Decolonial futures for ancestral remains in Scotland
- Publication Date
- Professor Sam Alberti
- Nicole Anderson
- Malcolm MacCallum
- Professor Cara Krmpotich
- Neil Curtis
In Edinburgh University’s Anatomical Museum, there are nearly 1700 ancestral remains displaced from over 55 countries across the world. Often former students stole these people from burial grounds and battlefields and sent them to anatomy professors in Scotland. Taken illicitly, their descendants are often unaware that their ancestors still reside here. The panel brings together curators and museum researchers to discuss what it means for academic institutions to be accountable to these colonial legacies.
The panellists will discuss the importance of proactive anti-colonial work for ancestral remains in Scotland, and reflect on caring and humanising approaches in seeking reparative justice. In particular, this discussion will focus on ethical ways of knowledge-sharing and how to make this sensitive knowledge visible. The panellists will reflect on the importance of sharing provenance (i.e. information about where these people came from and how they got to Edinburgh) in ways that are accessible and accountable to descendant communities.
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This transcript has been automatically generated and may feature errors.
Well, good evening everyone. Welcome to the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Curious event for tonight. My name is Professor Sam Alberti. I’m Director of Collections at the National Museums Scotland I’m also affiliated to the University of Stirling. But tonight I’m here as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and a keen supporter of the Curious programme which will be going on until the 17th of September. This event about proactive repatriation work of our ancestral remains in Scotland is just one of a range of talks, tours, workshops and exhibitions on this year’s theme, which is under the surface. Under the surface encourages us to delve deeper, to question further and to look again, and this is just what we’re going to be doing in this evening’s event. So our topic for this evening is repatriation. That is the physical or legal return of something held in a museum to another country, often, but not always, because of the significance of the material to the originating community. Often, not always, because of the circumstances of its original acquisition, which is often, but not always, in a colonial context. For some organisations, this has been part of good collections development practice for decades. Others, as you may know, are a little more resistant. But to talk about recent practice in Scotland, we’ve got four excellent speakers from different organisations with different perspectives. I’ll introduce them each briefly and then hand over to the first speaker. She’ll be Nicole Anderson, a social anthropology doctoral researcher at the University of Edinburgh, who’s looking at the university’s anatomical Museum. She’ll be followed by Malcolm MacCallum, who is curator of that anatomical Museum. followed then by Neil Curtis, who runs museums and special collections at the University of Aberdeen. Neil has been involved in repatriations of various kinds for for 20 years now. Finally, Cara Krmpotich teaches Museum Studies at the University of Toronto, where her research focuses on collections management and of course, repatriation. So first and foremost, first, first and foremost, Nicola Anderson will begin with five minutes on her work at the University of Edinburgh, Nicole.
Hi, everyone. And thank you, Sam, for that introduction. And thank you to the RSE for having us here today. I’m joining you today online from what’s now called Vancouver but for 1000s of years has been the territories of the Musqueam, the Squamish and the Tsleil-Waututh nations. And I’m on land today that has never been ceded, which means it’s never been given up to the government or covered by a treaty. So it continues to be stolen land. And although today I’ll be talking about the repatriation of ancestral remains, and decolonising museums kind of more broadly, it’s a good time to remind us ourselves that decolonization is not a metaphor. But it’s in the words of Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang itself has very lived and real implications for indigenous folks today. And that the return of stolen ancestral remains or the return of stolen land are two interconnected struggles that seek to recognise indigenous sovereignty and also remind us that colonialism is still current and an ongoing process. And it’s also a good time to remind ourselves about our responsibilities when we witness and learn about kind of instances of colonial violence and injustice and think about how we can enact our obligations as as accountable witnesses to. So in particular, and thinking about these obligations, I’ll be talking about my doctoral research which concerns a collection of ancestral remains or human remains that are being held in the University of Edinburgh as anatomical museum, or what is called the Skull room. So in this room, there are nearly 1700s people that remain the cranial remains of nearly 1700 people that have been collected from 55 countries across the world, by Sir William Turner, who was an anatomy professor and actually also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. And he collected these people by asking his graduate students working in the colonies to send him back skulls by any means necessary. So these people were illicitly acquired and they were often dug up from burial grounds or graveyards are stolen from battlefields, which creates this issue that many descendant families and nations indigenous nations may not know that their ancestors are an Edinburgh today. And although the university has a long history of repatriation, which Malcolm may speak on further, traditionally, this is operated on a reactive basis. So what this means is that the university, the museum is very happy to facilitate these requests and is very happy to conduct repatriation, but only if communities come first and put forward a claim. So this paradox is created and that descendants can’t make requests that they don’t know that their ancestors have been taken or that or that they are in Edinburgh today. So as part of my doctoral research, I’ve been working with Karen, Malcolm and my supervisor, to think about changing this this problem and how to share knowledge in a more proactive manner and how the institution reach out first to communities