THE TOI MOKO ARE GOING HOME. TWO preserved tattooed Maori heads, which have been mouldering in Perth Museum for more than a century and a half, are to be returned to their Antipodean homeland. They were rudely removed in 1822 by David Ramsay, a Perth-born ship’s surgeon.
Two similar Maori heads, plus a bone, are also being returned to New Zealand by Glasgow Museums, rather like the much-publicised Ghost Dance Shirt, returned by Glasgow to the native American Lakota people in 1999. Ethiopia, meanwhile, has been celebrating the return of the Aksum obelisk, removed from the holy city of Aksum by Italian fascists in 1935.
However enlightened this may seem, it could be argued that such restitution of artefacts endangers the future of museum collections around the world. With campaigns ongoing to return treasures such as the Lewis chessmen, the Lindisfarne gospels and that perennial bone of contention, the Elgin Marbles, does such a trend pose a growing headache for curators anxious to hang on to their collections?
A report by the House of Commons committee on culture, media and sport recommended four years ago that museums give consideration to the interests of "originating communities", but also made the point that "unless each museum governing body accepts the principle of ‘strong presumption against disposal’, the whole purpose of the museum is called into question".
A few years ago Robert Anderson, then director of the British Museum, remarked: "To an outsider it certainly appears that those who bay for restitution bear an uncanny resemblance to animal rights campaigners, fighting for loveable furry creatures but ignoring the duller plight of beetles or aphids. Yet if everything were returned, there would be no museums."
Michael Taylor, head of arts and heritage for Perth & Kinross Council, who was involved in the toi moko negotiations with a delegation from Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand, believes the problem varies from museum to museum, depending on its collections, but stresses that in Perth "we would still take the strongest presumption against return.
"You might find that, for 60 to 80 per cent of museums in Scotland, it isn’t a problem. For us in Perth, particularly in relation to human remains, it’s unlikely to remain a problem because the only two items we were likely to receive any contact about were the two we’ve just dealt with. But we would make the case on individual merit."
Does he regret losing these items? "I think we’ve been very sympathetic to the Maori requests, so I don’t regret it in that sense. I’m pleased that we went through the process, but we would need a very strong moral or similar case. In that respect, human remains and sacred items are the easiest cases to deal with."
In Glasgow, whose museums are regarded as pioneers in this field, John Lynch, convener of the city council’s culture and leisure services committee, explains that the repatriation working group he chairs was established even before the Ghost Dance Shirt affair. "We set up a group and devised a set of criteria in 1998 because we had four or five such requests for items to be returned. We decided there was no cut-out-and-keep guide and each case had to be considered on its own merits." The criteria, which didn’t necessarily have to be satisfied but which did have to be considered in each case, were: what were the circumstances around which the council obtained ownership? Who were the people asking for the item back? What was their relationship to the original owners? Did the article have any religious or sacred significance? And what would happen to it if it was returned?
While the Lakota Ghost Shirt was returned, a Lakota waistcoat acquired by Glasgow at the same time - through Buffalo Bill’s visiting Wild West Show - was not. "The allegation over the Ghost Dance Shirt was that it was a religious artefact, taken from the body of a warrior at the [Wounded Knee] massacre, and there was nothing to suggest this was not true. With the waistcoat, however, said to have belonged to Chief Rain In the Face [one of various Native Americans credited with killing General Custer at Little Bighorn], there was no evidence that it had been stolen."
Another artefact Glasgow museums refused to return was the human body, supposedly of a Covenanter, which was demanded by the community at Cambusnethan, near Wishaw, for burial at a memorial to the Covenanters. However, says Lynch, the remains of the body’s clothing suggested that the corpse was some 100 years out for Covenanting times, "so it didn’t seem right it should be used for such a commemoration".
So far as human remains are concerned, he says Glasgow remains sensitive to the issues and is considering reviewing its criteria. For Mark O’Neill, Glasgow’s head of museums, repatriation requests are part of the normal business of a museum in the 21st century. "The meaning of objects changes as first nations revisit their history and explore surviving material. The curatorial role is to communicate the meaning of objects to the public, so it’s very interesting when that meaning changes before your eyes, as it were.
"It is sad to say goodbye to something like the Ghost Shirt, but it is like saying goodbye to a friend who has been in exile and is now returning to her own country - one accepts the departure. The gap in the collection is also compensated for by the non-material legacy of the historic act of generosity of the people of the city. For some objects, like human remains, it is more straightforward ethically, as there is little justification for having these in our collection."
Glasgow City Council, he adds, endorses the museum code of ethics and its presumption against disposal. "A strong presumption does not, however, mean ‘never’, and this is why each case is assessed according to its merits." He recalls that many warned that the floodgates would open after Glasgow returned the Ghost Dance Shirt. "That did not happen, and the number of potentially controversial objects is, in fact, tiny."
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