Arts Council seeks guidance on restitution and repatriation for UK museums

Article: David Styles | Image: Esme Ward, director of Manchester Museum, with Mangubadijarri Yanner at last year's repatriation ceremony © David Tett

A supplier to produce new guidance for the UK museum sector on the restitution and repatriation of cultural objects is being sought by Arts Council England.

An advert has been placed by Arts Council England for someone to guide the organisation on the topics of restitution and repatriation. This follows a string of artefacts having been returned to nations in late 2019, with Manchester Museum thrusting the issue into the mainstream consciousness with a livestreamed and highly emotional ceremony.

Esme Ward, director of Manchester Museum, said the return of items to aboriginal communities made the Museum more “inclusive, caring and relevant to the communities it serves both locally and globally.”

Work to “promote understanding between cultures, learn together and build new relationships for the future has never been more important or timely,” she added.

The ACE brief

The overarching aim of this work is to create a comprehensive and practical resource for museums to support them in dealing confidently and proactively with all aspects of restitution.

Restitution and repatriation of objects in museum collections is an area of increasing focus and debate across the UK and international museum sector. This is particularly, although not exclusively, focused on objects in Western museums acquired by European nations from former colonies, and links to wider agendas around decolonising museums. There is significant government, public and press interest and increasing calls for action by UK museums and sector bodies to address this agenda.

Following initial discussions facilitated by ACE with colleagues from across the UK museum sector it was agreed that new practical guidance for museums is an appropriate first step in response, and that ACE as the national development body for museums in England and with its statutory responsibilities for cultural property is best-placed to lead this work. The most recent sector guidance, published in 2000 by the Museums and Galleries Commission, is now out of print and very out of date.

It is anticipated that this work will be undertaken through a review of existing research and evidence as well as extensive consultation with practitioners and stakeholders across and beyond the UK museum sector, to identify key challenges, opportunities, practical and ethical issues and examples of best practice in the UK and internationally.

This work will also inform ACE’s policy and strategy on this rapidly developing agenda and help identify further potential further actions for ACE and other sector bodies to support museums, facilitate ongoing dialogue and promote best practice across the sector.

The fixed term contract is scheduled to run from 24th February to 19th June.

Whoever is selected for the role supporting Arts Council will play a pivotal role in the sector’s direction of travel on this very pertinent but divisive issue. One thing the advert confirms is that all museums to have already acted in this area have succeeded in making restitution and repatriation prominent considerations within the powers that be.