Seanad debates

Friday, 12 February 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Cultural Objects

10:30 am

Photo of Fintan WarfieldFintan Warfield (Sinn Fein) | Oireachtas source

I congratulate the Acting Chairman on her first sitting in the Chair.

This issue is the subject of a rolling or ongoing conversation in the museum sector and in the cultural space. It has often been discussed in wider society, particularly of late. I have followed these conversations as long as I have had an interest in the issue. I have raised it on a number of occasions in these Houses over the years. The Black Lives Matter movement and anti-racist protests have rightly shone a light on objects and artefacts that have imperialist origins and remain held in European museums.

I am not here to suggest that this is a simple process. It is a very complex area. As I have said before, the Government should offer resources to help institutions, and the National Museum of Ireland is not the only one, that hold artefacts which were acquired in a colonial context. The ethnographic collection held by the National Museum of Ireland consists of approximately 11,000 cultural objects and artefacts that are concrete examples of people's culture ranging from the Pacific to Asia, Africa and the Americas. A great deal of it comes from southern Africa and reflects the British colonial presence there. There is also material from the Zulu and Maori wars. Some of the material in the collection has its origin in the collection of the Royal Dublin Society, which acquired the objects following surveys of the Pacific by the HMS Heraldin the 1850s.

It is public knowledge that the National Museum of Ireland is working to develop a strategy for dealing with objects that have a colonial past. Will the Government step up to the plate and provide the necessary resources and funding, if necessary, to help to support this work so it can be as effective as possible and so that it can be timely? Would the Government also consider developing a policy that will aid restitution and repatriation work by any institution in Ireland that holds objects with imperialist origins?

I wish to note comments made by President Higgins that I saw reported in The Guardianthis week. He said: "A feigned amnesia around the uncomfortable aspects of our shared history [that is Britain and Ireland's shared history] will not help us to forge a better future together".He went on to say that ignoring "the shadows cast by our shared past" is part of a wider reluctance to engage with imperial legacy.

That brings me to my second point regarding Irish manuscripts and objects in Britain. Many Irish manuscripts are housed in British libraries. These institutions have looked after them very well, including digitising them for the 21st century. Many of these manuscripts ended up in British institutions due to landowners bequeathing them. The Book of Lismore was taken in a raid of Kilbrittain Castle in the 17th century. The British Library holds the largest collection of manuscripts containing Irish language material outside Ireland, with over 200 items. These manuscripts date from the 12th to the 19th centuries and cover medicine, religion, law, grammar, history and poetry and prose literature. The key question is whether the optimum cultural and educational value is derived from these manuscripts sitting in libraries in Oxford or, rather, located in centres of learning in Ireland close to the key places mentioned in them. The Book of Lismore was recently donated to the library in University College Cork, UCC, and proves the value of transferring the physical manuscript.

We must have a general Government policy on repatriation. That includes objects held in Irish museums that have a colonial past and, indeed, Irish objects abroad.


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