Stealing History 2005
World Museum, 6 October 2005
A debate about museums and cultural property
Transcript of the first Stealing History debate, held as part of Black History Month 2005. Further details about the Stealing History debates including speakers' abstracts are available in the Black History Month pages of this website.
David Fleming, director of National Museums Liverpool (NML): Just a few words of introduction, I’m here tonight just to chair the discussion, I’m not really representing NML, although there are a lot of NML staff here, so if you want to ask questions about what we’re up to do so, so just before I move into the chair I’ll just say a few words about what NML’s thoughts are about this subject and what my thoughts are.
First of all it’s a very hot issue professionally, quite rightly so, its been coloured largely recently by the whole Elgin Marbles, Parthenon Marbles debate, which has probably not been very helpful to be honest. The issues of repatriation and essentially the transfer of cultural property between countries is very complicated, there’s many, many different perspectives on it and I could almost go so far as to say that every issue should be looked at individually. There are some general issues involved here but there are many particular trickiness’ and difficulties and circumstances are always different and it hasn’t helped that we’re all sort of tending to think in terms of should these marbles be sent back to Greece and if not nor should anything else be sent back, and if they were ever sent back then the flood gates would open and there’d be cause for restitution for everything all over the world. It’s scaremongering talk coming out of people that believe the marbles should stay in Britain, if you can try and talk down that issue that everything else will stay under control and that if you say that well give the marbles back everything else then will go wildly out of control, so it’s not been a very intelligent debate is what I’m trying to say. So what we’re looking for tonight is a little bit of a redress to that and have some intelligent debate, I know our speakers have very different perspectives on this, which is good, and it’s healthy and I think we’ll be coming at it with knowledge of different types of collection, which I think is also good and healthy, because rather than just picking on one particular set of items, as I say if you can keep the view about the whole thing I think you end up with a healthier and more intelligent approach.
NML itself is involved as an organisation in requests for items to be repatriated, we certainly have a current issue with some items from New Zealand that we hold here, that we’ve had claims for repatriation from New Zealand and I think Lynne may say a little about that later so I won’t say too much other than that, as I noticed in an article I was reading of Lynne’s today called Restitution or Repatriation, she cites the fact that, somewhere in here, NML staff are well disposed towards repatriation, which I think is a fair assessment of what we do think. I mean I think a lot of our staff would like to think that look if there are good arguments for this and there’s a rightness about it, let’s just go ahead and do it, the reason that we haven’t been able to act on that as often as we might like is that there’s some very strange laws in Britain about ownership and so on and we’ve been waiting for a while for some kind of clarity to emerge from government, as I understand it Lynne that clarity has recently emerged, I think. NML now is in a position to make a rational decision about any claims that already have been made or might be made and our approach would always be to look at every request on an individual basis and if there’s a good argument to be had our staff recommendation to our Trustee would always be a positive one, I think, if the arguments are very thin and spurious our reaction would be different and that gives you some sense of how tricky this might be, because as I say don’t judge everything globally, we need to look at individual cases.
Okay that’s enough from me I’ll introduce our first speaker, who’s Piotr Bienkowski, who’s well known to us here at NML because he used to work here but is currently acting Director at the Manchester Museum at the University of Manchester and I know that this is a subject dear to his heart and on which he’s definitely an international expert so over to Piotr for our first paper, thank you.
Piotr Bienowski, acting director at Manchester Museum: Thanks David, good evening, I’m going to kick off with ancient Egypt, how and why Egyptian objects were collected, the modern Egyptian antiquities law then I want to look at the principles of repatriation and finish off with some comments on fundamental moral and ethical issues that these topics raise.
Now the core of this museum’s Egyptian collection and that of all major museums was acquired in the nineteenth century when for the first time Egypt was opened up to western visitors. In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte led a military expedition to Egypt, his purpose was to dominate the eastern Mediterranean and to directly threaten British power in India. Accompanying his campaign was a team of 150 scholars who studied and recorded all aspects of Egypt, Egyptology and the very existence of large Egyptian collections outside Egypt were a direct product of this expedition. Among the objects they found was the Rosetta stone, which by 1822 had led to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics and it is now in the British Museum. After Napoleon’s defeat by the British and especially by Nelson with the Battle of the Nile the Egyptian government started the deliberate policy of westernisation and they opened up the country to European travellers, the representatives of the European powers, the diplomats, spent much of their time collecting Egyptian antiquities and amassing huge private collections. These private collections were later sold to western museums and became the core of the major collections in the west today. Now the collectors tended to employ agents who literally robbed and destroyed tombs in order to get at the antiquities quickly. The most prominent agent of all was Giovanni Batiste de Belzoni and he was quite a character, a former circus strongman known as the Patagonian Samson, this is one of his advertising leaflets. He specialised in moving Egyptian antiquities down the Nile to Alexandria for shipping to England but his own descriptions of entering tombs to search for antiquities reveal the damage and destruction that these early collectors caused and their complete disregard for the context of the objects, some of the objects that Belzoni collected are today in this museum.
