Hidden Objects - Sensitive and Restricted Objects in Museum Collections. Issues Surrounding their Storage, Access, Consultations, and Potential Repatriation

Wednesday, 23 June 9:30 a.m. - 11:00 p.m. (CET)

A small group of objects in museum collections are today categorised as sensitive and/ or restricted objects, as access to, and knowledge of, such objects may be heavily restricted and strictly managed in the communities of origin. This may also apply to knowledge and documentation details associated with such objects and contained in museum records. From the 1980s onwards, increasing awareness of ethical and moral considerations regarting such sensitivities in a post-colonial museum environment resulted in secret/sacred objects being removed from exhibitions and general public access.
Having removed sensitive objects from public access, and receiving an increasing number of requests for information and object repatriation, how will museums manage such objects in the future? In a post-colonial museum framework, dealing with sensitive, restricted, secret/ sacred objects and knowledge poses problems for museums and provenance researchers. How can a meaningful dialogue with communities of origin be established? How are communities of origin identified? How are current authoritative custodians within those communities identified, who have traditional rights to the restricted objects and knowledge, particularly where knowledge restrictions involve political implications within the communities of origin? How can traditional custodians, once identified, be effectively consulted about restricted matters? How can their instructions/ needs be effectively accommodated and implemented in a museum environment? Can museums commit, from the outset, to implement custodians’ instructions, even when the repatriation of the objects is requested (repatriation of control in the first instance)? What are the legal and procedural implications in Germany vs. in the country of origin?
This panel will discuss the issues surrounding the future management of restricted Objects and knowledge in museum collections. It will draw on findings of the PAESE sub-project on central Australian Tjurunga (secret/ sacred Objects), as well as other examples and experiences, and present possible consultation guidelines and repatriation processes for Australian secret/ sacred objects.


Chair: Mareike Späth, State Museum Hanover