Repatriating objects from university collections serves neither justice nor scholarship
British universities are voluntarily relinquishing historical artefacts. Indigenous groups and governments overseas have laid claim to objects that they maintain were illicitly acquired in Britain’s imperial past, saying that justice demands these should now be repatriated. With few exceptions, the universities have acceded to these demands.
The intention of rectifying historical wrongs is admirable but acquiescing to pressure groups is not the way to do it. The universities’ readiness to meet these requests is hostile to the ethos of academic inquiry. They should make clear, even at the cost of controversy, that their first duty is to promote research. The artefacts that they hold for posterity are objects primarily for historical inquiry and understanding. Treating them instead as looted goods for which they must apologise and seek atonement is neither morally required nor conducive to learning about the past.
Documents obtained under freedom of information legislation show that only one in seven such requests has been denied by institutions linked to Oxford University since 2009. The items ceded include human remains requested by the Museum of Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s national museum. These were returned by the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, an archaeological collection that is also considering a request from Hawaii to return funerary heirlooms taken by British sailors in 1825. Similarly, Edinburgh University returned nine Veddan skulls to Sri Lanka last year and is in the process of returning Maori skeletons to New Zealand.
Great national collections such as the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum have received many similar approaches, but have so far been much more restrictive in what they will return. Arts Council England is updating its advice to museums on dealing with claims made to objects in their collections. Universities legally have more liberty to make decisions on their own collections. The evidence suggests that they are being too free, and may be succumbing too readily to political pressure from campaigners.
No one doubts that stolen treasure should be returned to its rightful owners or their descendants. This principle of justice clearly applies in the case of, say, artworks looted from Jewish households by the Nazis. It is less clear that historical artefacts from the colonial era meet the same criteria.