Now this sort of rampant collecting or even plundering was slowed down by the founding of the Egyptian Antiquities Service in 1858 which was actually set up and run by the French, the first Director was Auguste Mariette whose statue you can still see in Cairo today. Now today this body is called the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt its role is to monitor archaeological work in Egypt, to give permits for excavations to run the museums, it also has to give formal permission for the export of any antiquities from Egypt. Now this is where we have to talk about Egyptian law, when Belzoni and the others plundered Egyptian sites in the nineteenth century and carted out the best stuff to Egyptian collectors and museums there was nothing in the law to stop them, it was perfectly legal, by that I mean that there was in fact no law preventing them from doing so, there was an absence of law covering antiquities. Now the history of Egyptian law covering antiquities is slightly ambiguous and tricky and it is very interesting that the first effective law controlling the export of antiquities from Egypt did not appear until 1928, there were various decrees and laws before but the 1928 one was the first effective one and this was a direct result of the discovery and excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamen and was an attempt to prevent this unique material from leaving Egypt. For the first effective time with this law you had to have formal permission, written permission from the Egyptian government to take antiquities out of Egypt. Now this 1928 law is very significant for museums outside Egypt, nowadays most but not all museums want to acquire objects legally, that is in agreement with international conventions on the export of antiquities which prevent the museum from acquiring objects contrary to the laws of its country of origin. In seeking to acquire Egyptian objects museums must check if they left Egypt before 1928 in which case they left Egypt legally, or perhaps more accurately not illegally, or if there is evidence that they left Egypt after 1928, in which case they must be accompanied by an official export permit. So for example, some years ago this museum was interested in acquiring some Egyptian reliefs from a dealer, the check on the history indicated that it was likely that they had left Egypt during or just after the Second World War, so after 1928, the dealer was unable to supply an export permit and so the museum withdrew from the purchase, so in that sense the Egyptian law does give some sort of protection to Egyptian antiquities leaving Egypt, at least those after, leaving after 1928, and later a more comprehensive Egyptian law on antiquities was issued in 1983 and that law is currently being re-written.
But now I want to set aside purely legal considerations and look at this from a different perspective in terms of the principals of repatriation, if the Egyptian government did make a request for repatriation, what sort of grounds would they have in principal?
Now in other contexts as David has suggested the sort of requests for repatriation that you get tend to fall into 2 categories, the first category tends to be relatively recent human remains and associated sacred material, however you define that, which can be linked directly to living relatives or to the same cultures that still exist. This is the case with, for example Aboriginal human remains and associated material in western museums which can be linked with still living relatives and communities in Australia, here it seems to me that most western museums are very willing to discuss repatriation and it becomes a question of finding out who is the appropriate authority to deal with in the country of origin, in this case Australia, now this is not always straightforward, these are the sort of difficulties that David was alluding to, since relatives, families, communities often have divided opinions. Now recently the Australian government has set up an office for repatriation and reconciliation in order to negotiate on behalf of communities, in Manchester Museum for example we repatriated Aboriginal remains in 2003 and we are in constant contact with this office building a relationship with it and with the communities that is ongoing and reciprocal, rather than seeing repatriation as a one-off event which then closes off communication, and it seems to me that there is a difference between Aboriginal communities, Aboriginal cultures in Australia on the one hand and ancient cultures such as Egypt or Greece or Mesopotamia on the other hand in so far as it is impossible with those ancient cultures to identify living relatives here, and these are cultures and communities which no longer exist, they are historical. These more ancient items cannot be linked to any living indigenous communities and so if it is the sensitivities and opinions of living communities that are the paramount consideration there is no obvious ethical imperative to repatriate them.
