Sensitive collections, repatriation and decolonisation

Information about sensitive collections from around the world and decolonisation.

Our policies

A large glass display case filled with ethnographic items. There is a graphic of Maasai women on the wall nearby.

Like many museums in the UK, the Great North Museum: Hancock cares for objects in its collections that are sensitive in nature. These include archaeological human remains and sacred and non-sacred objects from countries and communities around the world.

To ensure that we manage these collections in a legal and ethical way we have a number of policies that govern our work. These include our Human Remains Policy, Human Remains Research Access Policy and Sacred Objects Policy:

Human Remains Policy (PDF, 195 kb)

Human Remains Research Access Policy (Word, 38 kb)

Sacred Objects Policy (PDF, 465 kb)

The museum still actively collects objects and specimens. This is governed by our Acquisitions and Disposal Policy:

Acquisition and Disposals Policy (PDF, 434 kb)

Repatriation

The museum welcomes all enquiries about repatriation. Our Repatriation Policy can be read here:

Repatriation Policy (PDF, 458 kb)

The majority of the World Cultures collections (also known as our Ethnographic collections) can be accessed online through Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums' collections search.

However, a full list of the collections, their country and/or community of origin and how they came into the museum’s collections (where known) can be read here:

World Cultures Collections (PDF, 813 kb)

Object records with the prefix A to G date from 1836-1993. Object records after 1993 are recorded by year. The museum now rarely acquires ethnographic objects and only in full accordance with the Acquisition and Disposals Policy.

The history of the World Cultures collections spans over 250 years. Historic records do not always capture how an object came into the museum’s collections or how the donor came to acquire it. We are constantly trying to improve our knowledge of all of the museum’s collections and update this as we can, particularly when receiving specific enquiries.

More information about objects from the 1700s to early 1800s can be found in the below publication:

  • Jessop, L., June 2003, 18th Century Ethnographic Collections in the Hancock Museum, The Transactions of the Natural History Society of Northumbria, Volume 63, Part 3.

More information about collections from the Pacific region can be found in the below publication:

  • Jessop, L. and Starkey, J., 1998, No contemptible Workmanship: Material culture of the Pacific region represented in the Hancock Museum, Newcastle upon Tyne, Newcastle, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

Decolonisation

As has already been stated, the history of the collections at the Great North Museum: Hancock spans over 250 years. This means that a number of our objects are inextricably linked with Britain’s colonial past and systemic racism. We acknowledge this and are working towards using these collections in an equitable and just way.

You can find our current action plan here. We will update it as we make progress:

Decolonisation Action Plan (Word, 16 kb)

You can find an executive summary of our decolonisation strategy scoping work referenced in the action plan here:

Decolonisation Scoping Executive Summary (Word, 26 kb)

Here is the work we are currently undertaking and we will update this page as we make progress:

  • We do not have a World Cultures specialist on our team. To increase our knowledge about collections, our Assistant Keeper of Archaeology has recently completed a Headley Trust Fellowship to learn more about the objects that represent Native American cultures. This has included knowledge exchange with organisations in North America who have close relationships with indigenous communities. You can read about the outcomes of that work here: www.creativepower-gnm.org.uk
  • As a result of this work we have drafted a full policy on Repatriation that is currently being peer reviewed. We will publish it here when it is ready. UPDATE - the Repatriation Policy can be read above.
  • Though the World Cultures Gallery is only 11 years old, there has been a significant shift in thinking about the context and display of these types of collections. We acknowledge that the interpretation requires updating. The Assistant Keeper has been reviewing all of the text that is displayed in order for us to address this.
  • We are devising a project to capture all of our thinking and required actions to address the issue of decolonisation at the museum. This project will be multidisciplinary and also address decolonisation issues regarding our Natural Science and Egyptology Collections. The key outcome will be to undertake a complete redisplay of the World Cultures collections.
  • Fundraising for this project has been made a priority. Please see our project action plan above.
  • Our Keeper of Natural Science is currently researching the colonial context of our African taxidermy collection. We will publish the outcome of that work here when it is ready. UPDATE - you can read the first blog post here.
  • As a principle we are reviewing all of our museum projects to ensure that resource and time for this project is prioritised.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is colonisation?

This is when a country controls and occupies another country (making it a colony) and exploits its resources.

What does decolonisation mean?

Decolonisation is a when a colonial power gives up its control of a colony, like when Britain granted India independence in 1947.

Many museums were founded during the height of the British Empire. For us, decolonisation means acknowledging this and thinking about what this legacy means, both good and bad.

What are you trying to achieve?

We know that many of our objects come from former British colonies but we don’t always know how they ended up here. Many are gifts or souvenirs from travel and trade but some may have been stolen, taken by force or gifted under duress.

We want to find out as much as we can about the objects in the museum. How did we acquire them? What meaning do they hold? Is the information we already have accurate?

We can do this by carrying out historical research and also by reaching out to source communities.

What is the difference between decolonisation and repatriation?

For us, decolonisation means thinking about how the era of British imperialism has shaped the museum, from the items we hold to the stories we tell about them. We are trying to learn more about objects from former British colonies and how they came to be in the museum. We will do this by historical research and building relationships with source communities.

Repatriation is a separate, although related, issue. This is when an object is returned to its source country. Claims for repatriation are rare and follow a careful and considered process. We are open to claims if they arise.

Isn’t this just political correctness? Why are you trying to rewrite history?

Decolonising the museum is not about rewriting history but rather bringing aspects of that history to the fore. It is about shedding more light on areas of our past that have been neglected or ignored.

We want to find new perspectives that improve our understanding and add to the stories we can tell in the museum, and which make a contribution to acknowledging past wrongs. We also want to build trust with those who feel like their voice in the museum has been silenced.

Won’t this empty the museum of its treasures?

No. Rarely, a country or cultural group claim that they rightfully own an item. These are often sacred objects or human remains. We are open to these claims as we acknowledge this is not just about ownership but human rights issues.

Whatever the result of a repatriation process, engaging with source communities and learning from them is highly beneficial for us.

Who can I contact about these issues?

If you would like to know more we are happy to help. Please contact us at info@greatnorthmuseum.org.uk and someone will get back to you.

If you are a journalist with a media request around these issues, please contact Jonathan Loach (Communications Officer): Jonathan.Loach@twmuseums.org.uk