Thursday, 8 February 2024
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
National Cultural Institutions
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for taking this Commencement matter. There was a very good article in The Guardianbefore Christmas about an Irish woman, Isabella Walsh from Limerick. A previous article in The Guardianinspired her to return her late father's collection of 19th century African and Aboriginal objects to their countries of origin. She is from Limerick and 39 years of age. She contacted embassies and consulates in Dublin and London to repatriate ten objects her father had in his possession, including spears, harpoon heads and a shield, after she read about other cases of people returning cultural heritage goods to their countries of origin. Her father, Larry Walsh, was an archaeologist and a creator of the Limerick Museum. He had always cherished these items due to his passionate interest in African and Aboriginal cultures but, as he believed the objects belong to the peoples from whom they originated, his daughter, Isabella, went about the job of contacting embassies and consulates and realising her father's final wish of returning and repatriating the artefacts after he passed away.
Since 2017, I have been calling for a Government policy on the repatriation of cultural heritage or identifiably stolen goods from our time in the British empire. As we know, museums throughout Europe, including those in the former imperial capitals of France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, are packed with collections, objects and artefacts that have imperialist and colonial origins. These ethnographic collections consist of human activity objects, such as sculpture, weapons, clothing, jewellery, tools and decorations. According to Dan Hicks, professor of contemporary archaeology at the University of Oxford, the National Museum of Ireland and the Hunt Museum in Limerick, and possibly the Ulster Museum, hold material that was looted from Benin City, then known as the Kingdom of Benin, in Nigeria by British forces in 1897. The National Museum, located beside Leinster House, is home to approximately 11,000 objects and artefacts that form part of a non-European ethnographic collection acquired since 1760. This collection contains concrete examples of the culture of peoples from the Pacific, Asia, Africa and the Americas and has been described by Dr. William Hart of Ulster University as one of the finest of its kind in the world. I probably do not have time to outline why the museum holds these collections but it comes from the transfer of collections from the RDS, Trinity College Dublin and the Royal Irish Academy to the Museum of Science and Art in 1890.
I am conscious that the Minister has announced the first meeting of an advisory group on the restitution of cultural heritage. I welcome the establishment of the group and wish to give the Department a chance to outline on the record of the House what the plan and hope is for that advisory committee.
I thank the Senator for tabling this important matter for discussion here in the Seanad. I am taking it on behalf of the Minister, Catherine Martin, who cannot be with us. The Senator has a long and deep knowledge of the area. It is a matter he has been following for a lengthy period. That is why it is good to have a debate on the matter this morning.Internationally, in recent years, there have been a number of high-profile cases in which artefacts have been returned by cultural institutions to their places of origin. There is growing public awareness of these issues and the need for guidance for cultural institutions in Ireland regarding how to deal with such cases. Recognising this, the Heritage Council proposed the establishment of an advisory committee on issues relating to repatriation and restitution of historically and culturally sensitive objects in Ireland.
In June last year, the Minister, Deputy Martin, brought a memorandum of information to the Government regarding the intention to form the advisory committee and to outline the work it would be undertaking. The advisory committee was established and met for the first time to begin its work on this important topic in December 2023. The advisory committee is chaired by Sir Donnell Deeny, member of the Court of Arbitration for Art in The Hague, and the chair of the UK Government's spoliation advisory committee. The Heritage Council, as the statutory body with responsibility for the museum standard programme of Ireland, serves as the oversight body for the advisory committee and provides the secretarial support for this particular committee. The members of the advisory committee were chosen due to the experience and expertise they bring to the committee. They are drawn from the museum archives and gallery sector and relevant Departments, and include members with legal expertise as well as members who can also bring the perspective of communities of origin. The objective of the advisory committee is to provide policy advice and prepare national guidelines to support Irish cultural institutions in dealing with objects of unknown provenance in their collections, including those that may have been illegally or unethically elicited or traded into Ireland many years ago. Currently, there are no guidelines for cultural institutions in Ireland on how to deal with such objects. The new advisory committee will provide critical support to collection managers regarding professional standards in the management of cultural heritage. The advisory committee with undertake research into international best practice within the field of provenance, research, restitution and repatriation. It will also engage with key stakeholders to assess the scope of relevant cultural heritage collection in Ireland. The advisory committee held its first meeting, as I mentioned, on 4 December and will meet again soon to consider initial work carried out by the Heritage Council.
This is a complex and sensitive issue and one that is increasingly coming to the fore for museums worldwide. While there have been some cases in Ireland, it has not gained the prominence it has in other countries. That makes it all the more important that we in Ireland provide structures and guidance now to support our national institutions in navigating this terrain that will continue into the future. The Minister believes that the work of the advisory committee will provide Irish cultural institutions with an opportunity to openly and transparently tackle difficult issues, which will improve public awareness of these. She is confident that the work of the committee will improve the understanding of cultural artefacts with provenance the provenance of which would otherwise remain unknown, along with the culture from where they came. This will foster greater dialogue and co-operation on the issue and above all will help increase public awareness and discussion. Most Irish people will agree and be fully supportive of returning artefacts to the counties or the cultures of their origin. There would be support for that but it needs to be done on a structured basis with a proper approach. The Minister, therefore, looks forward to reviewing the output of the work of this committee in the Heritage Council in due course.
I thank the Minister of State, and the Minister, Deputy Martin, and her officials in the Department for the update. I wish the advisory committee well, including Lynn Scarff, the director of the National Museum of Ireland, and Virginia Teehan, the chief executive of the Heritage Council, and all of the folks on the advisory committee. I wish them all the best. It is a complex issue; of that there is no doubt. It is heartening to see the Department place an emphasis on public awareness around these issues. I almost missed the establishment of the advisory committee despite having an interest, including politically, in this over the years so I hope that public awareness can be increased. No objects should be repatriated without being displayed publicly in Ireland first and the public awareness increased about that. I acknowledge the advisory committee will look at the institutions but for individuals and citizens such as Isabella Walsh, I hope the remit might include their situations as well and give advice to individual citizens on returning objects that have questionable provenance.
In recent times, this issue has become prominent in many other countries, many of which are developing and issuing national policies in this area.
The Heritage Council is supporting the committee in its work. Other countries that have restitution committees include Australia, France, Germany and the Netherlands. We can deal with the panel involved in the UK to obtain advice on how it went about matters. It may have many more artefacts to deal with and might have developed policies in this regard. It is proposed that the advisory committee will take 18 months from its establishment, which was last December. The Minister looks forward to receiving its report, fully acting on it and giving guidelines to the national institutions. The Senator’s suggestion on displaying items in Ireland before repatriating them is very good. I thank him for raising these matters. I will bring his comments directly back to the Minister.