Museum Practice chap 19: ‘A critique of museum repatriation and restitution practices’ by Piotr Bienkowski

In my new book Museum Practice due out in July, there are two chapters in the Resources section which raise important questions about the divise issue of repatriation, returning objects and human remains to their communities of origin. In Chapter 19, Piot Bienkowski mounts “a critique of restitution and repatriation practices” in museums, which still tend to be adverserial, long winded and inequitably weighted in favour of the holding institutions. Current processes impede what he sees as the essential purpose of museums—fostering understanding between cultures—and at the very least work against the idea of a forum for debate over the meanings and values of objects. “Where institutions have developed processes which allow for a fruitful, trusting dialogue with claimant communities, which often results in an ongoing, sustainable relationship beyond the immediate results of the claim,” he points out, “they have done so despite international conventions, legal frameworks and laws of property.”

Bienkowski Figure 2 (2)

After a searching review of the literature and current repatriation/restitution practice, Bienkowski then puts forward a new model of museum practice: “museums as loci of deliberative democracy”. In other words for museums ‘[a]n open and transparent deliberative democratic process to resolve the claims would be more beneficial to their wider purposes than the bureaucratic and costly process of establishing criteria of ownership and rights, with its colonialist demands of proof and legitimacy.”

Piotr Bienkowski runs a cultural consultancy specialising in organisational change, community engagement and cultural planning. He developed and directs the Paul Hamlyn Foundation programme Our Museum: Communities and Museums as Active Partners, which supports organisational change to embed community participation and agency in museums and galleries in the United Kingdom. Previously he was Head of Antiquities at National Museums Liverpool, Deputy (and Acting) Director at Manchester Museum (where he was responsible for several repatriations), and Professor of Archaeology and Museology at the University of Manchester. His disciplinary background is in Near Eastern archaeology, and he is the co-director of the International Umm al-Biyara Project in Petra, Jordan.

Piotr Bienkowski Culture Heritage Museums:


About mccartco

Conal McCarthy is a former museum professional and academic who has published widely on museum history, theory and practice. He is the Director of the Museum and heritage studies programme at Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand.
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