Now the second major category with requests for repatriation are items claimed as cultural property and the prime example are of course as we have heard are the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum regularly requested back by the Greek government on the grounds that they come from the frieze on the Parthenon the main temple of Athena in the centre of Athens and they are perceived as central to the identity and culture of the modern Greeks, now the numbers of such iconic objects across the world are probably limited and they are quite difficult to define and agree on, could the Rosetta stone for example be claimed as cultural property on the grounds that it is central to modern understanding of ancient Egyptian culture and is thus important to modern Egyptian identity, I leave that as a question. But it seems to me that in both these categories of requests for repatriation the legal issue of the ownership of the items in question is secondary, perhaps even irrelevant, if we recall the methods by which Belzoni acquired Egyptian items and what we now regard as the personal greed of the collectors on whose behalf he worked, whether or not it was legal at the time is surely irrelevant, our present view is that this was no more than plunder and robbery, of course by the standards of the time the collectors certainly felt that they had a right to these objects. Egypt was a resource, England was a colonial power, and certainly no one in Egypt was interested in those objects at the time, but with Aboriginal cultures in Australia perhaps one could make a case for return of objects that were taken when Egypt was essentially under colonial rule and thus repatriation would be some sort of recompense for past wrongs.
Now I think there is something common to these different nineteenth and twenty-first century attitudes to Egyptian objects inevitably both see the ancient Egyptian past in light of their own present values, both attitudes have in them a sense of somehow owning the past, linking the past to present needs, identities and political and cultural realities and structures. In an example entirely relevant to black history month within which context we have this debate, the interpretation of ancient Egypt is increasingly used in the debate about the origins of African culture and about African self identity, an attempt to challenge the idea of ancient Egypt being the roots of western culture and re-appropriating it to modern African culture an identity and pride. Seen from a modern perspective these approaches are entirely understandable and even laudable since they prove accounts, provide useful counter balance to traditional perhaps imperialist perspectives but they too are not beyond challenge, clearly they too are using ancient Egypt for their own modern purposes. Fundamentally what is the connection between ancient Egypt and Africa? The concept of Africa as a discreet area and later as a continent and today as a culture and an identity was originally a creation of the Romans at a time when ancient Egyptian culture had largely disappeared at first in fact the Roman concepts of Africa corresponded roughly with modern Tunisia. The ancient Egyptians certainly had no concept of Africa but does any of this matter? These topics are of importance to us now and surely the past serves the present.
Well let’s just consider that, museums are certainly changing in their attitudes to the objects they hold and their ownership and use and increasingly they consult with communities, they negotiate, they build relationships, surely therefore our attitude to the ancient people we study and whose objects we collect should reflect our attitude towards human beings in general. In this sense archaeology is concerned with the difference of the past, philosophically it investigates the otherness of human beings who now no longer exist. We do have an ethical relationship with people who are dead, those people can no longer act or feel, they exist as no more than a handful of bones or as mummies or through the objects they created, they do not exist even in memory. Is it ethical to use them as pawns in our own modern games, to relate them to structures they could have had no knowledge of? Most critically we often disregard the difference of the past and think that the past people were just like us with the same ways of thinking, bodily experiences, emotional responses, values and beliefs, when we do that we transform that difference into a universal sameness. The ethical task of archaeology and of museums is to bare witness to and to explore that past.
Now what does this in practice, two examples to finish off with, now two years ago there was a government sponsored report on human remains in museums in this country, this is it, there was a working group who prepared this report, made up of museum professionals and of people with an interest in this topic, and in this report the working group conceded that, and I quote,
‘the ancient Egyptians would have disapproved strongly of the opening up and investigation of mummies, the question therefore arises as to whether and to what extent museums owe a responsibility to respect the views of original individuals and communities irrespective of the absence of any contemporary concern by living persons or extant of groups’
Nevertheless the working group did not advocate taking any action as these were historic remains, but surely at the very least museums can acknowledge this issue openly and discuss in their displays and with communities, are the bodies of these past human beings taken from their place of burial in Egypt held here in the museum against their wishes as far as we can understand them, why, how do we know, what are the alternatives? At least this way we acknowledge our responsibility to the past even if we do nothing to correct past actions.