and disclosed that we may have their ancestors in Edinburgh. And we’ve been doing this primarily with communities and nations and what is now called Canada and contacting First Nations and Inuit communities there. So a big part of this work and of my research was to gather the provenance of this people. So this term refers to any information relating to where this person came from, and how they came to be into the museum. And it involves looking through archival documents at the in the university archives, so letters between Turner and collectors or minute books from the anatomy department, or old catalogues and trying to piece together the life history and biography of these people in order to find out who their contemporary descendants might be. And for some of these people in the skull room, they had stronger provenance and others. So for example, there’s there’s one person in the collection, and the only thing we know about them is that they were found under a floorboard in British Columbia. But in BC, there’s 277 First Nations, which makes it difficult to affiliate this person. But for others, the provenance was stronger. So there will be a specific geographical location mentioned in the archival documents or even a coordinate in some instances, that tells us from the place from which they were still and affiliating these ancestors in this way. And understanding where they’re from is extremely important. Because for each person in the room, their families or their communities will have a very different idea of what care or justice will look like for for this person. And it’s important to note that repatriation may not always be appropriate for each community, and we can’t just simply send back all these people because this facture is too uncomfortable for us. To to, to have. Some communities don’t handle deceased people, or, like I mentioned the provenance of some of these peoples to poor. So repatriation might not always be the best course of action, but the only way to know the best approach and best practices of carers to be able to ask so my project has been, has involved outreaching to some of these communities through letters and later zoom meetings and ensuring that standards are part of these discussions from its early as possible. And for them to have knowledge about their ancestors being here. And a big part of this work was also thinking about how to share this information and sensitive and caring and humanising way because it’s very, could be very difficult knowledge to receive, that you’re at their ancestor with was taken under these kinds of violent, violent conditions. And so through this, through this work and thinking about accountability as members of the university, changing to the best proactive approach, and moving beyond these feeling of kind of guilt, or shame or anger, which can be sometimes kind of unproductive feelings to undertake actionable work, is creating this new process of proactive knowledge sharing that could hopefully be replicated with other ancestors in the collection from different countries. And part of this work was also to ensure that there’s enough funding available to do this because the university even though it was responsible for stealing these people in the first place, will not fund repatriations to communities. So, kind of the next steps in this work to is to ensure that this work continues and maybe pressuring the wider institution to be more concerned about its colonial legacies in ways that actually matter. Going beyond simply acknowledging that these violence has happened in the past, but to see that they’re still ongoing and that more funding is needed to to repair these injustices and ensure that some of these ancestors can make their way home in the future. And I’ll pass on to Malcolm just now who’s going to speak further on the anatomical Museum.
Thanks, Nicole. So yeah, my name is Malcolm, I’m the curator of the anatomical museum. We are very frequently confused with Surgeons Hall Museum. So, just let you know we are based in the anatomy department of the Medical School of the University of Edinburgh. And we’re based at Teviot in the old town. You may be familiar with the strong historical links between the history of medicine and the university, for example, and 1705, the first professor of anatomy anywhere in UK was appointed to Edinburgh, our medical school goes back to 1726. And the museum dates from 1798. My remit is really to look after this nearly 300 year old collection of anatomy, which is probably the largest in the UK. And it includes many 1000s of individual human remains, most famously, or, perhaps most infamously, we have the skeleton of the murderer or William Burke. Although we do open to the public on a regular basis, our daily focus is on using the collection for academic teaching and engagement, and the museum itself is mainly a study space for our medical students. As Nicole mentioned within the collections of human remains that has a cranial collection of 1700 human skulls, equipped with a very small number of exceptions are not on public display. So why do we have these skulls? Well during the 19th century, Edinburgh became an important centre for the study of craniology, anatomy, comparative anatomy, anthropology, and perhaps most challenging way for us phrenology. So this resulted in hundreds of human skulls from all parts of Scotland, the UK, and other countries around the world being gathered by both the university but also the Edinburgh Frenological Society, the collections of the Edinburgh Frenological Society were transferred to the anatomy department in the 1890s. And as well as life masks and death masks and brain casts, included several 100 skulls. So the majority of these skulls, you may not be surprised to hear reflected from outwith Scotland, and were taken from the colonies before we had the British Empire. There’s no specific further documentation regarding this. The individuals have almost been written out of history, sometimes, we do know that the process would have been entirely unethical. So sometimes we know the names of the skull collectors, but we very rarely know the names of the collected individuals. For the collectors of skulls, the common theme seems to me to be the British military. And lots of instances the collectors are medical men, military men, or more likely military medical men. And quite often the graduates of the University themselves. And if not, they’re certainly known associates with the anatomy staff of the time. And Nicole mentioned Professor William