Arts Council England has asked experts to come up with new guidelines regarding the repatriation of sacred and significant cultural treasures like the Rosetta Stone and Parthenon Marbles, both of which were seized in the age of empire.

Museums will have to assess their collections bearing a new “decolonising” checklist to make the process easier, the Daily Telegraph reports. The guidance will call on institutions around the UK to be more proactive about repatriation and work around divided public opinion where contested collections are concerned.

A spokeswoman explained that the aim of the guidance is to provide museums with a resource to help them engage with and respond to anything relating to restitution and repatriation, with the focus currently on developing the guidance and rolling it out.

Experts are now being brought in to help museums navigate their way through government policy and media attention, as well as what the long-term future holds for priceless artefacts such as an Easter Island Moia, an Aboriginal shield and sacred tablets from Ethiopia – all of which were acquired as the British Empire expanded and the return of which has now been demanded by their ancestral owners.

In 2019, Cambridge University’s Jesus College returned a Benin bronze cockerel to Nigeria in the wake of pressure from students, while the University of Manchester delivered Aboriginal artefacts back to their original communities.

The cockerel is a Benin bronze, one of hundreds of similar intricate artefacts taken by UK troops from Nigeria in the Benin Expedition of 1897 – and this is the first time that a Benin bronze has been returned to its country of origin by a major institution in the UK.

Discussing the return of the Aboriginal artefacts, curator of living cultures at Manchester Museum Stephen Welsh said: “It was an absolute privilege to have them explain to us the significance of the objects and what it meant to the communities in terms of reconciliation and healing.”

This repatriation was set in motion by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, according to the Museums Association, with the objects returned directly to their communities without precondition. They are now back in use in the ceremonial rituals for which they were initially created.

Regarding this latest development and the introduction of new guidance to help museums, the Art Council did note that it is currently too soon to know if there will be any kind of financial impact for organisations.

Repatriation can be an expensive process and public funding cuts in the museum sector are now threatening the existence of many such establishments around the world.

According to the Guardian, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, Devon, is currently in a dispute with campaign supporters in Canada over the repatriation of sacred relics belonging to a 19th-century indigenous chief.

The items include a buckskin shirt and leggings, and a deer hide necklace strung with grizzly bear claws.

To help tackle the issue of the return of objects, a new research project is now underway in Brighton, looking into how 3D printing could help museums where repatriation is concerned.

A team from the University of Brighton are assessing how printing replicas could allow people to experience other cultures without institutions holding on to contested artefacts. The team is also investigating how audiences respond to these replicas and how they could potentially enhance the visitor experience.

Myrsini Samaroudi and Karina Rodriquez Echavarria said: “Museums are not static organisations. They are ever evolving and driven by society changes, funding conditions and other local and global challenges.

“Our connected and global society recognises that it is time for the museum to promote new values and play a different role… it isn’t about erasing our past, but rather reconciling with it while promoting universal values.”  

They went on to emphasise that in order to move forward, a more inclusive and collaborative approach will be necessary, incorporating different voices and views into the dialogue between all those involved.

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