 1997; Simpson, M 1996: 221-22; Tacon: 1993).

Recommended future action:

    —  Recognition should be given to the primary rights of indigenous peoples in their cultural heritage and the ongoing links and needs associated with particular categories of objects.

    —  Museum staff should take steps to identify sacred items or other items of a sensitive nature and to seek advice regarding appropriate storage and display which is sensitive to the wishes of originating communities.

    —  If requested by the appropriate religious leaders or traditional custodians, museums should be prepared to return sacred objects and objects which were communally owned and so acquired in a manner which did not accord with customary or traditional law. However, if a community wishes to take items back but is prevented from doing so by circumstances such as lack of appropriate secure storage or a keeping place, the museum authorities should accept the continuing responsibility for the storage and care of the objects until such time as the community can accept the items.

    —  In responding to enquiries concerning possible repatriation, consideration should be given to the many and varied circumstances of acquisition, the significance and function of the items to the community of origin making the request, and the other considerations outlined in the MGC's Guidelines on Restitution and Repatriation.


  In most cultures, the remains of the dead are treated with respect and the bodies are buried, cremated, or otherwise disposed of, with ceremony and respect. In many cultures burial grounds remain potent memorials and sanctified sites for many generations. The continued well-being and approval of the deceased is sometimes believed to be essential for the well-being of the living, and desecration of burial sites may disturb the spirits of the deceased. Disturbance of the dead is offensive to religious beliefs and, in times of war, grave desecration is often used as a means of demoralising a population. Yet western museums house the skeletal remains of hundreds of thousands of peoples.

  Walter R Echo-Hawk, in his testimony to the US Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs (1988:11-12) argued that: "Humanity has always buried its dead with varying degrees of religion, ritual, reverence, and respect. Sanctity of the dead and their final resting place are not the exception to the rule . . . On the contrary these values are deeply ingrained in western civilisation and social mores . . . Because these same fundamental values are deeply held by Native Americans, past and present, injury to those values caused by the withholding of Native dead must surely be self-evident to any informed observers. Yet somehow these real feelings of Native people have simply been ignored and disregarded as federal, state and private parties have worked historically and presently to disturb and remove as many Indian burials as possible".

  Museum holdings of skeletal remains include substantial collections obtained from archaeological sites representing a range of time periods and regions of the world. These have provided much of the material for research in the fields of paleo-pathology and osteology, giving evidence of the health and lifestyles of ancient peoples as well as enlightening knowledge of trends affecting more recent cultures. There are also large holdings of human remains in natural history museums and in associated collecting institutions such as medical colleges which were collected in order to provide data for scientific research, particularly in the fields of medicine, cultural evolution, human development and phrenology. These were collected in Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific as recently as the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Non-European peoples were of particular interest to nineteenth century researchers seeking evidence of cultural evolution and theories of racial variation. Collecting activities were undertaken without regard for the spiritual beliefs of relatives or descendants and the records of collectors document their methods which include the use of theft and deception, removal from burial sites and graves, as well as from battle fields. Furthermore, evidence suggests that human remains found in archaeological excavations have often received differing treatment according to their ethnic origins. While the remains of Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, and other indigenous peoples have been held in long-term collections as materials for archaeological and scientific research, skeletal remains of European origin have usually been reburied with appropriate religious ceremonies.

  Human remains are often found in collections of ethnography in the form of artefacts and "curiosities" such as Egyptian mummies, Maori tattooed heads, decorated skulls from Melanesia, shrunken heads from South America, Tibetan skull drums, and other miscellaneous items. These are made, or include components derived, from human remains. In some instances they may be ceremonial or sacred artefacts but there are also many examples of items which were made for trade.

  Major difficulties have arisen when repatriation requests have been addressed to institutions holding larger, more significant research collections such as those held in the Natural History Museum and the Royal College of Surgeons in London: these institutions have so far refused to hand over contested human remains. Indeed, even bonafide researchers seeking access only to the related documentation have been refused. Opponents of repatriation argue that the repatriation and reburial of human remains is an immeasurable loss to science for the study of mankind, and contend that the knowledge gained from research would be of particular benefit to the descendants. They have also argued that most human remains in museum collections are too old to have any traceable relationship for today's claimants. Robin Cocks (1993), Keeper of Palaeontology at the Natural History Museum, has explained that: "the significance of our human remains collection for scientific research varies immensely and includes past and present disease patterns, the deformation of bones by a variety of occupations, ageing patterns and differences and many other such studies. One of the chief reasons for retaining the collection is the unpredictability of future research needs." Yet, native peoples today may perceive a "spiritual tie, symbolic identification, or psychological relationship" with their unknown ancestors (Davidson, 1990, 7).

