Museums and Restitution

International conference in Manchester
 Sophia Sambono

I recently presented a paper at the International Conference on Museums and Restitution hosted by the Manchester Museum, a large regional museum based at the University of Manchester.

The conference examined the issue of restitution in relation to the changing role and authority of museums, with a focus on new ways in which these institutions are addressing the subject. Even though the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) is not technically a museum, the management of culturally significant collections and, increasingly, modes of access (including ‘repatriation’) are common to both archives and museums.

I spoke in the first session called ‘Digital, Visual and Knowledge Repatriation’. I discussed the NFSA’s recent projects of repatriation to Indigenous communities which are featured in our collections. Apart from an understandable hesitation by attendees to label the projects by NFSA and other institutions of intangible cultural heritage collections who spoke as true repatriation, my talk was well received and provoked lively discussion. Other speakers on the subject of archival returns of intangible collections offered solutions to problems and common challenges faced in the management of culturally appropriate access to such collections.

Restitution is one of the most emotive and complex issues facing the museum (and archive) world in the 21st century. Its current high profile reflects changing global power relations and the increasingly vocal criticisms of the historical concentration of the world’s heritage in the museums of the West. The conference was attended by many notable authors on the topic who engaged the attendees in often heated discussions.

Overall it was a very inspiring conference and I will be applying some of the principles discussed to my own work with the Indigenous collections of the NFSA.