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From Scotland to the World – Report on Events Addressing Museum Practice on Donor Restrictions and Repatriation

Posted on    by Elena Cooper
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From Scotland to the World – Report on Events Addressing Museum Practice on Donor Restrictions and Repatriation

By 2 July 2024No Comments

In April 2024, we were delighted to welcome to Glasgow over a hundred conference delegates from all over the world – including scholars, museum professionals, practising lawyers and community representatives – for From Scotland to the World: two events co-convened by CREATe, The Hunterian and the Institute of Art and Law (the ‘IAL’) which concerned two different areas of gallery and museum practice.

First, over drinks in The Hunterian Art Gallery on Thursday 18th April, we celebrated the collaboration of CREATe, The Hunterian and the IAL in the publication of a Special Issue of the IAL’s journal Art Antiquity and Law:  ‘Donor Restrictions on Galleries and Museums’, recently made available for free download. With talks from the guest-editors of the Special Issue, Dr Elena Cooper (Senior Research Fellow, CREATe) and Steph Scholten (Director of The Hunterian, Glasgow) and in the presence of both the journal’s general editor Ruth Redmond-Cooper (IAL Head of Publications, and IAL co-founder) and also one of the contributors to the Issue – the art historian Dr Alicia Hughes – the event invited reflection on the legal, ethical and practical issues raised by restrictions imposed by donors of art works on galleries and museums. For example, The Hunterian, part of the University of Glasgow, holds one of the world’s largest collections  of the work of the artist James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), but many of the works cannot leave the University, due to the restrictions imposed by the donor: Whistler’s executrix, Rosalind Birnie Philip (1873-1958).

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Photographs by Lukas Powroziewcz

We were delighted that Whistler’s painting Brown and Gold: Portrait of Lady Eden (1894-1895) was brought out of store, and displayed in the main gallery space, especially for the talks. The public display of Portrait of Lady Eden – we believe the first time since the late nineteenth century – was a direct result of the interdisciplinary scholarship in the Issue: drawing together insights from art history and legal history, enabled a re-thinking of how Philip’s prohibition on the exhibition of that painting (imposed in the 1930s) should be best interpreted today, so as accurately to reflect Philip’s intentions in a changing legal landscape. This event was funded by the University of Glasgow’s Knowledge Exchange Fund (GKE).

The second event forming part of From Scotland to the World, was a major international conference: Repatriation and Museums, which took place in Kelvin Hall on Friday 19th April, funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council grant awarded to CREATe (GBP 1 million, 2024-2028). Over 20 speakers from all over the globe – including leading professionals, scholars and practitioners in the fields of museums, heritage and repatriation – addressed a packed-out auditorium on diverse issues relating to the return of artefacts held by museums to communities of origin.

In opening the first panel, Steph Scholten quoted from George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four:  ‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past’. Scholten spoke of the ‘relevance of that quote today’: ‘historical items can be extremely powerful representations of past inequalities and past histories’ and ‘repatriation can be powerful tool to address those inequalities and empower people in the present for the benefit of the future.’  And that capacity for repatriation to empower people, as we heard in a number of presentations, is part of a far broader societal project: of decolonising knowledge, of critically reflecting on how we tell our histories, and of uncovering new historical narratives that break with, rather than reinforce, past inequalities of power.

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Photographs by Lukas Powroziewcz

The disjunction of the values of the past and those many wish to pursue today, pervaded much of the conference. One unspoken fact was that the conference venue – Kelvin Hall – was built on the site of a very different event in 1901: the Glasgow International Exhibition, which, in the spirit of Victorian international exhibitions (starting with the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851) was an uncritical celebration of imperial power. The debate in Kelvin Hall at From Scotland to the World conference in April 2024, could not be more different.

That contrast in values, between past and present, was captured in a powerful visual moment at the 2024 conference. Those speaking for museum practice at the National Museums of ScotlandJohn Giblin and Chanté St Clair Inglis – first noted the Victorian architecture of the main hall, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, which intentionally emulates Crystal Palace and calls to mind the 1851 Great Exhibition’s celebration of imperial values. The audience was shown black and white photographs from the 1930s, of a huge exhibit that appears a permanent fixture in a Victorian exhibition space: the Ni’isjoohl Totem Pole (11 metres tall and weighing 1 tonne), which had been sold to the Museum in the early twentieth century, having been taken without consent from the Nisga’a people, Nass Valley (today in British Columbia, Canada). Yet, in a couple of minutes of high-speed video footage, Giblin and Inglis showed the Pole being packed up and removed from the Museum and returned by Canadian military jet to the Nisga’a people in the Nass Valley. We should and can, the message seemed to be, make different choices today.

But can we? And this was an important point, given the conference was paid for and organised by an academic research centre – CREATe – that is part of a world-leading School of Law. Throughout the conference we heard of instances of the law standing in the way of return and supporting a value-system of the past: the value in museums preserving objects without regard to where they would have most meaning to people. The British Museum Act 1963, as we learnt from Alexander Herman (IAL Director), obliges the British Museum to ‘keep’ objects and not to dispose of them, save for limited statutory exceptions (duplicates, artefacts unfit for keeping, and following specific statutory amendments in 2004 and 2009 respectively: human remains and Nazi looted art) and in France, museum collections are inalienable (both under heritage code and as public property) with exceptions requiring special legislation, or the agreement of a long-term loan. Also, Andreas Giorgallis (PhD student, CREATe) explained how basic public international law principles of inter-temporal law (i.e. that legality is judged by the standards of the time, not those of today) and non-retroactivity (i.e. that new laws only apply to the future, not the past), in this context, enable international law frameworks to sustain past values: the ‘civilised us’ against the ‘uncivilised other’.