  Recent Australian and US legislative changes now give the indigenous populations ownership rights over the remains of deceased ancestors. The policy of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) now exceeds the legal requirements stipulated by NAGPRA, stating that "All Native American materials that have been duly identified for repatriation, including human remains, funerary materials, ceremonial and religious materials, and communally owned property, together with all culturally specific information, must be treated as the sole property of the affected Native American culturally affiliated group and with the utmost respect by scholars and interpreters of those cultures, whether in collections research, scientific study, exhibitions, publications, or educational programs" (NMAI, 1992:1).

  In the United States, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act required all federally-funded museums to compile inventories of human remains and associated grave goods, and within three years to compile summaries of unassociated grave goods, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony. They were also required to inform tribes of these holdings and to facilitate returns when requested by descendants or tribes, subject to the tribal claimants producing the necessary evidence to comply with the requirements of the legislation. The South Australian Museum in Adelaide, Australia has adopted a proactive approach with regard to the repatriation of both sacred objects and human remains. In 1992, the Museum extended this work to include the human remains collection, employing a curator of physical anthropology to survey and inventory the collection, and initiate consultations with Aboriginal communities with a view to repatriation in appropriate circumstances.

  The debate over the return of human remains is a delicate issue requiring sensitive dialogue and flexibility in reaching a resolution with which both the descendants and the museum staff are satisfied. As with sacred objects, human remains should only be returned to a community that has sought the return of their ancestors remains; they should not be sent back regardless of indigenous views. In some communities the return of human remains may present problems, as the funeral or burial rites have previously been performed and there are no cultural guidelines regarding how to deal with reburial. Problems of accurate cultural identification may also create difficulties; for example, even though a burial is identified as that of a Native American, tribal identification may be impossible to prove and they might, for instance, be the remains of enemies killed in battle. As a result, some of the Indian groups would prefer to have human remains stay in the museums, as their return would present problems. Furthermore, in some communities there is an abhorrence of remains from which the spirit has departed and handling of human remains will pose particular difficulties. In such instances, it may be preferable to the community if the remains are left in the museum perhaps with changes to storage conditions, access and research arrangements.


  Return and reburial of the ancestors' remains is a moving experience for all concerned. This case study illustrates the responses of community members and museum staff involved in the repatriation and reburial of two skeletons to a band of Curve Lake First Nation, in Ontario, Canada.

  Peterborough Centennial Museum and Archives in Ontario, Canada, initiated the de-accession and repatriation of the skeletal remains of two Native American individuals (Doherty, 1992:1-7). In 1983, the curator responsible decided that it was no longer appropriate for the material to be displayed. The skeletal material was deteriorating and the display itself was no longer effective: younger children were so frightened by the replica burial that it even had to be covered up when primary school groups visited the museum. By 1988 staff of the museum had decided, with the agreement of the Board of Museum Management, that the remains should be de-accessioned and repatriated and so they approached the Ojibwa Curve Lake First Nations, the nearest band in the area.

  After three years of discussion and negotiation, an agreement was finally drawn up between the band council and the Board of Museum Management. Initially the museum had intended to de-accession and repatriate only the human remains, but they came to recognise that the grave goods were such an integral part of the burial that they had to be included in the agreement. The agreement drawn up allowed the museum staff to document and photograph the process, with a copy to be given to the Curve Lake First Nation. They were also given permission by the Curve Lake Indians to remove small samples for carbon dating if they wished, although this was not deemed necessary, and were able to take casts of the grave goods so that they would be able to have exact replicas of the items for future interpretative use.

