Seanad debates

Friday, 12 February 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Cultural Objects

10:30 am

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party) | Oireachtas source

I thank Senator Warfield for raising this important issue. I wish to point out at the outset that there is a crossover between the responsibility of my Department in terms of its oversight role in the Heritage Council, museum standards accreditation and so forth and the cultural heritage, which still falls under the remit of the Department of Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht.

As with cultural institutions around the world, the national cultural institutions in Ireland hold books, art, archaeological objects and other items which can range from newly-created objects to objects which are thousands of years old. Irish objects naturally hold a central place in the collections but, as is common throughout the world, our national cultural institutions hold items from cultures across the globe. This has allowed Irish people, and schoolchildren in particular, to experience something from other cultures around the world. It can offer valuable insights into the past and provide an appreciation of world cultures.

Nonetheless, the question of how objects are obtained is very complex. Some of our cultural institutions are up to 150 years old. Their founding collections were built on old collections from previously-established institutions, such as the Royal Dublin Society. The objects that are hundreds or thousands of years old may have changed hands many times, and objects from other countries may have passed through many countries on their journey to Ireland. The presence of ethnographic objects in museums and the existence of ethnographic museums are both issues which have involved much soul-searching and reflection in the last several decades. They are complex matters.

Like many museums that were opened in the 19th century, the National Museum of Ireland has a legacy of collections that it would not now seek to collect. As the National Museum of Ireland, it does not seek to collect non-Irish material but instead focuses on augmenting the Irish collections in its care. The museum is open to engagement with cultural institutions globally and with other interested parties on ethnographic objects in its collection, and is working towards a position of having a full understanding of the provenance of each piece. In this regard, the museum has established a collections provenance working group, along the lines outlined by the Senator, that has been set the task of developing this strategy.

The issue of repatriation of cultural objects is increasingly a matter of concern and discussion in the museum world and wider society. I agree that Ireland and those with responsibility for the care of collections of historical value must be aware of their responsibilities as custodians to understand more fully the provenance of such collections in their care. The international museum community has done considerable work at international level to develop policies and guidelines to support nation states and those charged with the care of collections to make decisions on repatriation. Each museum and collecting institution is unique in its history, scope, governance and mission, and establishing professional standards for historical holdings is essential for the sake of accountability and consistency. Developing guidelines to support the custodians of collections requires the input of curators, provenance research experts and those who claim associations with or ownership of such collections.

In Ireland, the museums standards programme is the national accreditation programme for both publicly- and privately-operated museums and custodians of collections.The museums standards programme is run by the Heritage Council. It is a wonderful programme that supports all standards in small and large museums. To ensure continuity, consistency and accountability, the Heritage Council has agreed to establish a working group and co-ordinate with the museum community nationally and internationally, as well as with policymakers and collection owners to develop appropriate repatriation policies and best practice guidelines in line with the established professional practice in provenance research and museum practice.

The Heritage Council will co-ordinate with officials in the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, as well as the Irish Museums Association and the wider sector to lead on developing this much needed policy and best practice guidelines in cultural repatriation.

I welcome this initiative by the Heritage Council in a very sensitive area. It is a timely initiative that can build on the experience of international colleagues. I look forward to further developments in this area. I again thank Senator Warfield for bringing this important issue to the Seanad today.


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