In a significant break with tradition, National Museums Scotland has adopted a new procedure and policy for the potential repatriation of certain items it has in its collection. Since 1866, the institution has operated under the assumption that items contained in its collection should remain there, but now, the new policy stipulates that “requests for the permanent transfer of collection objects to non-UK claimants” should be seriously considered. In making this change, this Scotland arts institution is joining the ranks of other similar venues that have recently seen the light in terms of the importance of morally conscious repatriation.
In March, new reports emerged stating that German officials were in talks to return the country’s holding of Benin Bronzes to the new museum being built in what was formerly a palace site in Benin city. Not every country has been as speedy or displayed as much transparent willingness as Germany: in France, interminable bureaucratic delays, failures in diplomatic communication and consistent issues when it comes to funding have all delayed the Quai Branly museum’s plans to return its Benin bronzes to their country of origin.
Meanwhile, Nigeria has carried on in its emphatic quest for the return of the Benin bronzes. The British Museum’s collection includes over 900 of the items, and Greece has also advocated for the return of the Elgin Marbles. National Museums Scotland executing such an emphatic reversal of their repatriation strategy could certainly apply pressure to other institutions to carry out the same thing, thereby improving the odds that historical instances of looting could be addressed respectfully and concisely.
This summer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that it will be returning two 16th century brass plaques, Warrior Chief and Junior Court Official, and one 14th century brass plaque, Ife Head, to Nigeria. The times are already changing; all that’s left to do is to keep up the momentum.