  The band council arranged for both traditional and Christian ceremonies to be conducted. The remains were transferred to birch bark containers sealed with pine and spruce pitch. Traditional sweet grass cleansing ceremonies were carried out at the museum and at Curve Lake, and the two burial ceremonies, Medewewin and Christian, were carried out at the grave-side: "At the grave-side, an honour song was sung as the burial containers were lifted and placed into their final resting place. The pipe carriers spoke and each dropped tobacco into the grave. All who chose to were invited to drop tobacco into the grave as well. All shared fresh strawberries—which, as the first fruit, are a symbol of birth—; they were also shared with the grave. The traditional ceremony included a reading by a woman of the Medewewin, a song by the Medewewin pipe, a Christian offering, a Christian Hymn in Ojibwe, and concluded with a Christian prayer" (Doherty, 1992: 5).

  The process of repatriation has had benefits for both the Museum and the Curve Lake First Nation. The events of that day have sparked a renewed interest in the cultural traditions of the Medewewin Society who have since been asked to participate in other funeral services. At the request of the donor, the Museum has since repatriated other items to the Curve Lake First Nation including a pipe and a lodge stick. Bill Ramp, Chairman of the Museum Board, has commented that: "We, at the Museum, were profoundly touched by the generosity with which the people of Curve Lake responded to our overtures. For a very small and long overdue gesture of respect, we received a hand of friendship and gained a renewed appreciation for the vibrant and enduring culture and aspirations of the First Nations . . . To give a little is to receive a great deal. Perhaps if, as a society, we were to worry a little less about the possible consequences of such giving, we might find that respect and generosity have a way of perpetuating themselves" (Cited in Doherty, 1992:7).

  Extracts from: Simpson, M 1996. "Making Representations: Museums in the Post-colonial Era", London: Routledge, pp 233-34.

Possible future action:

    —  Museum staff should allow researchers access to documentation relating to the collections of human remains but should continue to limit access to the human remains themselves.

    —  Museum staff should actively seek the permission of descendants with regard to future research on human remains and their views concerning care, storage, access, and possible repatriation. These views should be reflected in museum policies and the actions of staff to ensure that human remains are stored and handled with sensitivity and in a manner satisfactory to descendants.

    —  Museums should be encouraged to deal with requests for the return of human remains with extreme sensitivity and to recognise the human rights issues associated with religious practices and disposition of the dead.


  At present, the response that museums in Britain make to requests for return is, in the case of local authority museums and independent museums, dependent upon the attitudes of individual curators, directors, councillors, and/or trustees. However, few British museums have received requests and consequently few staff have experience of dealing with repatriation requests. Similarly, very few museums have a coherent policy dealing specifically with repatriation. The MGC Restitution and Repatriation Guidelines which were published in March 2000 are an important step forward in providing curatorial staff with guidance on how to handle requests. These Guidelines will be welcomed by many, although some will regard such a step as a threat to the future of museums and see it as the beginning of the dissolution of collections. However, it cannot be emphasised strongly enough that the vast majority of repatriation claims relate to human remains or to a minority of artefacts in museum collections and that these objects are of special religious and/or cultural significance to the community seeking their return.

National Museums

  At present, the laws which established national museums largely prohibit them from repatriating objects and this position is one which has been most often used in responding to repatriation requests concerning items in national collections. Despite this, there have been a few past cases of return from the collections of national museums such as the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum. The integrity of these valuable museum collections must be maintained for the many cultural and educational benefits that they offer to museum visitors and future generations. Nevertheless, it must also be recognised that in some circumstances the rights of traditional owners or the cultural and/or religious significance of the artefacts in question over-ride the social, scientific, and artistic interests of the museums and their audiences.

Possible future action:

    —  All museums including nationals should be required to follow the MGC guidelines if and when they receive a request for repatriation.

    —  National museums should be enabled, through legislative processes if necessary, to facilitate the return of items in appropriate cases and in circumstances in which repatriation would provide significant cultural and/or religious benefit to the community from which the objects originate.


  In considering the future of contested objects, it is necessary to do more than examine their importance in the context of the western museum. If we have a genuine interest in their function and their anthropological history we should have regard for the continuing importance that some of these objects hold within the contemporary cultures and the need that these artefacts can fulfil if they are returned.


