Ireland has a number of artefacts in its museum collections which were unquestionably looted, often by Irish soldiers in British colonial service.
Despite State commitments to investigate questionable collections, promised strategies have not been published. Instead, many looted items are not even on display, languishing in storage. No item has been repatriated in over three decades.
Our investigative team will scrutinise Ireland's public art and artefacts to expose stolen collections, including those acquired through violence.
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The National Museum says that it has legacy collections which “do not reflect contemporary collecting practice or ethics” and is committed to reassessing them. Yet, the last item repatriated was two tattooed Maori heads returned to New Zealand in 1990.
The Minister for Heritage said in 2021 that “the question of how objects are obtained is very complex”. But some cases are straightforward with documentation available to prove some artefacts were stolen.
A number of such artefacts were collected by Arthur Mahaffy, assistant to the British Commissioner in the Solomon Islands. This includes two whale teeth donated to the National Museum of Ireland in 1923 which were part of “loot”, with one described as “highly sacred” by Mahaffy. At the time, he wrote that the loss of such teeth by the communities is “one of the heaviest punishments that can be inflicted”.
We will investigate what other items were bequeathed to the State with documentation of similarly violent provenance.
Following a 2021 commitment, the Heritage Council established a working group on repatriation in June 2023. The National Museum of Ireland established a Collections Provenance Working Group in June 2020 but has not published a strategy and business case for dealing with objects that have a colonial past as promised.
Through Freedom of Information and press requests, we will examine why these State bodies have dragged their heels on their commitments to reexamine our collections’ murky colonial legacy.
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