Turner, and his name comes up again and again and again. So we see skulls coming from Royal Navy expeditions, we see them coming from scientific expeditions, taken from battlefields, or from doctors in the colonies who’ve got ready access to what they saw was the raw materials of their research. So they had opportunist opportunistic opportunities, I suppose to find skulls from prisons, asylums, and hospitals. A smaller number of the skulls were actually bought at auction, or were the result of archaeological digs. So some of the scores that came in in the 18th century to the museum collection are actually dated from the 14th century. Scholars continued to come into Edinburgh until the early decades of the 20th century. So we do however, have a long history of repatriation. And there have been several returns of human remains from Edinburgh back to their ancestral homelands. Our first recorded human remains repatriation was a single skull to Ceylon which is now Sri Lanka in 1947. So in terms of Western museums as a very early example, there was a period of inactivity for about 40 years until the 1990s, when a major phase of repatriation took place to Tasmania, mainland Australia, and New Zealand. And this was followed up with the second phase of returns to the Pacific Islands in the 2000s. These returns involved several 100 skulls, but also sometimes postcranial remains so the rest of the skeleton. And even in one instance, we returned a single article or bone of the ear, which was about two millimetres long. It’s probably worth seeing the university does have an official pro repatriation policy in place today, which is approved by the university court in 1990. So I see us now as being an probably the third phase of repatriations,. In 2019 returns nine schools to the Veda people of Sri Lanka. This year, we will complete another repatriation with at least another one to come in 2024. Last year I received I think it was well, I counted up 216 collection inquiries, approximately 75% related to the human remains in the collection. And some of these early concert conversations has led to repatriation processes being initiated. But, and there’s a big but as Nicole indicated historically we have worked reactive and reactively waiting to be approached by communities for information. So what we’re doing with the communities of the First Nations and Canada, Nicole, Cara and others in the team is particularly unique for us. And it’s something that both I and the anatomy department are delighted to be part of. And I will now hand you on to Neil.
So yes, I’m Neil Curtis, I’m responsible for the special collections at the University of Aberdeen, and very like the history of Edinburgh University, Aberdeen is another of the ancient universities of Scotland and has been acquiring collections since the very earliest years and had a museum likewise establish an 18th century. One of the differences however, is that while a lot of the collections in Edinburgh University subsequently were transferred to be one of the founding collections of the national museums, Aberdeen still has that wide range of collections from the local archaeology and history, world cultures, zoology geology, anatomy – that really broad spread of material. But I think it it reflects the history of, of Aberdeen, of the northeast of Scotland, as well as the university. So there’s a lot that is about locality. And then there are the collections that were formed in the growth of collecting sciences in the 19th century. So disciplines like botany, and zoology, and geology and archaeology, and not least anatomy. And the anatomical collections were built in the ideas of race that formed in the 19th century. So people were trying to gather collections that demonstrated the variety of humanity with a racial approach. And then we have, I suppose, associated with that is other material that was collected by graduates of the University, who took advantage of the opportunities of the British Empire to work all over the world. And so the university now has a collection of I say about 300,000 items are really wide, wide range. When thinking about returning, and I think there are various different words, we can use repatriation, return, restitution, but, my first experience was in 2003, when the university received a request from the Blood Tribe/Káínai in Western Canada for the return of a sacred bundle. And that was indeed returned very, very quickly, really. But I think that has really changed the way I’ve been thinking about collections. I started as an archaeologist thinking about Scottish, the Scottish past. And so I had to start thinking about other ways of looking at the world, and respecting and listening to different people. For the return itself, the university developed our procedure. And this was something that we we learned a lot from other institutions, Edinburgh University and particularly Glasgow museums who had returned the ghost dance shirt a number of years previously. And we now have a procedure. And this is one that tries to be open tries to encourage discussion, and is really just a framework for thinking through the issues that come with a proposal to return something, or indeed somebody. So I think it’s something that has had a huge personal impact in the way I think about what museums are. And I think some of the cases we’ve been involved in have have also had a wider impact on how museums think about themselves. We’ve had a small number of other cases over the years, including ancestral remains. But most famously, recently, a couple of years ago, the university returned to Benin Bronze to Nigeria. That was different in two respects. One was, the reason for return was quite simply, it was returning stolen property. So in some ways, there was very little discussion, it was something the university didn’t have model title to. But I think more strikingly, it was the first time that the university had taken the first step, being proactive in returning. And so we’ve reviewed our procedures. And now we’re thinking, how do we address that legacy that we have, what obligations do we have? What should we be doing? And as Nicole was saying, at the start, is not straightforward. You don’t want to impose this on on other people just to make ourselves feel good about it. It’s a very complicated story. But what it’s about is really trying to think much more trying to understand different viewpoints, and fundamentally about shifting the power from the museums to other people around the world. So on that, I’ll pass over to Cara. Thank you.