My second and final example, the same human remains consultation, defined its remit in terms of human remains as limited to modern humans, that is the species homo sapiens sapiens, yet in certain Native American tribes, for example the Umatilla Nation any hominid burial within the tribal area is regarded as part of its community irrespective of age, this is well documented with a ten thousand year old Kennewick skeleton found in Washington State in 1998. In principal then any pre-homo sapiens sapiens fossil hominid remains from those areas held in museums could be regarded as part of their community and in the community sense identified as human and as Native American. So here we have a potential polarisation between different definitions of human, one western scientific species based on taxonomy the other based on Native American cultural beliefs which disregard science, taxonomy and DNA evidence. And in western medical ethics a third definition is often used, a human or a person is any being capable of valuing its own existence, who defines what is human, and on what grounds, which is correct, all of them of course but from different view points but only dialogue will result in any consensus on practical action. Certainly at Manchester Museum we feel that our responsibility as a museum is to explore reciprocal relations with communities, local and global, past and present, around the origins and meanings of collections, a relationship in which knowledge comes from both sides and is not vested solely in the museum and in which ownership can be negotiated.
Just to finish off with on Saturday at Manchester Museum we have a similar debate of what we have tonight, were we will have members of the Egyptian and Sudanese communities talking about Egyptian objects they’ve picked from the collections, talking about what they mean to them in terms of emotional engagement and that’s leading to a discussion about the presentation of Egypt and the Sudan in the museum and that’s at 2 o’clock at Manchester Museum on Oxford Road on Saturday you’re all welcome, no tickets necessary, thank you.
David Fleming: Thank you Piotr some observations there that I’m sure have got people thinking about the complexity of this topic. We’ll move straight on now, and when we’ve finished with all four speakers there’s chance for questions obviously, to Eric Lynch who’s a local historian and tour guide it says here. Known to me as a very good friend of National Museums Liverpool, involved in many ways with us over the years, particularly important to us in terms of the understanding that he brings to the issue of Liverpool’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. So Eric over to you, thank you.
Eric Lynch, Liverpool historian: Good evening everybody, first and foremost let me state I have no academic qualifications whatsoever.
In the past I’ve heard high court judges turn round and say to people who have been accused of thieving that if there was no receivers there would be no thieves. If I was a young person in today’s society, break in to some pensioner’s house and thieve their war medals, then when it was put in the newspapers it is described as a disgraceful, despicable act, if I was a gang of cutthroats in modern times, broke into the Vatican and took what was considered by the Roman Catholic community of the world relics which have great religious significance to them can you imagine the outcry that there would be throughout the Roman Catholic empire. Some years ago a stone which is used in the coronation of the kings and queens of England, and you’ll have to bare with me I’ve forgotten the name of the stone, it was pinched because it belonged to the Scottish people, so they said, and there was a massive outcry. Here we have a situation whereby we know that in the museums there are articles that have been in some cases given by African kings and African chiefs to representatives of the British government and in many cases they were coerced into giving these articles, and these articles did not belong to the kings, did not belong to the chiefs, they were there on behalf of the community, the people that they belonged to. And for generations because of the pre-conceived ideas that Europeans had as regards black culture, well they have no culture, these objects are made by savages, they are pagan, they have no religion, we only have one religion and the religion is the Roman Catholic Church, the religion is the European religion anything else other than that is paganism, savagery. In modern times, we have Nazi Germany where they did their utmost to virtually wipe out every Jewish person within Europe and in the majority of cases they succeeded, yes there was one or two who escaped. Many of these Jewish men and women had valuable artefacts, gold, paintings, which were looted by the Nazi Germany, many of the articles finished up in the Swiss banks, some of them have actually finished up in the collections of European art dealers, does that mean to say that Israel as a Jewish nation has no right to take these companies to court to claim these articles back because they were looted in the first place?
We have every right, it’s no use anybody using this argument that these people are long dead and gone we cannot trace them, we don’t know who they were, I am a true descendant of enslaved people and in modern times they can trace DNA which will take me back to the village in Africa where my people were taken from as enslaved people. These objects and articles that the museums throughout Britain have, they have no right to them whatsoever, they belong to us and even when they show them do they ever come to us and turn around and say ‘are we presenting them in the correct manner’ and because people like me who have been robbed of our culture, robbed of our religion, and I’m not a Catholic, I’m not a Protestant, I’m not a Christian, I’m not a Jew and I’m not a Muslim but I believe in the religion of my ancestors, I believe that my ancestors never hunted animals for sport to hang their heads on walls, to stuff them in cages, my ancestors hunted for food and clothing and when we stayed in one place and we exhausted we moved out so that the land, the mother earth could come back to life again. Therefore if I, at this present date, who has been robbed of my culture, can walk into a museum and when I look at these objects, these objects send out a feeling to me which I receive, it is a feeling of anger and we have every right, regardless of whether there are museums or whether the places still exist in Africa today, we have every right to demand that they be returned and if it means that when they are returned that mother nature takes them and they rot back into the earth then so be it, thank you.
