Friday, 12 February 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
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.
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.
I do not contest anything the Minister of State said. I would be delighted to know that the Government would offer any support needed by the National Museum of Ireland or any other museum to complete the work in this area in a timely manner. I do not suggest for one minute that this is a simple issue; it is a complex area. Our own Irish ethnographic material is situated in a dedicated space in the National Museum of Ireland - Country Life at Turlough Park, County Mayo. The non-European elements were quietly stored away after partition and the establishment of the Free State and therefore were never shared publicly. I would like to see them shared publicly and for it to be ascertained whether they should be returned to their places of origin.
There are structures in place now through the museums standards accreditation programme to try to oversee what both of us are aware is the very sensitive issue of repatriation. There have been precedents recently. The National Museum of Ireland permanently repatriated two tattooed Maori heads to the Te Papa museum of New Zealand. There is an ongoing programme but what is important in the issue the Senator has raised is that we have a standard and an accreditation process for our museums for the repatriation of what he rightly said are cultural items of significance to other countries and, similarly, cultural items that are of significance to this country also.
While we have the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, here I might suggest a slight change to the running order as proposed by the Cathaoirleach and call Senator Fiona O'Loughlin next and then move to the matter to be dealt with by the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien. I have been in the Chair 20 seconds and the power has gone to my head. I am causing chaos and changing things up and down. Is that agreed? Agreed. Whatever will I do next?