Edinburgh’s connection with the push to return colonial artefacts

Scotland and Edinburgh have a rich history, filled with triumphs and mistakes. This history fills the numerous museums found throughout the city and country in the form of bones, weapons, and trinkets from all around the globe. But some of this history is stolen.

The National Museum of Scotland is just around the corner from the University of Edinburgh. The strikingly arched building holds many treasures from around the world. However, several pieces found throughout the museum took insidious journeys in order to get there. Of course, in order to attract visitors, the museum needs to display a wide range of artifacts, yet it is important to recognise that some pieces in their possession may hold cultural value to the communities from which they originate. Therefore it is important to consider whether or not some of these pieces should be returned to their place of origin land, especially if the context in which they were taken is brutal colonial conquest.

One such item is the skulls of two of the last members of Canada’s Beothuk tribe. The two skulls are thought to be the human remains of Beothuk Chief Nonosbasut and his wife Demasduit who died in 1819 and 1820 respectively, Demasduit dying due to a colonial attempt to eradicate the natives from the area to allow settlers to occupy the land. Both bodies were then supposedly buried in Newfoundland. Yet in 1828, somehow parts of the remains were donated to the University of Edinburgh by William Cormack, who has since been accused of exhuming the remains. The skulls along with several other Beothuk artefacts were then passed on to the National Museum several years later. 

Despite the extinction of the Beothuk tribe, culturally related extant tribes have called for the remains’ return to their spiritual homeland and their original gravesite outside the Canadian town Cormack. These calls for return were instigated in 2015. Many prominent prominent are supporting such calls, such as the SNP’s Cabinet Secretary for Government Business and Constitutional Relations, Michael Russell. Yet despite this, little has changed despite the museum stating that they were engaged in “constructive dialogue” with the Canadian government in 2017. 

In these situations, it seems that the correct course of action would be to return the bones to their original home. The bones are not on display and are not currently being used for research. Yet in other cases, it could be argued that it is less clear cut, with many having disputed ownership, economic value through the display and having less significance than actual human remains. Nevertheless many argue that, human remains are not the only thing we should return home, but that any object of cultural and historical importance to a community should be sent back. This problem is particularly pertinent between post-colonial powers and their former colonies, as many treasures and artifacts were stolen from the colonies to be given as prizes, displayed or used for research. 

The question of returning thieved items is delicate and complex. Though the museums themselves were not responsible for their original theft, they are left to negotiate with those who want them back, whilst balancing the need to attract visitors, supplement research and maintain the running of the institute and thus jobs. However, the cultural and human value of that which was once stolen to their place of origin should by no means be undervalued for the sake of attracting visitors. Britain along with many other post-colonial countries need to stop clinging onto the time when they were geographically dominating and instead focus contributing reparations to the countries in which they committed their horrors, thereby building a healthier and fairer global community.


Image: Vincent Liew via Pexels

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