We have long had an open attitude to repatriation of museum objects.
In 2006 and 2007, human remains were returned to national authorities representing indigenous groups in Australia and New Zealand respectively. In 2019 human remains and grave goods were returned to an indigenous group in California and in 2021 we returned a hunters’ coat to an indigenous cultural centre in Canada.
Process for repatriating an object
Any requests for repatriation of items from our collections are treated on a case-by-case basis.
Informal initial enquiries can be undertaken with relevant curatorial staff, but once a written request, addressed to the Head of Culture & Creative Industries, is received the process of investigating the claim can begin.
Information about the item(s) is gathered and evidence as to the authority and suitability of the claimant are requested. An investigation to find out whether there may be competing claims to the item(s) will also be undertaken.
Once all the information has been collated (which can take a considerable time – often some months and even years) a final decision will be made by the appropriate member of the Cabinet (as the Governing Body), as is required by our status as an Accredited Museum.
Usually this will be the Executive Member responsible for the Culture and Creatives Industries team which is currently the Deputy Mayor of Bristol, Councillor Craig Cheney.
Criteria for repatriation
In order to investigate a claim the following minimum criteria are applied.
- The status of those making the request i.e. their right to represent the community to which the item(s) originally belonged.
- The continuity between the community which created the items(s) and the current community on whose behalf the request is being made.
- The cultural and religious importance of the object(s) to the community.
Benin Bronze Head
Bristol Museum & Art Gallery holds one historic Benin Bronze head in its accessioned collections (object number Ea7821), currently on display in the Curiosity gallery of Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.
This Bronze came to the collection in 1935 as the result of its transfer from Cranmore Ethnographical Museum, Kent (which closed in the 1940s). The exact provenance of this Bronze prior to this is not known, though it is probable that it came from the looting of Benin City in 1897.
Bristol City Council acknowledges and recognises that the possession of historic Benin Bronzes is highly contentious and that there are calls for repatriation to Benin (Nigeria). As a consequence, Culture team staff are establishing contact with the interested parties in Nigeria and those who are currently negotiating with them across Europe as part of the Benin Dialogue Group and through the Legacy Restoration Trust in Nigeria and National Commission for Museums and Monuments.
We understand the current situation in Nigeria to be one that is still under discussion. Plans for a new Museum of the Royal Court have been agreed and many representatives of the local and national governments, as well as the Royal Court itself, are working towards this as a way forward. Some have agreed to loan items there, others see it as a place that returns could be made permanently. Once we have been able to establish the level of agreement for these plans we will be able to progress our discussions.
Consequently, we intend to establish an action plan regarding the future for the Bronze currently held in Bristol.