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Future of collections

The museum was born of civic spirit, curiosity and ambition at the height of British colonial rule, and how we acknowledge, interrogate and address this complex history is critical and urgent work

The unconditional repatriation of secret sacred objects to communities of origin helps create healing, justice and reconciliation. By taking this action, we will become more inclusive, caring and relevant to the communities we serve both locally and globally.  

Our work with Aboriginal communities and AIATSIS to promote understanding between cultures, learn together and build new relationships for the future has never been more important or timely. We are expanding our direct work with communities of origin to build new knowledge and be accountable to where we as a museum and all the collections come from. We look forward to working with other museums to strengthen trust with communities globally, work collaboratively, encourage open conversations about the future of collections and critically, take action. 

We respect and follow the advice of UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

 Return of 43 ceremonial and sacred objects to Aboriginal communities

2020 marked the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s first voyage to the east coast of Australia and the beginning of the large-scale removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage to overseas collections. Coinciding with the anniversary, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) proposed and led a project, funded by the Australian government, called the Return of Cultural Heritage (RoCH) project. 

AIATSIS is an Australian government statutory authority focused exclusively on the diverse history, cultures and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia. The RoCH project aimed to facilitate and secure the return of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage materials, to document relevant material held by overseas collecting institutions and to build relationships between those institutions, AIATSIS and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. 

As a component of this project, AIATSIS contacted Manchester Museum, which is part of the University of Manchester. The museum’s collections include a number of objects which had originally belonged to various Australian Indigenous communities but which had been part of the collections since the 1920s. The initial request was for data sharing but also asked if Manchester would consider a return request from communities. 

At the time of the request, Manchester Museum’s collection policy did not specifically set down a procedure for the repatriation of sacred or ceremonial items. The museum’s Director, Esme Ward, took the view that the focus of museums should be upon people and their relationship to collections. She liaised with AIATSIS who facilitated the negotiations on behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nations. AIATSIS led the return process, working with Manchester Museum on provenance research and undertaking the extensive community engagement required to prepare the return request. Esme said that, ‘By taking this action Manchester Museum will become more inclusive, caring and relevant to the communities it serves both locally and globally.’ This approach mirrored the attitude of the University of Manchester, where great emphasis is placed upon the importance of social responsibility. 

The extensive and time-consuming research to understand the provenance of the objects was not only conducted by Manchester and AIATSIS staff through museum documentation and other archival records, but also through the engagement with named communities to draw upon the knowledge of Traditional Owners and custodians. Using the ‘ask first’ principles it was ultimately community Elders who determined which objects would be the subject of the return request. This information could then be presented to the University of Manchester’s Board of Governors, which greatly assisted the Board in coming to a prompt and unanimous decision to approve the unconditional repatriation of 43 collection items to the Aranda people of Central Australia, the Gangalidda and Garawa peoples of northwest Queensland, the Nyamal people of the Pilbara and the Yawuru people of Broome. It was the first time Manchester Museum had repatriated sacred or ceremonial materials, rather than human (ancestral) remains. 

In late November 2019, a live-streamed formal handover ceremony took place at Australia House, London, with delegates from Gangalidda Garawa and AIATSIS acting on behalf of Nyamal along with dignitaries, university staff and museum professionals. ‘The repatriation of our sacred cultural heritage items is a fundamental part of the healing and reconciliation process, both within our communities and between our mob and the Government,’ Mangubadijarri Yanner, Representative for the Gangalidda and Garawa Native Title Aboriginal Corporation said. ‘Bringing these sacred cultural heritage items back to Country is important and necessary for the purpose of cultural revitalisation – because locked deep within these items is our lore; our histories, our traditions, our livelihoods and our stories.’ 

A key characteristic of the process was transparency at every stage. This reassured communities that the museum was acting in good faith and ensured the museum could have confidence that the request was coming from those with the knowledge and authority to do so. Key documents will be made publicly available where appropriate and only with the permission of communities. Knowledge pertaining to the secret sacred materials was not included. 

AIATSIS and the University of Manchester have signed a Memorandum of Understanding encompassing a commitment from both parties to collaborate and share knowledge on how to manage collections which include items related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. This commitment typifies all aspects of the repatriation, which focused on the wealth of mutual understanding and knowledge to be gained from a collaborative enterprise which was approached with care and sensitivity on all sides. 

