Manchester Museum Repatriation: Decolonising States of Mind?

Ananya Sriram and Ella Davis-Yuille

Earlier this month, Manchester Museum became one of the first museums in the country to repatriate some of its artefacts. 43 sacred objects, including traditional body ornaments, musical instruments and spiritual doubles of ancestors encased in wood were all repatriated to Indigenous Australian communities, from the Aranda people of Central Australia, to the Gangalidda Garawa people of northwest Queensland.

In a landmark move, Manchester Museum has shown that, for the first time, British institutions are in fact willing to return stolen objects to their rightful owners. In recent years, there have been countless appeals to British museums from countries around the world to return sacred objects, but, until now, they have been met with little, if any, concern. Manchester Museum’s decision marks a vital shift from the casual, and often arrogant dismissal of such appeals in an effort to recognise Britain’s colonial past.

As Manchester Museum takes a step in the right direction of Western decolonisation (if such a word is appropriate), the museum also directly illuminates the failures of other institutions. In a recent Guardian article Lanre Bakare conversed with Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr, who declared that the British Museum’s response to the outcry for stolen and indigenous artefacts to be returned – or lack thereof, was underwhelming and bitterly disappointing. According to Sarr, the British Museum is like an ‘ostrich with its head in the sand’. On current display in the British Museum, remains a selection of the Benin Bronzes; these artefacts were created by the Edo peoples in what we now know as Nigeria in the thirteenth-century, before they were stolen in 1897 during a British expedition. But, not to worry, the museum has kindly allowed Nigeria to loan back their stolen artefacts in 2021– how altruistic! Though it appears incredibly simple to send back such artefacts, curators and historians alike have to jump through a myriad of hoops and hurdles to even begin the process of repatriation, making it incredibly difficult for anyone involved.

This kind of colonial inertia, or even, a collective amnesia, is palpable in the current contemporary period as these ‘British’ exhibitions display more than cultural art; they display an image of ignorance and a new form of colonial power-play. Far from being a relic of the past, Britain’s legacy of colonialism is unavoidable. Despite being glossed over by institutions, there are traces of it everywhere we look. From artefacts in museums to the names of buildings, we cannot deny that Britain’s wealth and power derives from the exploitation and oppression of almost a quarter of the globe. The decision to repatriate these 43 items is the first step not only in acknowledging our culpability, but also in undoing the pervasive colonial myth that indigenous people from Australia, Africa, Asia, and beyond have no culture. 

The objects you see in museums did not just end up there by chance. The fact is, they were stolen, along with the histories, folklore and traditions of the people who made them.

These treasures should not just be limited for a select elite to see. The debate surrounding the repatriation of museum artefacts almost always prioritises the right of Western audiences to see these objects in London, Paris, New York and elsewhere, but what about the right of indigenous communities to see their own cultural heritage? In returning artefacts to their ancestral communities, Britain can take the crucial first step towards decolonisation. 

This issue goes far beyond the material, as artefacts are not simply physical: they carry histories with them. Repatriating artefacts can also provide a means of reconciliation, reuniting communities with what was taken from them, and allowing them to move on from the collective trauma left by colonialism.

The more awareness we spread about this hostage-style ‘keeping’ of indigenous artefacts, the better. In starting conversations between the public, students, museum members, and indigenous communities, we open up a space for understanding the importance of returning important artefacts to their homes. Leeds in particular, a city with a lively community of culture and diversity, should do better. Reading about indigenous peoples and immersing yourself in postcolonial literature, podcasts, and discussion boards is a small means of giving back to indigenous communities in a way that, for many centuries and in the present day, many museums have failed to do. Below is a list of literature and media that, for us, engages well with a more culturally-conscious understanding of indigenous peoples, and subsequently, the momentous importance of what Manchester University Museum has just done.

Image Credit: University of Manchester