  There have been instances when objects have been repatriated and then later have re-appeared on the art market, but such examples are rare. In most instances, the items which are the subject of repatriation requests hold particularly high cultural and religious value for the communities from which they originate. If returned, such items may be returned to the care of traditional custodians, such as tribal elders or religious leaders, who will care for them and use them for the religious and ceremonial purposes for which they were intended.

  Over the past decades, however, a substantial number of indigenous communities in North America and Australia have established museums and cultural centres enabling them to interpret their own cultures to visitors and ensure that their own young people can learn about the values, achievements and beliefs of their ancestors.[49] In Australia, Aboriginal communities have also begun to establish Keeping Places to provide secure storage for secret/sacred material and ensure that access is restricted only to those with proper authority.

  The proposal to establish a museum can be an essential element of the fight for the return of cultural property, sometimes being a pre-requisite of a repatriation agreement. Government agencies and mainstream museums which have negotiated loans or repatriation agreements for religious artefacts have sometimes laid down the condition that tribal groups must be able to provide suitable storage and display facilities which ensure that the objects are secure and correctly conserved. In some cases this has been a further motivating factor for the establishment of a museum by those tribes wishing to once again hold and use the treasures of their ancestors. Such was the case with the establishment of two tribal museums in British Columbia, Canada (see case study below).

  Some communities may express the desire to have material returned but may be unable to provide the necessary secure storage and are happy to have the items remain in the museum under appropriate storage conditions. In these circumstances, museums cannot simply abrogate their responsibility for the material. Continuing to care for the artefacts in accordance with community wishes, even if the objects can no longer be displayed, is a responsibility that the museum has a duty to fulfil. In some instances, items have been returned from overseas museums to a state or other publicly-funded museum in the country of origin which maintains close dialogue with the community and organises access, storage and use of the items in accordance with the requirements and religious beliefs of traditional custodians. This has been the case with human remains returned from overseas museums to Australia and New Zealand.


  Amongst the tribes of the Northwest Coast of North America, the potlatch was an elaborate status ceremony involving the gifting of large quantities of goods and was an important socio-economic practice. It was banned by the Canadian Government in 1884. In December 1921, Dan Cranmer of the Nimkish band of the Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl) gave a huge potlatch on Village Island near Alert Bay. The Indian Agent, William Halliday, received information about the potlatch and some of the participants were arrested. Over the next few months, over 50 men and women were charged but were offered the opportunity to avoid imprisonment if they signed an agreement never again to participate in a potlatch. They also had to agree to assist the authorities in ensuring that the Potlatch Law was not violated and to surrender to the Department of Indian Affairs all their potlatch paraphernalia including coppers, dancing masks and costumes, head dresses and other articles used solely for potlatch purposes. Many of those involved assented and signed the agreement in order to avoid imprisonment and further prosecutions. Several hundred ceremonial items were surrendered to Halliday, and the Department of Indian Affairs paid token compensation of $1,495, well below the true value. Halliday sold 33 items to George Heye for the Museum of the American Indian/Heye Foundation in New York City. The remainder of the collection was shipped to Ottawa and distributed between the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto and the Victoria Memorial Museum in Ottawa (later the National Museum of Man and now the Canadian Museum of Civilisation).

  Efforts to obtain the return of the potlatch collection began almost immediately after their confiscation. In 1951, the Canadian Government revised the Indian Act and revoked the potlatch ban; since then, potlatches have once again been held without fear of persecution and prosecution. In 1974, the Kwakwaka'wakw finally succeeded in securing agreement from the board of trustees of the National Museums of Canada for the return of the collection held in the National Museum of Man. The Museum insisted upon the collection being held in trust by tribal societies on behalf of the families who had surrendered the items in 1922. They also specified that the items could not be sold and were to be accommodated in conditions which met museum standards.

  U'mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, and the Kwagiulth Museum in Cape Mudge, on Quadra Island, were both established to meet these conditions and the collection was shared between the two museums. The return of the collection from the National Museum of Man progressed smoothly and the Kwagiulth Museum at Cape Mudge opened in 1979, and U'mista Cultural Centre in 1980. However, negotiations with the Royal Ontario Museum were more difficult and it was not until 1987 that the Kwakwaka'wakw people succeeded in obtaining the repatriation of the ROM potlatch collection.