 

Digital Benin

We submitted images of Benin cultural material that we hold in support  of the creation of a digital data base. This database, which was launched  on the 4 November 2022,  has images of over 5,240 objects  looted during the 19th century British punitive expedition on the Kingdom of  Benin. The  digital images of these  objects are  drawn from 131 museums and institutions from 20 countries, including Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada and Israel, as well as 14 European countries. Digital Benin brings together objects, historical photographs and rich documentation material from collections worldwide to provide a long-requested overview of the royal artefacts from Benin Kingdom. The historic Benin objects are an expression of Benin arts, culture and history, and were originally used as royal representational arts, to depict historical events, to communicate, to worship and perform rituals. This digital platform introduces new scholarship which connects digital documentation about the translocated objects to oral histories, object research, historical context, a foundational Edo language catalogue, provenance names, a map of the Benin Kingdom and museum collections worldwide. Our involvement in the Digital Benin as Manchester museum is a reflection of our commitment in making what we hold visible in order to help people and institutions leading on repatriation in Nigeria and across the diaspora to select and prioritise cultural heritage material for return and to access their cultural heritage virtually.

Explore Digital Benin.

Devolving Restitution

We are a partner in the Devolving Restitution project led by Professor Dan Hicks, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.  The project has brought together together museums and grassroots diasporic, community and activist groups across the UK for six themed events, each addressing a different theme in African collections histories and opening up new dialogues with African claimants. The  other partner institutions include: Birmingham Museums, Brighton Museum, Bristol Museum, Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Derby Museums, Glasgow Museums, Great North Museum, the Hunterian Museum (University of Glasgow), Leeds Museum, National Museum NI, Paisley Museum, Pitt Rivers Museum and the Powell-Cotton Museum.  Dr. Chipangura has contributed to discussions on provenance and biographical research with regards to African collections and how this can be attained collaboratively working together with diaspora and source community members.  This project provides a space to discuss collaborative thinking and engagement with diaspora and source communities towards the unconditional restitution of cultural materials from Benin.

Find out more about Devolving Restitution.

For more information, please contact:

Dr Njabulo Chipangura, Curator of Living Cultures

njabulo.chipangura@manchester.ac.uk 

Dr Chipangura, who holds a PhD in Anthropology from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, was previously employed by the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe as a curator in the archaeology department for ten years. As Curator of Living Cultures, he is responsible for the care of more than 20,000 objects from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, as well as building new research and forming relationships and collaborations.

Dr Chipangura has previously carried out research that looks at how national museums in Africa continue to reproduce colonial forms of knowledge and of being, and what it means to decolonise museum practice. He is involved is in ongoing debates and discussions around the illicit trafficking of cultural objects, including a project called Accession Africa, which undertakes provenance research concerning objects that came from Africa and are found in European museums.

He has also worked to redisplay ethnographic objects which were appropriated from source communities and placed in museums during Zimbabwe’s colonial period (1890-1980) devoid of their social biographies, including a new permanent display gallery at Mutare Museum focusing on the traditional aspects of the Eastern Shona.

His first book entitled Museums as Agents for Social Change: Collaborative Programmes at the Mutare Museum was published by Routledge in April 2021. He is also an advisory board member for the Solidarity in Action Network (UK), which explores solidarity and collaboration with people around the world in grassroots activist organisations and galleries.

 

Dr Alexandra P Alberda, Curator of Indigenous Perspectives alexandra.alberda@manchester.ac.uk  

Alexandra P. Alberda works with the whole museum team, Indigenous people and partners including the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) to develop, embed and share new ways of working. She continues a process of long-term change at Manchester Museum, and in doing so create a model for museums across the globe that aim to decolonise their institutions.

Alexandra P. Alberda was born in Bozeman, Montana, USA, and spent a majority of her youth growing up in Bismarck, North Dakota, USA. She is mixed race and Jemez Pueblo, which has meant that she has grown up at the thresholds of cultures. She believes that her ethnicity and personal experience has informed her professional practice as she personally navigates conflicting and complimenting cultures and has been fortunate to have family members who continue to help her learn and grow in these spiritually and professionally.
During her Masters at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Alexandra was the graduate research assistant at the Great Plains Art Museum, part of the Centre for Great Plains Studies, where she was exhibition coordinator for Contemporary Indigeneity: The New Art of the Great Plains and worked with Johanna Sawyer on The Cinematic Framing of the West, which addressed misconceptions in depictions of Western and Native Peoples in art and film and the role museums play in reiterating thesemisconceptions in current socio-cultural understandings.

Alexandra P. Alberda joined Manchester Museum from Bournemouth University where she was a doctoral researcher and research illustrator. Her PhD, titled Graphic Medicine Exhibited: Public Engagement with Comics in Curatorial Practice and Visitor Experience since 2010, explores the intersections of the comics medium, health, and exhibition to understand potential activist and community-based methodological approaches and sociocultural values of these experiences. In doing so, her research critically engages
with institutional structures of power that limit civic engagement and do not facilitate needed reparative reconciliation, amplification of marginalised voices, and displacement of (colonial) power. As a research illustrator she has worked on a number of projects, including The Data Storytelling Workbook (Routledge 2020).

 

Process and policies

We are in the process of writing a new policy for the museum. More information is coming soon.

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