David Fleming: Thank you Eric, great fun, or we might have great fun anyway at the end, I’ll move straight on now to Rounke Williams, who I don’t know very well but I met tonight, who’s described as a resource assistant but I think she may also have some interesting, provocative and controversial things to say.
Rounke Williams, resource assistant: Hello everybody and thank you for having me tonight, I’m here as a Lagotian tonight, I’m not an expert in anything to do with museums but I have a lot of passion about this issue. A Lagotian is someone from, or who lives in Lagos Nigeria. Nigeria is a country in West Africa which is about three and a quarter times the size of the UK and its population has recently been estimated by the World Bank to be 140 million. In the early 1980s Lagos itself was a city of between ten and twelve million people, so when I claim for the purposes of this debate tonight to speak on behalf of my people I’m talking about a pretty hefty constituency. Now it would be true to say that museums don’t feature high on the list of leisure or educational activities for most Nigerians, firstly, entrance fees precludes the vast majority of people and secondly there’s the question of what is on display, those of you who may have seen this afternoon’s screening of the made for TV film Artist Unknown or who may see it at some point later this month here in the museum would have heard its presenter Lenny Peters express his shock at how little was actually on display in Benin Museum when he visited in 1995. Thirdly one would have to be literate in English to understand the descriptions and explanations given for the artefacts on view in Nigerian museums, English maybe lingua franca but we have something like 200 separate different distinct languages in the country. The one thing that Nigerian museums have in their favour in my opinion is that their contents are all ours, please note, there is nothing of European heritage on display in a Nigerian museum, not when I last went anyway.
I’m going to address the questions I initially told the museum I was going to address in reverse order because it just made more sense for my presentation. I’m going to start with problems faced by Nigerian museums, and I’m doing this again as I say as a Lagotian who would go and visit and notice things. To be fair Nigerian museums have a myriad of problems to overcome, there is a lack of political will, the government does not see museums and the work that they could do as significant to the well being and stability of our communities. As a citizen myself of the largest black nation in the world and one of the most multi-ethnic too, I see this as short-sighted, but there you go. There is a lack of political will. There is a crippling lack of funding. There are problems with security and the safety of artefacts. Theft of artefacts does go on still, most international conventions on the sale of artefacts abroad are unenforceable and do not cover artefacts from before the latter part of the twentieth century. Many of the famous Benin artefacts for example, we acquired in the nineteenth century at the sacking of the city. Furthermore there are difficulties with technology, culture, capacity and maintenance. There is no significant development of audience appreciation of museum contents. It seems then that the role of the government in supporting the existence and work of museums is key in Nigeria, without revenue and security which in any developing country largely comes from the government, any public service would be hard pressed and the Nigerian museum service is probably the most hard pressed of all, this is a sad state of affairs, especially as the artefacts inside our museums what we do have are ours.
Which brings me to the question that has been asked by Nigerians since the 1990, 77, I beg your pardon, 1977 festival of black and African arts and culture known as FESTAC, who owns the stuff inside museums? FESTAC was a huge gathering of black and African artists and performers from all over the world, hosted by Nigeria in Lagos in 1977. The Nigerian government asked the British government and or the British Museum, because I was only 14 at the time, I can’t remember what exactly, asked them to return the so called FESTAC mask, now this is a bronze that is said to depict Queen Idia of Benin, though others say it is a depiction of the Goddess of inland waters and their contents. The Nigerian government wanted to use the mask as the FESTAC logo and to highlight Nigeria’s own cultural riches, I remember the furore caused by the British government’s or museum’s refusal to return the mask, it sparked a massive debate in taxis, roadside lorry parks, in the media about who actually owns these things. So who owns museum artefacts? Some Nigerians would say that they belong to the state, which should preserve them for all citizens, other Nigerians would argue that they belong to the descendants of those who made them or commissioned them. Now I’m sure that this is just repeating what we know already but I’m going to say it anyway, in pre-colonial Africa artefacts are made to be used and replaced as and when necessary by dedicated crafts people. Colonialism, westernisation, Christianisation, Islamisation, none of these has wiped out traditional African life and practices, modified, put boundaries around but not wiped out traditional African life and practices. Now that means that the artefacts that were useful and important to everyday life or for ritual purposes back in 1750 for example, are in many respects still useful today, so a key point in my presentation tonight is that our artefacts in British museums today could and would still be used as originally intended by the descendants of the crafts people who made them if only we still had them.