Thank you, Neil. Good evening, everyone. And it’s a real pleasure to be here. The folks in the room are more expert at Scottish repatriation than I am, though I’m glad to be part of it. Instead all sort of think a little bit internationally about this moment in repatriation. And, you know, at a surface level, one of the things we often read about or hear about in the media is this idea that repatriation is a loss, right, it will be a loss to museums, they will lose their collections. And science will lose opportunities for knowledge. And the public will lose access to an important part of human heritage. And what I have found as a repatriation scholar that this concern about loss is surprisingly short sighted, when we indeed go under the surface and when we deepen our understanding of repatriation, and look at the evidence, especially from the last 30 years, but even quite longer, that deeper history of repatriation that Malcolm spoke to what we you know, what we should see is that repatriation is I would argue, a creative practice or a generative practice, repatriation contributes to the creation of belonging, it contributes to cultural expression, knowledge and understanding. And all of these are at the core of contemporary museum practice. And so from a museum perspective, then I would say we should be leaning into and not shying away from repatriation, right? And repatriation – its origins come from this idea of returning someone or something to their homelands. And we apply this term to cultural heritage, but also to refugees and the war dead. And at its heart, then this is a word that understands that displacement creates hardship and ruptures. And so requests for repatriation for restitution, even for rematriation are really requests to return something or someone home, right and, and when people speak of repatriation as a loss to museums, they’re sort of ignoring the fact that the loss has already happened, right. And these requests are to bring home right and to restore. Where home is, and who identifies with that home can be very complex and multifaceted. And I don’t want to be naive about that. But one of the things that’s become very clear is that in the case of museums and colonial metropoles, the museum its staff and its activities rarely resemble home, right? For ancestral remains, cultural patrimony and even mundane cultural belongings, everyday objects, the museum experience of being accessioned, catalogued, numbered, stored, curated, researched, interpreted, exhibited, can really deviate significantly from those objects or human remain’s pre museum lives. There are of course, instances where museum and staff do more closely resemble home and where that geographic and cultural distance between artefact, collection, institution, and staff is not so great. And this is actually a really useful time to remember that when we talk about repatriation, museums are not only the institutions that return, they are also often institutions that receive and that grow through repatriation. Museums are very frequently the recipient of repatriated materials and repatriated ancestors. So we might think about the Haida Gwaii Museum, the Cultural Centre, even the National Museum of the American Indian, which were all born out of repatriation processes. What we see is often when communities are seeking return when nations are seeking repatriation, they are desiring, caring, and collective spaces for those belongings for those relatives. And what they create are often Museum and museum like spaces where they can enact local practices of care, knowledge sharing and history making, right? So this moment of proactive repatriation is really exciting on many levels. It is this generative moment where museums are actually coming to understand their collections better. The provenance research, of course, that Nicole spoke about, that Neil spoke to you the sort of community work that happens that building of trust and understanding through the work of repatriation, it can often carry over into conservation, into curatorial and educational collaborations. And there’s this improved ability on the part of museums to interpret and understand the collections they care for, and the cultures and the individuals that those collections represent. On the flip side, of course, we see nations and communities when when repatriation happens, these are often woven into their narratives and sense of self. And so we see again, this creative moment where the return of Sara Baartman, for example, is now part of Sun history. And it’s told at the University of Witwatersrand Sarah Baartman’s return is her repatriation is part of that sense of history and sense of nationhood. We see, in other instances too this sort of idea of a duty of care that comes about on both sides and repatriation work. And it’s Malcolm, who’s made this observation really, quite powerfully. And he, in one of our meetings, he said, we have a duty of care to the individuals in our collection. And we also have a growing awareness of being global citizens, right. So in this instance, this creative aspect of repatriation, we can understand it as an evolving way that museums are enacting those duty of care, and engaging in the very process of repatriation itself. So I’d love for folks in the audience to think about the ways in which repatriation is generative, it helps us develop our understanding of cross cultural diplomacy, of governance and law. It enriches our understanding of spirituality, advocacy and agency. It raises our understanding improves our understanding of cultural expressions of kinship and grief and mourning and responsibility and care. And there’s interrelationships between the tangible and the intangible. And I would argue that when museum staff and boards museum boards grow their understandings in their area in these areas, their capacity to care for, curate and interpret and activate collections for our publics for diverse publics really improves. Thank you.
