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Fresh guidance on repatriation calls for museums to tell the full stories behind their collections, including items that may have a controversial past.

A room at the British Museum

Creative Commons

Museums should make efforts to publish detailed provenance information about their collections and engage with communities of origin when researching items with contested histories, Arts Council England (ACE) has said.

New guidance published by ACE relating to restitution and repatriation says museums should "aim to be as transparent as possible about their collections", stating that they should "share knowledge about the objects and their provenance as widely as possible".

Publication of the guidance, which was commissioned in 2020, conincides with an announcement by the Horniman Museum that it will return ownership of its Benin bronzes – looted in 1897 – to Nigeria.


The Horniman received the request from Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments in January 2022 and said that as a result it undertook detailed research of its objects from Benin, and consulted with community members, visitors, schoolchildren, academics, heritage professionals and artists based in Nigeria and the UK, prior to reaching a decision.

Contested histories

The guidance issued by ACE says all museums should be aware of the possibility of repatriation claims and should take steps to research their collections, prioritising those with a potentially contested history. 

They should then make the information available as widely as possible, through relevant networks, websites, social media, conferences, databases, newsletters and other publications.

"Museum records should be kept updated with newly discovered information and should be made available in a form which is accessible not only to professional researchers but for anyone with an interest in finding out more about a museum object or its history," the guidance states.

It said it is desirable, where possible, to digitise objects, as well as provenance details, and to publish the information in an easily searchable format on the museum’s website, in order to broaden access to the collection as widely as possible.

"Museums should aim to make accessible as comprehensive an account of their collection’s provenance as time, resources and available information allow," the guidance states. 

"They should seek to tell the full stories behind collection items, including those that may reveal a controversial past. 

"In some cases, this might require an explanation of the wider historical context, including how, why and by whom items were removed from individuals or countries/communities of origin, and what this reveals about the attitudes of those involved."

Meanwhile, all affected museums should work towards establishing a policy on restitution and repatriation and publishing it on their website.

Barnaby Phillips, author of Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes, says there is a need for greater transparency from museums on their collections. 

However, he feels significant progress has already been made from 20 years ago when museums "kept the sometimes embarrassing back stories of aspects of their collection very close to their chest".

"There are two reasons why things have moved in what I would call the right direction - one is the growing pressure of demands for restitution and accountability, and the second is the digitalisation of our world and of our archives," he says.

Increase in claims

According to Phillips, efforts to make information about collections more available through websites and other media will result in more repatriation claims.

"I think that is inevitable," he says. 

"[But] I don't think that will necessarily lead to the wholescale emptying of Western museums," he said. 

"The case of the Benin bronzes is illustrative in that regard. If you look at the announcements coming out from the Horniman or Oxford and Cambridge in recent weeks it is very dramatic - the transfer in ownership of almost 300 Benin bronzes. 

"Does that mean all of those bronzes are going back to Nigeria next month, or even next year, or even in three years time? No, it doesn't. 

"If you talk to the people who run the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria, they are quite candid that they don't have the capacity and also they see the benefits of parts of their collection being in major museums in the Western world. Having said that, of course there will be some high profile returns. 

"But I think what is important is that the power dynamic is changing and for the first time, in the case of the bronzes it is the first time in 125 years that the Nigerians or the Edo get an acknowledgement of the historical wrong and have agency in what happens next."

Phillips also believes that the case of the bronzes was clear cut in that they were looted relatively recently and the case was well documented by the British.

"It is a relatively easy case for museums to deal with as they wrestle with these questions," he says. 

"Yes, there are a handful of similar such cases of theft by punitive expeditions - the looting of Maqdala in 1868 by a British military expedition, the pillaging of Abomey, a kingdom which is today now in the Benin Republic, by the French in the 1890s - and these cases are quite straightforward. 

"[But] the vast majority of objects that were taken in the colonial period are quite a lot harder to categorise. Typically it will be a missionary being 'gifted' an object, or a colonial official paying £5 or £10 for an object. 

"What was the nature of that power dynamic and was that a fair price? Those are much harder things to define and I'm not sure museums will ever be able to in their entirety."

Lisa Ollerhead, Director at the Association of Independent Museums, said of the guidance: “This is a considered and considerable piece of work that will support museums, and their communities, in exploring a complex and sensitive area.

"The practical, step-by-step approach of the guidance and the inclusion of helpful case studies, checklists and FAQs, alongside its underpinning principles of transparency, collaboration and fairness provide a firm foundation from which museums can review their own approach to this important area of practice.”