It follows then that any Nigerian artefacts in British museums belong to us, and whether they belong to our government or to our communities is for us to decide, this seemingly pedantic issue is of great importance, as a Lagotian. I have to confess that I regard the ability of my government to represent my interest at any level as highly suspect. My country is multi-ethnic and continues to experience communal instability in the scramble for resources. I would argue that so far the Nigerian government has failed to preserve, conserve and protect my heritage and we know for a fact that some of what remains after the colonial grand theft is disappearing on the black market. The problem is such that rumours of Yoruba bronzes yet to be discovered remain merely rumours, as those who may still have them prefer to keep the concealed apparently, rather than risk losing them to scientists and foreign museums. Moreover, scepticism about their existence and quality from western archaeologists and curators only adds to the secretiveness surrounding any important artefacts still to be unearthed. Who owns the stuff in British museums?
There are many Nigerian artefacts for example in the hands of private collectors, when I visited the Africa 95 exhibition in London in 1995 I was distressed to see artefacts from various cultures in Nigeria described for example as ‘property of Mrs Schmitt, Frankfurt’ now there must be dozens of Schmitts in the Frankfurt phonebook so I’m not accusing a particular individual but who is Mrs Schmitt and what is she doing in possession of a birthing stool? She can hardly be using it, in fact that birthing stool should not have been in that exhibition, it should have been in use somewhere in central Nigeria until it fell apart and a new one was made, maintaining a culture of use, maintaining a culture of production. I was surprised at the depth of my distress at the Africa 95 exhibition, objects that should have been in everyday use in a Nigerian community, even if they were covered in gold and meant for the royal throne room were displayed with inadequate descriptions of the relationships between them and the real people who made and used them, and they always belonged to someone, or some organisation that had no ethnic link with Nigeria or the place the artefacts came from. How would you feel, British people, if a Uruguayan collector owned the crown jewels for example and refused to loan them to you in Liverpool for a significant exhibition on the British royal family? Well that’s what it’s like for us with the Benin and Yoruba artefacts and countless other things from our history. Much of the Nigerian stuff in British museums is war booty or has been acquired in dubious trade or collected by people who did not seem to realise that they were actually helping to bring down unique cultures that had a right to exist and progress, because at the end of the day that is what the loss of our stuff means.
And my last question tonight, what are museums for? As a Lagotian I’m under the impression that British museums are packed to the gunnels with stuff nicked from other people, a former Director of one London museum being interviewed for a TV programme in 1995 was asked why British museums don’t give the stuff back to where it comes from, he replied that he would not support such a move because it would deprive the minority ethnic groups in Britain of the opportunity to view artefacts from their culture and history. I nearly choked on my dinner! Minority ethnic groups in Britain represent about ten percent, perhaps a little less of the population, shall we say roughly six million people, the population of Nigeria is estimated at 140 million as I’ve said, why should they be deprived? And there’s the issue about what museums do with the stuff they do have. The same programme that I have just referred to revealed that in the mid 1990s up to sixty percent of Indian textile artefacts in that same London museum were not on display, they were packed in the vaults. The presenter Lenny Peters of the Artists Unknown programme revealed the same thing about the Benin artefacts, some sixty percent he says in the programme are not on display, so why can’t this un-displayed stuff be sent back, what’s the problem? It’s our stuff, give it back. My view as a Lagotian in the UK is that large British museums exist to hold collections of stuff nicked from non-European people’s ancestors. Are Nigerian museums like this? No. If the purpose of a museum is to partially display and inadequately describe the uses of other people’s cultural artefacts then by rights the Lagos museum for example, should be at pains to acquire and display similarly Saxon, Celtic and Pictish artefacts, indeed we should demand them, fair exchange is no robbery. The playing field is deeply unequal and we all know it, so get with the programme and give the stuff back. Thank you very much.
David Fleming: Thank you Rounke. And finally Lynne Stumpe, who’s the curator of Oceanic collections at National Museums Liverpool. Lynne, thank you.