Thank you, Karen, thank you to all of our contributors who will be joining us in the digital room just now for the more discursive element of the session, which I think is most welcome. And I’d like to thank you all for your pithiness, which allows us for a good generous time before zoom will cut us all off 1900 on the nose. I’d encourage all of you to all of you participating in the session and in the in the Zoom sphere to drop your questions in the q&a. And I can relay them to the to the panel and open ended questions most welcome to either to a specific speaker or to the panel as a whole. It may be that some of the contributions from the room are quite specific, in which case, we’re recording all of the questions. And insofar as we can we’ll forward to the appropriate panellist or colleague, and get back to you by email. But please do drop your questions in I’ve a couple to get us rolling. And I found all the contributions very thought provoking. I was interesting that although we are all one way or another university or museum, people, we we show different perspectives and from different different places. Now the two questions have to kick off just to give you a heads up folks. Second question is about provenance research. So start thinking about that. But the first is, is something that I come around to again and again, there’s a truism that repatriation is not a loss, or as you said, it’s not a loss, not the loss of an object, or some remains, but the gaining of a friendship and a relationship. Now, that’s a bit trite, which is the way I like it, but I would welcome thoughts or reflections or experiences the panel have on what has happened afterwards. On instances you know about or you’ve been involved in when there has been you know, either a good experience or otherwise have a continued relationship that was born of that initial request that came in. Neil perhaps can I go to you first and then the others given your your experience in this field? Okay.
I was hoping somebody else is going to come in and I could then disagree with them. I have very mixed feelings about this. I can give an example the that for first return were involved with with to the Káínai, the purpose of that was returning a sacred bundle to them for them. And it wasn’t about, it wasn’t really about us gaining anything that wasn’t the intent at all. However, it was wonderful being contacted a year or so afterwards by the person who was looking after that bundle requesting me to help help him by appointing Prince Charlie kilt jacket, so that when he was dancing, the headdress, he would wear that jacket as a marker of the time that that bundle had spent in Scotland. So that was a lovely example not of us physically gaining a thing, but of the way that that involvement of Aberdeen in the life of that bundle was continuing. But I am very, very wary that we mustn’t start expecting relationships. It’s not a it’s not a contractual thing. Things may happen. Things may happen in very unpredictable ways the what you do with one group of people in the world, other people hear about that, and then they’ll start talking to you in a different way, because you’re establishing your identity, who you are. So I really want to make sure that we don’t see it as something that we go into thinking we will benefit. I think the gains that Cara’s talking about are off, you know, there, there are a wide range of different gains. I mean, I feel I’ve personally gained gained and learned a huge amount. My perspective of the world is very different. But I wouldn’t have gone into returning ancestors in the hope that I would feel better about it afterwards.
Jump in there, I think what Neil is saying is really important, right that when museums repatriate they are not owed anything in return. And I think Neil, your example of the Benin Bronze is a really powerful one right here, right. And if we think about civic society, if somebody returns stole your stolen property to you, you shouldn’t be expected to have to have a relationship with them afterwards. Right? A wrong does not lead to a friendship. And, and you know, one of the really important things, even when we’re not talking about clearly stolen items, but when we’re thinking about return, if we don’t think about it as a loss to the museum, there’s there’s no need to compensate, right, because they haven’t lost anything. It’s it’s been a positive practice. So so we sort of take away that idea that we must gain something in return because nothing has been lost in the first place. Yeah.
Malcolm, did you have any thoughts on this?
I still think there’s a huge imbalance of power when you’re working with repatriation, we, the university in our case holds all the cards. So thank Cara’s right, we don’t want to expect anything out of this. I do have one example, when we returned nine skulls to Sri Lanka. The the tribal chief, it was very nearly eight skulls we returned because the tribal chief saw our collection of skulls and wanted us to retain one of the skulls in the collection, which caused me a bit of grief because if you know museums, documentations and the road through repatriation for this to happen at the very last minute. So we sort of politely said that we would like to just continue with original repatriation and not for any to be left back in Edinburgh. Following that did that actually invite us to Sri Lanka to have a look at the way the skulls were going to go. Unfortunately, COVID interfered in that so we didn’t get our trip to Sri Lanka. But I think when we repatriate we, we don’t necessarily see it as the end of the project or the process, but we don’t expect anything. Any particular positive relationships out of it, to be honest, because we’ve got that weight of history on our backs as well.