  The Kwagiulth Museum at Cape Mudge has a very localised profile. The story of the loss and return of the regalia is not prominent. The displays clearly assert the family ownership rights and explain that "all the masks and regalia, the histories of their acquisition and the songs and dances associated with them are owned as property by individual families. Only a limited number of families amongst the Kwakwaka'wakw are acknowledged as having the hereditary right to this wealth conveyed to them by illustrious ancestors. Family right to the possession of these treasures is asserted at the potlatch gathering."

  U'mista has developed into a strongly community-based museum which seeks to preserve and exhibit artefacts of value to the Kwakwala-speaking people. It also seeks to recover artefacts and records held in the collections of other institutions or by individuals, and staff undertake activities designed to disseminate information to a wider population in Canada and overseas. Central to the creation and function of the museum, is the history of the prohibition of the potlatch, the confiscation and return, many years later, of the Cranmer potlatch collection, and the continuing potlatch tradition in modern form. In the display of the potlatch collection references to the arrests and the confiscation of the regalia feature prominently, telling a story of tribal loss and of repatriation. The views and feelings of the individuals involved are illuminated through letters, reports, petitions, newspaper articles and other documentation, which vividly carry their message to us across the intervening years. U'mista also promotes cultural and artistic activities such as carving, dancing and ceremonials, and collects, records and teaches the history and language of the Kwakwaka'wakw. Visitors to U'mista may well find themselves sharing the Big House with children from the tribal school practising traditional Kwakwaka'wakw dances and songs; for, as well as housing the potlatch collection, the museum functions as a venue for practice sessions by children from the tribal school, and for performances by them and other artists. It also provides a venue for potlatches and other ceremonies, for potlatches are once again being held as they were in the past. The return of the Cranmer potlatch collection was the catalyst for these important cultural developments.

  (For further details see: Simpson, 1996: 153-157).

  Sympathetic handling of repatriation requests does not necessarily result in the repatriation of the item(s). In some museums, changes to storage and display methods and limitations upon display of and access to sacred materials have satisfied those making the request that the items will be cared for in a manner appropriate to their religious and cultural beliefs.

  Museums have also negotiated alternative arrangements such as the lending of items back to communities so that ownership is retained by the museum but custodianship is with the traditional custodians who are able to use religious artefacts in ceremonies according to their intended function. Other resolutions have involved the exchange of old, culturally-significant objects in exchange for new examples with museum staff observing and documenting the manufacture and use.


  The process of discussion and negotiation that results from responding to a repatriation request can provide new opportunities for dialogue, co-operative projects and new insights for all concerned. There are many categories of objects in museum collections which have been the subject of repatriation requests; their significance, and the reasons why their return is sought, are varied.

Community Benefits

  It is indisputable that certain objects in museum collections are required for the practice and perpetuation of religious traditions and their return would be an event of great importance to the community. Amongst North American Indian communities, for example, much traditional knowledge has already been lost, and that which has endured remains under threat: as elders and religious leaders grow older and less numerous, the knowledge that they hold is in danger of dying with them. Yet that knowledge is vital to ensuring that the cultural revitalisation, which is occurring in many native communities, should continue to flourish. Native American commentators such as Gonyea (1993) and Hill (1993) have noted a substantial loss of knowledgeable elders and religious leaders over recent years. They have also spoken of the tremendous value gained from the return of precious, religious artefacts and the contribution that this has made to "the restoration of ancient cycles of spirituality" (Hill, 1993: 10).

  Ray Gonyea (Onondaga ) and Rill Hill (Tuscarora) are members of tribes of the League of Iroquois, which have recently received wampum and other materials repatriated by Canadian and American museums. Both Gonyea and Hill maintain that the repatriation of sacred artefacts has contributed to an increase in spiritual teaching within their communities. According to Hill, assistant director for public programmes at the National Museum of the American Indian, "the first impact of repatriation has been the true preservation of knowledge about sacred ways in those communities where objects have been restored" (1993: 10). Hill was shocked, recently, to realise that only two of his people's elders remained. As Hill has recounted, the return of the sacred materials has been timely: "Those two elders were able to take the sacred objects that we restored to our people and teach them what they could. They have worked tirelessly to teach, to record what they know, and to bring this generation back in touch with the power that used to be our birthright" (Ibid, 9-10). Gonyea has noted that there has been renewed interest in traditional ceremonies associated with the installation of new chiefs, an increase in the number of tribal members attending language and culture classes, and positive changes in the attitudes of women and their status within the Onondaga community.