Lynne Stumpe: Thank you. Right, well what I’d like to do in this final presentation is to look at human remains as a kind of specific case study and to look at this museum’s experience, partly also because human remains are generally considered as a special case. So for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport they say human remains occupy a unique category distinct from all other museum objects, that there’s a qualitative distinction between human remains and artefacts, human remains require special consideration and treatment.
So at Liverpool to my knowledge there have only been three requests for the return of human remains to date. The first was in 1991 by somebody called Maui Pomare who represented the National Museum of New Zealand and he requested the return of one preserved tattooed head, however his request mentioned only one head when there were actually three so at the time in 1991 we sent him information on all of them, we didn’t receive a response and sadly he died before anything could be resolved. To explain a little more about these preserved tattooed heads, they’re usually known as toi moko that’s their commonest name these days in Maori in the more distant past were the heads of warriors killed in battle, either the heads of friends or relatives preserved to mourn over or the heads of enemies to curse and revile and that was because the whole body couldn’t usually be brought back from the battlefields but the head could, in both cases they were made for public display. When Maori people found that the visiting Europeans and through them the museums were interested in acquiring these heads they became trade items exchanged for things like muskets in the 1820’s heads began to be made specifically for trade and people of the slave class in Maori society could actually be given facial tattoos which normally only aristocrats would have and then killed and their heads preserved. It’s likely though that the Maori only adopted the trade which they regarded as quite unpleasant because their tribes were in danger of being wiped out by Europeans under the Maori and they needed the weapons, this was in the mid nineteenth century. The trade was actually outlawed in 1831 by the Governor of New South Wales after two major incidents when heads were recognised by living relatives and fighting broke out.
The second request for return came in 1994, the head of an Aboriginal Australian called Yagan this time the request came from one of his descendants, Ken Colbung, so different to having somebody representing a museum request the return. Yagan was an Aboriginal leader and the son of a Chief in the Swan River area of Australia who played a major role as an outlaw in raids against European settlers, he was shot in 1833 after a price had been literally put on his head by the Australian government and the head cut off and smoked to preserve it, reportedly, this is what they said at the time for a museum in Britain. It was brought to Liverpool eventually by a British officer who presented the head to the Liverpool Royal Institution in 1835 and from there it was loaned to Liverpool Museum in 1894 however we only found out this history in retrospect when we were first contacted about Yagan’s head by a researcher called Cressida Fforde on Ken Colbung’s behalf. It turned out that Yagan’s head had been buried in Everton Cemetery in 1964 with another preserved head and a Peruvian mummy as they were found to be decomposing in store at that time. The burial or ‘disposal’ in museum terms was carried out according to the museum procedures at the time which aren’t the same, aren’t as good hopefully as they are now. The request for return took about three years to process, partly because Ken Colbung’s claim as Yagan’s rightful descendant was disputed and his role in the repatriation also was questioned by the tribal spokespeople for the Noongah elders, he therefore had problems in applying for the exhumation licence and it took three years in total as I said.
The other major difficulty was the exhumation as other burials had been made in the same grave after the box containing Yagan’s head had been buried and so buried above it. Consent from the next of kin was needed to remove the burials above to reach the burial underneath, as it turned out one relative didn’t grant permission and others wanted conditions made when granting consent, so the exhumation finally took place by digging down next to the grave and taking out the box with Yagan’s head in it from the side, leaving the burials above it undisturbed. All the remains were skeletal at this time as all the soft tissue had disappeared I’m talking this through to give you some idea of what actually happens when people make these repatriation requests. So after the exhumation the head was examined by an osteologist and identified as Yagan this was fairly straightforward as it had been documented as belonging to Yagan before it was buried and it had a hole consistent with a gun shot wound in the head and this was how Yagan was killed. So an Aboriginal delegation received it on the 31 August 1997 and took it back to Australia, however, it still remains unburied as no one has been able to locate Yagan’s body, which was buried apparently in an unmarked grave and so reuniting his head and body which is seen as essential by his descendants is quite difficult. I should say at this point that it’s quite unusual to have the remains of a named person in museum collections, most human remains we know very little about aside from the ones I’ve mentioned. So the return of Yagan’s head stimulated a lot of interest in New Zealand as the other head exhumed was possibly of Maori origin which led to the third request for return for all Maori and Moriori human remains, Moriori being the people of the Chatham Islands, near South Island New Zealand.
