Dealing with Colonialism and Collections
29 January 2020
RAMM’s ethnographic collection consists of about 12,000 items. In 1998 the collection was awarded Designated status in recognition of its significance and national importance. The collection consists of objects from many parts of the world and, in common with many UK museum collections, includes acquisitions made during the time of British colonialism in the late 18th century through to the early 20th century.
Since the late 1990s, the museum has received a small number of requests for the return of cultural objects. These are dealt with on a case by case basis, and human remains and sacred artefacts have been returned to indigenous communities, e.g. Tasmanian Aborigines, Maori and the Ngarrindjeri of southern Australia, respectively.
As a museum Accredited under the Arts Council England Scheme, RAMM’s approach to the repatriation and restitution of objects is defined by its Collections Development Policy (2014–19) [Word document]. Decisions are made on the basis of considering all ethical implications, which includes the future use and long-term preservation of artefacts. For significant items, repatriation will follow a formal decision made by councillors at Exeter City Council’s Executive Committee.
In 2015 RAMM received a repatriation request for the regalia of Crowfoot of the Blackfoot Nation. It concerns a small group of items that was loaned to the museum in 1878 by the sister of Cecil Denny and purchased from him in 1904. Details about the regalia can be found on RAMM’s World Cultures website. A hand-written note in the museum states that, according to Denny’s sister, items were purchased by Denny at the time of signing Treaty 7 at Bow River, Alberta, in 1877. Denny was one of the signatories and acquired the regalia as a way of marking or honouring the words of the treaty.
Dialogue with the Blackfoot Nation began in 2011 when Tony Eccles, RAMM’s Curator of Ethnography, attended a conference on the Blackfoot shirts held by UK Museums and this led to a project in 2013 when a Blackfoot delegation visited RAMM to see the regalia. When the formal request came in 2015 it was submitted by Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park (BCHP). BCHP is a Blackfoot-run visitor centre located on the plain in southern Alberta where Treaty 7 was signed. It is not accredited with the Canadian Museums Association.
Under RAMM’s current policy, the long-term preservation of returned material remains a consideration. For this reason, details of environmental conditions and a current business plan are needed to inform ECC’s councillors, who make the final decision, that items will be transferred to organisations who have the necessary structure and resources to ensure the long-term care of repatriated material. We also request details of governance to minimise the risk of competing or conflicting claims for the same material. As yet, not all of this information has been sent by BCHP, and therefore negotiations have stalled.
In a spirit of co-operation to progress the repatriation request, RAMM has written directly to the Siksika Tribal Council, elected representatives of the Siksika nation, proposing that the request is considered by ECC Executive Committee in June 2020 and Council in mid-July. The letter asked for information on the governance relationship between BCHP and the tribal council and a clarification on whether it is proposed the future ownership of the regalia would lie with BCHP or the Siksika Tribal Council.
RAMM’s Future Policy
In recent months, debates on decolonising Britain’s museums have intensified. The response of UK museums has been disparate, ranging from examples of unconditional repatriations to a lack of engagement with indigenous communities. Currently, the UK museum sector does not have a single, agreed protocol for dealing with repatriation requests, and at present the Museums Association has a working group on decolonisation and Arts Council England is revising its guidelines on restitution. In 2020 RAMM’s Collections Development Policy is due for renewal and the museum is reviewing its process of dealing with requests for repatriation using best practice from the sector.