Just echoing what Steve said already, but yeah, but not having an expectation for this relationship to continue, but also, I think it’s important for museum profession could also be an opportunity for museum professionals to act as another link or contact for other communities initiating return. Even though you’re not expecting like this kind of ongoing friendship or relationship just knowing that there is kind of a helpful person in Edinburgh and Aberdeen that has conducted repatriations before and as the kind of cooperative and collaborative person to work with could also be really useful for other nations. Um, And I guess nations speaking between each other can, you know, offer this information. And yeah, and I guess if you know not gaining anything material or like tangible is one thing, but I suppose there, what museum folks in Scotland can also gain through like self reflection and through kind of enacting these processes, like learning how to do repatriation, or do this work in a good way. And from I’m guessing from Neil and Volcom, and Kara have said that each repatriation is always different and works in a kind of case by case basis. And there’s always something new to learn from each from each instance. So I think that’s something we can gain through these experiences.
And Nicole, whilst you have the microphone, as it were, if I can move on to the question about provenance research, I wonder if you could explain just for those are those who maybe aren’t involved in museum workers closely what provenance research is, and are you undertaking any for your for your project? And have you undertaken any previously?
Yeah, so that was one of the main or main roles in this project, and in my doctoral research, and so provenance research is basically trying to figure out any pieces of information about a person’s or against maybe a belongings, like life history or biography. So where they came from, who they were taken by what institutions they’ve been in, prior to coming to Edinburgh, just any information we have about how they got here, and where they might have been from. So what this looks like is what this looked like, for me was sitting in the university archives for basically weeks and looking through boxes of archival material from the university or also from the Phrenological Society of Edinburgh. And these are haven’t been professionally archived before. So they’re basically kind of in a kind of random order. And looking through these catalogues are letters from Turner and collectors and trying to piece together the stories of these people. And, and then I would, I would log them, kind of in an Excel spreadsheet, and gather all these pieces of information. But I think it’s also important to think about how you present this, this knowledge to a descending community because an Excel spreadsheet, or like a museum catalogue that has lot of accession numbers isn’t very sensitive or caring way to, to, to be presented with this information. So part of the kind of outreach process and sharing this provenance research, we’re thinking about how to rewrite these histories, in ways that were more kind of more accessible, and more and more sensitive. So we did kind of, I was looking at the Journey Home project that the Museum of Anthropology at UBC in Vancouver did, that stole their ancestors and they rewrote their museum documentation in these kinds of paragraphs that explained, it’s kind of more humanising way of talking about the the biographies of these ancestors and kind of putting in all the details that they knew about them in a way that was more, I don’t know, kind of easier to read and easier to hear, because it might be quite difficult for some folk. But I hope that hope that explains a bit more about what provenance research might be.
That’s really helpful, I think that will have enhanced everyone’s understanding. And given a really nice glimpse into the detail of it. I’m keen to move on to the more challenging questions that are coming in and the q&a. But just in case, Malcolm, Neil or Cara, did we have anything to add on provenance? Neil?
You Yeah, and I think, three three quick points. One is it’s what museums claim to do anyway, that we’re meant to know of what is in the collections we’re caring for. But actually, we don’t manage because the information that we’ve been given is usually the information by the collectors who often really don’t know much didn’t know much. And then we don’t have basically broader society doesn’t give museums the resources to do all that documentary research that I think sometimes we’ve claimed that we’ve been able to do so that we’re we’ve set ourselves up with public expectations way beyond what’s actually been possible. My second point is just as a caution about provenance research, that it mustn’t be something that becomes a block to repatriation, that you’ve got to sort of prove to our satisfaction with all this extra work. And it shouldn’t be an excuse to just get lots more museum jobs. My final point is about whose standards are we doing this to? And there’s again, there’s a danger that we can in museums start saying, you’ve got to prove to us that this is yours before we will let you have your stuff back. And, you know, Cara made the comparison with, you know, stolen property, who you’re, you’re proving to the thief. And I was really struck that first repatriation I was involved with with the kind I I confess that my first feeling when they said, Can we have a photograph of it, I thought, Oh, that’ll mean, they know what it’s like. So I can’t ask them to describe it, I can’t do a sort of double blind test. And I realised that I was such a dreadful attitude, that I’d never have restricted access to any scholar of a photograph. So I realised just the sort of attitudes I was coming with. And so we weren’t really able to have that quasi scientific proof of what this who this headdress belongs to, what it actually came down to was trust. And we built that relationship, where I knew that they would not have wanted somebody else’s sacred bond, let their standards of proof were much higher than ours would ever have been. And so I think, understanding the different standards, the different ways of assessing accuracy and truth, we’ve got to be aware of that and alert to that in what we expect. And I think we do need to do the provenance research. But with those caveats,
I know that Cara and Malcolm have both opinions and deep experience of provenance research. But on that, on that note of of research, I’m going to move on to our first question of the floor, this one from David, it’s a it’s a challenging one. He observes that we’d mentioned that museum collections can be valuable resources for research. But do we know of any valuable research on these collections? Is there any evidence of museum collections being used for valuable research? I’m gonna go to Malcolm first. Because I have a hunch you’ll be able to answer this.