So the two Chief Executives of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa generally known as Te Papa visited Liverpool Museum informally in November 1999. Te Papa is organised bi-laterally with Maori and no-Maori staff working together on projects such as this and it has a track record of acting on behalf of Maori and Moriori groups. If returned human remains are kept in especially consecrated vaults under appropriate cultural conditions as ancestral remains, not accessioned items in their collections as ours are. They’re intention is to act as a temporary resting place until long-time care can be resolved with Maori tribes, so when Cheryl Sotheran and James Te Puni visited in 1999 we resolved to work together under the issue of identifying the exhumed head plus another skull in the collections thought to be Moriori for possible return with the three heads already mentioned. The official request came a year later in November 2000 but then there was the delay in setting up the official Repatriation Working Group due to the death of our former Director Richard Foster. The Working Group consisted of several Trustees and some invited specialists and NML, National Museums Liverpool staff, and represented a range of different opinions about return, one major concern being the loss to future scientific research if the remains were buried. The group met in June 2002 but was then put on hold until the Human Tissue Act came into force and in the case of the relevant section this was discussed last Monday, which is Section 47, so that is now in force.
So Section 47 of the Act allows National Museums to ‘dispose of’ in museum speak items they own and that means accessioned items, things that are listed and given a number in the museum collections. Before this Museums and Galleries Act of 1992 made it quite difficult for NML to send things back to countries or cultural groups overseas. So a major issue with Yagan and Maori as I mentioned was the conclusive identification of human remains. With the Te Papa request three heads were fairly obviously toi moko from New Zealand, this was from their physical characteristics (disturbance on tape) from documents in museum files and from archive and historical research which took a number of years altogether, however the head buried and exhumed with Yagan’s was less easy to identify as it’s now a skull and museum records don’t clearly state that the person was Maori. Similarly the presumed skull was only identified as Moriori by a piece of paper found with it. These last two therefore exports in New Zealand institutions including Te Papa looked at photographs, descriptions and detailed measurements to try to find the areas of origin with a bit more certainty. Te Papa now accept that they are indeed Maori and Moriori but the scientific evidence is not, and in fact, may never be for all we know 100 percent conclusive. It should be noted though that we considered other items for return as well which could be called ‘artefactual’ human remains that is human remains made into something else, such as bone knives or hair necklaces or something like this. Specifically we had two necklaces made from bone and teeth which were supposed to be from New Zealand but it turned out that they were fakes. ‘Artefactual’ human remains, they probably weren’t made in New Zealand but that’s another different story entirely, ‘artefactual’ human remains are probably going to be the most difficult thing for museums to deal with under the new legislation. It’s usually quite hard to identify small pieces of bone for example inlaid into a wooden club, they could be human or they could be another animal, and human hair for example may be considered in the same way as human remains by some source communities though it isn’t by the DCMS considered to be human remain. I should also mention because we were talking about ownership that NML only legally owns three out of the five items here as the fourth head was de-accessioned when it was buried and the presumed Moriori skull is also un-accessioned, it was sent to Liverpool in advance of a loan which never took place.
So to summarise some of the issues raised by this. First of all we have the conclusive identification of origins, we have perhaps more difficult identifications of ‘artefactual’ human remains and what’s ‘artefactual’ and what’s not again is a debatable thing sometimes. Who can claim to be valid representatives of originating communities and as the repatriation processes in New Zealand and Australia in broad terms are somewhat different this highlights the need on this level again to consider requests on a case-by-case basis, particularly as a national museum, National Museums Liverpool needs to consider all possible interested individuals and groups including future ones and this is remember in a climate of opinion which is constantly changing. Finally working with overseas institutions as valid representatives of source communities has been absolutely essential and the dialogue has been maintained throughout with these. The requests for return have to be seen in the context of this on-going dialogue so in this brief talk I’ve deliberately not spoken in terms of contested items or competing claims because I don’t think that’s always necessary. It’s always necessarily very helpful to think in this way and within New Zealand which I think is appointed to what we could move towards the emphasis is shifting away from repatriation to Maori communities within the country to the relationships and processes that are developed through repatriation, it’s moving towards partnerships that benefit all, this may be more difficult for museums in the United Kingdom to initiate and sustain because of the distances involved but in the light of our experience here at National Museums Liverpool I think this is what we need to work towards, thank you.
David Fleming: Thank you Lynne, we’ve got about half an hour, or up to half an hour, unless you all run out of questions, I’ve a feeling you might notâ€¦