UK museums may have to follow ‘decolonisation’ checklist


British museums will be asked to assess their collections with a new “decolonising” checklist to ease the repatriation of cultural treasures, and could face financial repercussions if they fail to do so.

UK museums may have to follow 'decolonisation' checklist
Arts Council England has called on experts to draw up new guidelines to address sacred and
significant objects like the Parthenon Marbles and Rosetta Stone [Credit: Telegraph]

Arts Council England has called on experts to draw up new guidelines to address sacred and significant objects like the Parthenon Marbles and Rosetta Stone, which have long provoked pleas for repatriation from aggrieved nations after being seized in the age of empire.

The Government-backed body already requires its portfolio organisations to follow protocols on diversity in order to receive funding, so could demand institutions adhere to its planned credo on colonialism.

It is hoped the checklist would be followed by all UK museums and fill a gap in guidance, but the Arts Council said it was “too soon” to say there would be a financial impact for the organisations it funds.

The guidance will urge UK institutions to be “proactive” about repatriation, and navigating divided public opinion surrounding contested collections.

Following the example of France, where repatriation of colonial spoils has been accelerated by the promises of Emmanuel Macron, experts will be contracted to help UK museums deal with media attention, Government policy, and the long-term future of priceless artefacts.

UK museums may have to follow 'decolonisation' checklist
Easter Islanders have demanded return of the Hoa Hakananai’a statue
[Credit: Londstephen Chung/LNPON News Pictures Ltd]

An Arts Council spokeswoman said: “The aim of the guidance is to encourage a more proactive and coordinated approach across the UK museum sector by providing museums with a practical resource to support them in engaging with and responding to all aspects of restitution and repatriation.

“At this point we’re focused on developing and providing the guidance.”

The Arts Council said it was “too soon” to comment on financial arrangements , or groups being required to follow guidance in order to receive funding, in the same way diversity practices must be demonstrated by the 828 organisations within its portfolio.

An Easter Island Moai looming in the British Museum, an Aboriginal shield, and Ethiopian sacred tablets are among the many artefacts acquired amid imperial expansion which have been demanded back by their ancestral owners.

Last year Cambridge University’s Jesus College handed back a Benin bronze cockerel to Nigeria following student pressure to repatriate the plundered object, and the University of Manchester returned Aboriginal artifacts to their original communities.

UK museums may have to follow 'decolonisation' checklist
Artefacts like this sarcophagus have been repatriated in the past
[Credit: EPA]

Foreseeing ever-increasing demands for repatriation in future, the Arts Council has offered a £42,000 contract to experts who can draw up guidance on decolonisation.

The contract states: “There is significant government, public and press interest and increasing calls for action by UK museums and sector bodies to address this agenda.”

It is understood that planned guidance will work as a checklist to handle claims, from how to deal with publicity and activist agitation, to possible repatriation.

The guidance will urge museums to be proactive in assessing their collections, recognising the potential colonial history of items, and working to educate visitors on both the objects and their provenance.

The Arts Council is keen to stress these benefits of decolonisation, which may lead to items being removed from collections, but can give curators and the public a greater knowledge and appreciation of the objects themselves.

UK museums may have to follow 'decolonisation' checklist
Cambridge University returned this Benin bronze cockerel to Nigeria
[Credit: AFP]

The organisation I understood not to be making moral judgments in the call for guidance, either for or against repatriation, but wishes to provide a uniform template for best practice across the sector.

It is understood future funding may help foreign delegations appraise objects in British museums which could be ripe for repatriation, and the the Arts Council would welcome the range of perspectives on decolonisation provided by staff diversity.

Author: Craig Simpson | Source: Telegraph [January 17, 2020]