Looking after a World Cultures Collection can raise many complex ethical issues. Taking the time to correctly identify objects and research their cultural significance leads to a better understanding of ethical ways to store and display objects. The Asante people place a particular importance on the giving of carved wooden stools. These are presented at significant moments in life, such as on marriage or the birth of a child and they are very personal to the individual. When that person dies, the stool is blackened with paint or dye and placed in a shrine room where only the family can look on it. Such stools had found their way into museums like Bristol where it is now recognised that it is more sensitive to take them off public display and keep them covered in store in an appropriately labelled box.
The kind of wooden stools we have at Snowshill don’t present us with the same ethical conundrums, but I think Charles Wade appreciated that a hand -made domestic stool worn and grooved with time had the power to link us to our own past heritage. We might also consider the rather severe child’s correction chair. Perhaps our forebears thought that good deportment was a precious gift, but it doesn’t have quite the magic of the Asante stool.
Repatriation of cultural items offers the chance to build bridges between different peoples.A famous example was the return in 1999 of the Ghost Dance shirt from Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow to the Lakota people of North America.The shirt had been a long-term resident of the museum. It is believed to have been worn by a Sioux warrior killed in the Wounded Knee massacre and would have been an object of great symbolic power. A descendant of a survivor of the battle offered to make a new shirt for the museum in return for the repatriation of the original. After much consultation, it was decided to enter into the exchange, to the benefit of both sides. Recently the EU Parliament has approved changes to a directive aimed at helping EU countries to organise the return of cultural objects unlawfully moved from one EU state to another. This only applies to objects removed after the 1st January 1993, so hopefully Charles Wade’s collection would avoid such scrutiny. However, in this digital age the contents of museum collections are more readily identifiable and the Department for Culture Media and Sport believes it will see a rise in requests for returns across the EU.
Human remains require sensitive treatment, which sounds like a very obvious statement but who hasn’t looked in fascination at a mummy in a museum or some Iron Age bones? Recent thinking on this subject is that such remains should be more respectfully displayed and some groups question whether they should be shown at all. Many Maori and Aboriginal remains have been repatriated, after years of fighting for the return of their ancestors.
In our collection at Snowshill we have a mummified human hand. It is not on public display but was photographed for the collection archive. There is a feeling now that images of human remains shouldn’t be so readily available so researchers might be met with an ‘image blocked’ symbol. The Caring for World Cultures Collections course was fascinating and thought-provoking and certainly gave us food for thought in interpreting Charles Wade’s wonderfully varied treasures.