  Gonyea and Hill attribute these changes to the constructive impact that the repatriation of sacred material has had upon community pride and self-esteem. According to Hill, repatriation has created "a new sense of community . . . the objects themselves confirm the stories that have been heard by native people over the years" (1993: 10). His comments are reinforced by the fundamental principles upon which museums are based: the importance of the object as a tool for research and learning. Education in museums is based upon the premise that the object facilitates learning in a way that secondary source materials cannot. Hill (Ibid: 10) explains that: "since the majority of the cultural patrimony of the Indian nations exists in museums located far from their communities, many young Indians find it hard to understand the beliefs affiliated with the objects . . . without the object, such ritual knowledge had become mere stories told around the community."

Museum Benefits

  Museum staff have also found that the process of entering into repatriation negotiations has rewards, disproving those who fear that museums can only lose from repatriation. The consequences of the repatriation process extend far beyond the future of the skeletal remains and sacred objects themselves. The value of such a spirit of collaboration is demonstrated by the experiences of anthropologists and curators who are working closely with communities, accepting the validity of alternative world views and co-operating over sensitive issues such as repatriation. The outcomes demonstrate that, whether or not repatriation takes place, flexibility and sympathetic treatment of handling of the requests can pay dividends in other areas of museum work.

  Some curators have found that involvement in the repatriation process has resulted in new discoveries about the collections, greater understanding of cultures, and improved relationships leading to collaborative projects. Inviting tribal delegations to examine and comment upon reserve collections or having skeletal remains examined and documented in detail by a physical anthropologist can provide staff with previously unknown information about the collections in their care. Paul Tacon, of the Australian Museum in Sydney, has found that the process of repatriation has led to greater confidence in the museum amongst the Aboriginal communities concerned. This has sometimes resulted in further material being given to the museum and often to improved working relationships, collaborative research and other projects. "Instead of closing doors, or losing things, you actually gain and you open doors." (Tacon, 1993).

  Chris Anderson, formerly Curator of Anthropology in the South Australian Museum, was involved with pro-active custodianship negotiations between the South Australian Museum and Aboriginal communities from 1985. He found that these discussions led to "true social interaction" resulting in joint projects, such as exhibitions; greater understanding and knowledge of material in the collections with detailed cultural histories provided by senior Aboriginal men; and the acquisition of additional material, similar to that returned, given by communities who have developed more trust and respect for the museum. He argues that "repatriation, under certain circumstances, can represent an import use of collections" (Anderson, 1990b:31).

  If museums are to demonstrate that they have shaken off the colonial mantle, they must address fully the issue of repatriation. There is no doubt that the situation is more complex for British museums than it is for many of those in countries such as Australia, Canada and the USA. Whereas museums in those countries have been dealing primarily with repatriation requests from the indigenous peoples in their own countries, British museums have collections representing many countries reflecting the size and scope of the British Empire's former colonial interests. Nevertheless, communication technology, data management, and image storage and retrieval technology create opportunities for museums to make collections and data available to researchers or communities through electronic and digital means, and provide tremendous potential for museums to communicate and work with communities in any part of the world.

  A blanket "no returns" policy reflects a failure to recognise or acknowledge the validity of the concepts of spiritual ownership, cultural patrimony, and the cultural importance of certain objects to cultures that did not die out in the nineteenth century, as was expected at that time. One of the reasons for acquiring some of the material was to document dying cultures, to preserve for posterity the last remains of the material evidence of dying races. But the cultures did not die: they live and thrive today and their people seek the return of objects which are sources of community pride, symbols of cultural identity and survival, potent and necessary ceremonial items, and resources for teaching the young and ensuring cultural continuity. Their concerns and interests must be addressed and the processes associated with the consideration of repatriation requests recognised offering constructive and culturally significant outcomes for all those involved.