Yeah, I mean, I would say 95% of the time, no. And quite often, we basically are the custodians of the human remains, but we don’t do anything with them. Or not on public display. We don’t have any invasive research, or any photography, don’t do any visits. So partly No. But again, going back to the Sri Lankan example, we actually did some valuable research collaboratively, we had some work on some science, if you like, done on the skulls, to show a diet and location of a particular group, the Veda, to try to help them to explain to the Sri Lankan government at the time that they were living on their historic hunting lands potential Sri Lankan rainforest. And the science that was done, made, give them some scientific evidence that the historically were living and hunting and eating on these historic lands. Because at the time, they were under pressure from the Sri Lankan government to remove themselves from the historic rain forests. So that evidence was done in association with them, they were kind of co authors of the subsequent paper. And this was done before the repatriation took place. So that’s a very practical example. But we didn’t. For me, at the moment, that’s still a bit of a rarity, I would say, and a lot of these collections are just there. Because they’ve always been there. And that’s it.
Nicole, I wonder what your perspective on this is? Yeah.
I guess it kind of reminds me of a conversation I had with Sue Rowley, who’s, who works at again, the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, and she, they did at their museum, she was she was giving me I was asking for her for advice for my project. And she was saying that it’s useful to anticipate what questions communities might might have about the ancestors and to, in some ways, kind of prepare for that. So in her case, that some of the communities she was working with some of they wanted to know you know, what did what did those ancestors die of? How did they die? Or what did they eat? And did they have any ailments or how old were these people? And because those questions were of their concern it kind of an like, they allowed or gave permission for the museum to discuss kind of more invasive forms of research, what kind of isotopic analysis or kind of DNA or anomic analysis are kind of more more destructive. And that kind of gave the answers to these questions. So I guess in terms of kind of that type of research on ancestral remains, it’s just important to remember that. Yeah, the question of kind of valuable research, or what communities want to know about their ancestors needs to be done in collaboration and discussion with them first before were you do any of this work. But, um, but yeah. So yeah, I guess I guess, in terms of that way, that it depends what research what questions communities have. And that, I guess, is considered valuable.
Questions are coming in thick and fast. But Neil?
Yeah, just I think we’re having collections and research on them is one of the things that museums are for. But it’s not the only thing. I think the what people learn by encountering them not, you know, it may be new knowledge for them, it may not be new knowledge for other people I think is important. The other bit is, you know, museums are places that look after a lot of the difficult stuff that we have in our culture. They’re not just rational institutions for research. I’m not, you know, that leads to a lot more complicated discussion. I’m not going to continue in that. But I think, just to regard collections as a research resource is, is narrowing the potential.
Well, that’s great, thank you. I’m gonna come to you first with the next question, which is about reparations, as opposed to repatriations Alex, Alexandra asks, or thanks us for a great, great talks. And they observed while repatriation may return an object or a means to their originating community, that community still has years where they were unable to access this object or person. Very good point. This can mean the loss of cultural or familiar knowledge. What are your opinions on colonial institutions offering reparations to account for these last years, not merely as an apology, but as revitalization? And by reparations? I take their meaning to be around finance financial compensation for the loss. Cara, do you have thoughts on that? And then I’ll come to the others?
Yeah, this is a great question. And it makes me think a little bit about what Neil was just saying. So my hope is that in addition to sort of proactive repatriation, as we’ve talked about it today, that museums will come to a place where they are willing to and wanting to engage in questions of repatriation, because we understand that the item or the particularly with cultural belongings or artefacts, that actually it will do more in another place. And probably that places is its home community, right, in terms of inspiring artists. And we also see a lot of really interesting and exciting work happening around language revitalisation. To have a robust language, a rich language that is helped when you have a rich set of things to talk about, when you can delve into all of those verbs for making all of those sensory qualities, all of those, you know, plants and materials and animals and, you know, symbols and iconography that are rich and specific to a culture. On the question of sort of financial reparations, I am, there are a few museums in the world who have the financial resources to be useful in terms of financial reparations, they often seem to be the ones hesitant to repatriate. You know, I, museums are generally not well funded institutions. And so what we have to offer in terms of reparation, in terms of support and resource resources, I think, needs to draw on those wider skill sets that are in museums, things around storytelling and narrative practices. You know, when we are up working in Haida Gwaii, community members, weavers often want to talk to conservators thinking about how do we best keep the things that we’ve made, right, how do we keep safe the hats that we’ve woven? What do we do if there’s a house fire? Right? And you’re far away? How do we how do we respond? So you know, museums have other things to offer? And, and I actually think collections are an amazing resource that stimulate all kinds of cultural activity. And that might be you know, thinking creatively about how we use collections might be part of this process,
anyone have anything else to add on that?
