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National Museum rolls back commitments on strategy for colonial objects

Strategy to assess legacy collections promised in 2021 will now be delivered ‘in due course’.

By Alice Chambers

Design for Loot Legacy - Three empty pedestals with a shadowy figure on top of them, suggesting missing artefacts.

A WORKING GROUP tasked with producing a strategy to deal with questionably acquired collections in the National Museum of Ireland has been disbanded.

All mentions of the Collections Provenance Working Group and strategy were deleted from its website last week, a few hours after Noteworthy asked for an update on the strategy’s progress.

In 2020, when many cultural institutions worldwide were being confronted by the colonial legacies of their collections amid Black Lives Matter protests, the National Museum of Ireland (NMI) committed to reassessing its collections.

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NMI states that “like so many museums that were opened in the 19th century”, it has legacy collections which “do not reflect contemporary collecting practice or ethics”.

This mainly concerns its Ethnographical Collection: around 15,000 items acquired from 1760 to 1914, often by Irish working in the British Empire. Many are not on display.

NMI committed to produce a strategy and a business case by 2021 to decide what should happen to such objects.

It has not produced either and the working group set up to do so was quietly disbanded, Noteworthy can report. A spokesperson said: 

[T]he strategic plan has been delayed but work on the collection and strategy is an ongoing long-term project and will be published in due course.

Our investigative team also asked why sentences related to this work were deleted from its website.

NMI did not respond to our queries before publication but after this article was published, a spokesperson told Noteworthy that NMI’s “website is regularly and routinely updated to ensure that the information published is current”.

These commitments were made by NMI during the pandemic, in the summer of 2020, yet museum staff blamed the “Covid pandemic and other museum needs” for the delay.

An ethnographer was hired in November 2022 and the working group was dissolved as a result, according to NMI’s spokesperson.

“The first strategic aim was the recruitment of staff,” they said. After a new curator was recruited “the decision was made to move the work and activity of the working group into the overall NMI Collections and Learning Group meetings and involve all key departments in the strategy development”.

Following this article’s publication, NMI stated that it “has not rolled back on its commitments on a strategy for colonial objects”.

A spokesperson also said that “original timelines anticipated have been delayed, but the NMI commitment to the task at hand is steadfast” and a publication on the collection in question “is scheduled for the end of 2023 / early 2024″.

‘Highly sacred’ and part of ‘loot’

The origin of items acquired long ago can be tricky to establish, but some items in Ireland’s national collection were unquestionably stolen.

A number of such artefacts were donated by Arthur Mahaffy, assistant to the British Commissioner in the Solomon Islands, in the early 1900s. This includes two whale teeth which were “part of the loot from Nusaru in Rubiana lagoon”, with one described as “highly sacred” by Mahaffy.

At the time, he wrote:

In the villages I have raided the first thing my police look for are these teeth, and the loss to a community is one of the heaviest punishments that can be inflicted upon it.

Dr Audrey Whitty, Head of Collections and Learning at NMI, informed the board in June 2020 that the Collections Provenance Working Group would “pave the way for a more intentionally inclusive collection”.

She did not rule out the possibility of repatriation – when items are returned to the places or people from whom they were taken.

Items have been repatriated in the past, with decisions made on a case-by-case basis, according to the NMI. This includes two tattooed Maori heads returned to New Zealand in 1990.

There are currently no national guidelines for Irish institutions on how they should deal with such artefacts, or those of unknown provenance.

Delivering on a 2021 commitment to fill this gap, Minister for Culture Catherine Martin established a new advisory committee last month. This will advise the government on issues “relating to the restitution and repatriation of culturally sensitive objects in Ireland”.

At the announcement, Martin said that the restitution and repatriation of cultural heritage “is increasingly coming to the fore for museums worldwide” making “it all the more important” to provide “structures and guidance to support our cultural institutions”.

Updated at 3.45pm on 14 July to include National Museum of Ireland response. 

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