  Research conducted on behalf of the Museums Association and published in "Museums and Repatriation" (Simpson, 1997) showed that there is great need for further information to enable those dealing with repatriation requests to become familiar with the complexities of the issues. This need could be satisfied through the establishment of an archive of material including case studies relating the experiences of other museums and communities; identification of sources of expert advice within museums, academic institutions and indigenous communities; and the establishment of an advisory body to handle, advise on, or assist with repatriation negotiations (Recommendations 2, 3 and 4 of "Museums and Repatriation"; see Appendix 2[51])

Possible future action

    —  It is recommended that the Government allocate funding for: the establishment of an archive of material including case studies relating the experiences of other museums and communities; identification of sources of expert advice within museums, academic institutions and indigenous communities; and the establishment of an advisory body to handle, advise on, or assist with repatriation negotiations.


      AFN/CMA, 1991. "Turning The Page: Forging New Relationships between Museums and First Peoples". Task Force Report on Museums and First Peoples. Published by the Assembly of First Nations and the Canadian Museums Association.

      ATSIC. 1993. "Policy development and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural property"; Canberra: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Issues Paper No 3, October 1993.

      Anderson, C 1990. "Repatriation, custodianship and the policies of the South Australian Museum", COMA Bulletin of the Conference of Museum Anthropologists 23: 112-15.

      Anderson, C 1990b "The Economics of Sacred Art: The economics of a secret/sacred collection in the South Australian Museum", COMA Bulletin of the Conference of Museum Anthropologists 23: 31-41.

      Anderson, 1991b. "The Custodianship of Sacred Objects Project: an overview". Records of the South Australian Museum 25(1): 111-12.

      CAMA, 1993. "Previous Possessions, New Obligations: Policies for Museums in Australia and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples" The Council of Australian Museum Associations (CAMA), now known as Museums Australia.

      Clarke, P A and Anderson, C 1997. "A Brief History of Aboriginal Men's Secret Sacred Objects in Australian Museums" in Unlocking Museums, the proceedings of the 4th National Conference of Museums Australia Inc: 172-176.

      Cocks, R 1993. Letter from Dr Robin Cocks, Keeper of Palaeontology to Maurice Davies, Editor of the Museums Journal, 23 November.

      Conaty, G T 1996. Personal correspondence to the author from Dr G T Conaty, Senior Ethnologist, Glenbow Museum, Alberta, Canada.

      Davidson, G W 1990. "The Human Remains Controversies", The Dodge Magazine, 82(4): 407, 24-5.

      Doherty, K 1992. "The Peterborough Precedent", a presentation at Queen's University Conservation Training Programme, 9 May.

      Fagan, B 1991. Editorial, Antiquity, 65 (247): 188-90.

      Fourmile, H 1990a. "Possession is nine-tenths of the law—and don't Aboriginal people know it!" COMA Bulletin of the Conference of Museum Anthropologists 23: 31-41.

      Gonyea, R W (1993) "Give me that old time religion". History News 48(2): 4-7.

      Ladd, E (1991) "Repatriation—Zuni Sensitive Material: A Case Study", a paper presented, and answers to questions, at the session Communities in Collaboration, Part 2, at the AAM Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado on May 1991.

      Merrill, W L, Ladd, E J and Ferguson, T J 1993. "The Return of the Ahayu:da: Lessons for repatriation from Zuni Pueblo and the Smithsonian Institution", Current Anthropology 34(5): 523-567.

      Simpson, M G 1996. Making Representations: Museums in the Post-Colonial Era, London: Routledge.

      NMAI, 1992: Collections Policy, Washington DC: National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution.

      Sullivan R 1992. "Return of the sacred wampun belts of the Iroquois", The History Teacher 26(1): 7-14.

      Tacon, P 1993. Research Scientist, Anthropology, Australian Museum, Sydney: interview with the author, 9 July.

    April 2000

49    For a discussion of the development of indigenous museums see Simpson M "Making Representations: Museums in the Post-Colonial Era", London: Routledge, October 1996, chapters 4 and 5; Doxtator, 1985; and Eoe and Swadling, 1991. Back

50    Excerpts from Simpson, M 1996. "Making Representations: Museums in the Post-colonial Era", London: Routledge, pp 244-46. Back

51    Not printed. Back

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