Interestingly, those museums that have chosen to return artefacts, have legal frameworks that are flexible to accommodate new values. Glasgow Museums, which has long taken a progressive approach to return, is run by Glasgow City Council; as a local Council, it has a wide discretion in its actions and crucially, as Duncan Dornan explained, repatriation has long been supported by its electorate: the population of Glasgow. National Museums of Scotland, while subject to legislation (the National Heritage (Scotland) Act 1985) broadly similar to the British Museum Act 1963, nevertheless can dispose of objects if approved by the Secretary of State and, importantly, following Scottish devolution, the relevant minister is in Scotland (not Westminster); most recently, as we heard from Scholten, the Scottish Government has endorsed the recommendations of the Empire Slavery and Scottish Museums Steering Group (to which speakers Steph Scholten, Neil Curtis, Duncan Dornan contributed): to ‘demonstrate their support for the restitution and repatriation of looted or unethically acquired items in Scottish collections’.

So, legal frameworks, right now, do impact directly on the space in which institutional decisions are made. But what should the role for law be in this area? Many voiced the view that this is an area for deregulation: the law and lawyers should ‘step back’, argued Alexander Herman of the IAL, to let conversations happen between museums and communities in an ‘ethical space’ though always guided by internal museum procedures. Interestingly, in that ‘ethical space’, legal hierarchies relating to the binding status of legal sources are completely inverted: the ICOM Code of Ethics, that guides the ‘ethical space’ of museum practice, refers not to the rules relating to treaties – binding instruments of international law (referred to by Giorgallis – see above) – but rather to the principles enshrined in a non-binding international law instrument: the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. And in an emotionally powerful speech, George Young of Manchester Museum described her commitment, not just to the articles in the Declaration on repatriation, but to ‘the whole of that document… the fundamentals of indigenous rights’. Further, in the discussion of thought-provoking presentations by two CREATe Fellows – Pinar Oruc (University of Manchester) and Andrea Wallace (University of Exeter) – we heard that law matters in to intellectual property repatriation – the ‘return’ of rights in copies of the repatriated artefacts or recordings of oral heritage; complex rules on ownership of rights, for instance, means that legislative intervention would be required to shift the balance away from rights holders (predominantly located in former imperial nations).

Yet, what was also clear throughout the day, is that repatriation is not an area in which legal norms/values have been the primary driver in effecting change in museum practice. As George Young of Manchester Museums continued, repatriation is about so much more ‘because we open ourselves to feel as well as to think’ and it was in conversations with communities of origin – such as the Aboriginal Anindilyakwa community of Groote Eylandt, Australia – facilitated by speakers Jason Lyons and Iain Johnston of the Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Islander Studies (an Australian government agency), that Manchester Museums developed its current approach: ‘to build a case about where cultural heritage is going to have most meaning, where it will make most difference, where it is going to be most alive and most at home.’ It was, then, collaborative conversations, made ‘in the spaces where Anindilyakwa make decisions’ (Johnston)  and with ‘emotion, humility, ethics and care’ (Young), that resulted in Manchester Museums expanding its practice beyond the remit of its first return (sacred objects) to include all types of cultural object.

Conversations between museums and communities of origin, then, really matter. As Scholten stated, repatriation is ‘a journey of discovery’; ‘we as collection holders’ in repatriating objects, ‘often learn as much, if not more, than the people engaging with us’. And we heard about one such journey of discovery – the conversations between Mike Rutherford of The Hunterian and Shani Roper, Museum Curator at the University of the West Indies – in a panel unravelling the story of The Hunterian’s recent return to Jamaica of a natural history specimen called the Jamaican giant galliwasp (a lizard endemic to the island) which took place just a few days after the conference, and was facilitated by the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the University of Glasgow and University of the West Indies in 2019. The galliwasp return was the first ever return of a natural history specimen to the Caribbean and that return, said Scholten, opens ‘a pandora’s box’ where any object can be repatriated, beyond the more established categories of sacred objects and human remains.

Interestingly, the return of the galliwasp was not instigated by a claim from a country/community of origin; the Institute of Jamaica, as zoologist Elizabeth Morrison explained, had no knowledge of The Hunterian’s holding. Rather the immediate impetus for return was the Curating Discomfort exhibition at The Hunterian, at which an English Professor – Churnjeet Mahn, as guest exhibition curator – was drawn to the galliwasp specimen, ‘its body contorted, held in tension against the sides of the specimen jar’, as she made curatorial choices that, in developing an ‘anti-racist pedagogical approach’, challenged existing narratives of Empire. The story of the galliwasp, then, reveals the importance of how we create knowledge at a fundamental level and, bringing the two seemingly disparate events comprising From Scotland to the World into communication, that includes knowledge created through innovative interdisciplinary dialogue.

The full programme for From Scotland to the World can be found here. The Special Issue of Art, Antiquity and Law – Donor Restrictions on Galleries and Museums – can be downloaded here. CREATe will be launching a conference webpage for ‘Repatriation and Museums’, including recordings of the panels, in Autumn 2024. For updates from CREATe, please sign-up here.

banner with the logos of CREATe, The Hunterian, and the Institute for Art and Law