Um, I can do. I mean, I think one one point is that this is these things were taken byt people, not by a museum so there is a broader social responsibility we have. And so to dump all the responsibility for dealing with all of those problems on museums isn’t right. We can’t solve that. I think, as Cara was saying, there are particular things that museums can do. And, and we’re involved in projects now. But that is revitalization. And this is not about physically returning. But it’s about making available online images and craftworkers with this material that is Cherokee, Choctaw, Muskogee, we don’t know exactly who, who it’s associated with. So there are things that we can do. But I think to turn it into just financial, we’ve got to give money back is not big enough, and yet too big for museums at the same time.
The q&a doesn’t get any less challenging. This perhaps is more of a comment than a question from Nathan. But I think it’s a very important observation. So Nathan is a scholar of repatriation also based in Edinburgh. And Nathan is baffled as to why this panel has no representation from an indigenous perspective on the surface. Nathan notes this may not necessarily distract from the overall goal of such a discussion, which is undoubtedly extremely interesting and stimulating. However, if we consider this matter from a broader perspective, Nathan observes it isn’t reassuring. Would anyone like to comment on that?
Absolutely, Nathan, and yet, one of the things we learn in equity, diversity and inclusion work is that as a settler scholar, as a white woman, I can’t ask indigenous people to be the advocates for repatriation all the time, I absolutely have to step up and be willing to voice a proactive pro repatriation, opinion, and encourage change from within settler institutions. But you’re right, it’s a very good question. And we should always be thinking about who gets the say in these conversations? Who’s invited in? And where are the other conversations happening? So where should we be going as a settler scholar? Where should I be going to be the odd one out in the room where it’s an all indigenous panel, and I’m in the audience, that’s an important place to be as well.
Moving on to other challenging but important matters. One anonymous attendee has asked what the what impact the recent scandal at the British Museum has had on the repatriating repatriation conversation. Now, I’m sure other museum workers will share the renewed effort to understand, document, catalogue and properly house our collections to render them as secure as possible. But I don’t know if anyone else had any specific thoughts about how the British Museum’s travails might impact upon the repatriation discussion, is the question specifically.
I could maybe quickly jump in and next to a point that Neil was making earlier that, I guess, one way museums can show care for the people in their collections or the belongings in their collections of making sure that their house is in order. That there they know, who they have, you know, about, you know, doing as far as they can, getting their archival documents, provenance research, and the kind of the catalogue cataloguing, kind of going to organise it in an appropriate manner. So things do not go missing and things are accounted for. And that is, I guess, one of the main roles and jobs and caring for for their collections is to actually knowing who is there and what’s, what’s leaving me and keeping good records for that. And something that kind of Malcom and I speak about, in the case of the anatomical Museum is that a lot of this memory and this knowledge also kind of kind of like dies with like previous curators and when people leave institutions, and it’s really important to have good record keeping some of the repatriations that happened in the early 2000s to Australia and New Zealand. We don’t actually know that much about because there just wasn’t good record record keeping about this. So it’s a little bit disconcerting. So in terms of just basic practices of care, that is the first thing curators can do is just make sure that everything is really aboveboard and things are noted down. And they’re kind of technologies of of cataloguing and information keeping its is up to date. And yeah, and legal as well, I guess.
Oh, thank you, Nicole. I think that’s a fitting note and fitting that it comes from from you, too. To start to wrap up this session, there are other questions that have been posed in the floor. Please be reassured we will capture those questions and where we can answer them by other media, as I indicated earlier, but I would like to mention that this re mentioned again that this is part of the broader Curious programme, and you can find out about more events at rse-curious.com. I’d like to thank everyone for taking your time on what is in Edinburgh a very lovely evening, taking the time to join us for this fascinating and stimulating conversation that I’ve certainly found extremely thought provoking. But most of all, I’d like to thank Nicole, Malcolm, Neil and Cara for their time, their wisdom and their reflections. Thank you, everyone and good night.