A hand-carved wooden totem pole taken from an indigenous Canadian community nearly a century ago is to be returned, the National Museum of Scotland has announced.
The decision to return the House of Ni’isjoohl Memorial Pole was announced by museum directors who said the ‘difficult legacies’ associated with its display had forced them to reconsider its future.
Plans are under way to send back the totem pole to the Nisga’a in British Columbia after a delegation requested its repatriation in August.
It comes amid growing calls for ‘cultural restitution’ which encourages historic or cultural artefacts to be returned to their country of origin after being seized, looted or acquired against the will of its owners.
The House of Ni’isjoohl Memorial Pole has been on display at the National Museum of Scotland since 1930
The House of Ni’isjoohl Memorial Pole will be return to the Nisga’a in British Columbia after a delegation requested its repatriation in August
The not-for-profit group Returning Heritage, which has long campaigned for relics such as the Benin bronzes, Rosetta stone and sacred Ethiopian tabots to be returned, said cultural restitution is ‘more than just an act of return’.
‘It represents a growing recognition of the need to correct injustices committed in the past,’ the group said.
The request was formally granted week by the board of trustees of National Museums Scotland and then approved by the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture.
The request to return the House of Ni’isjoohl Memorial Pole was formally agreed last week by the Board of Trustees of National Museums Scotland
The indigenous Nisga’a battled for self-government and now proudly display totem poles on the Nass River
The indigenous Nisga’a had long battled for self-government, pursuing the ancestral lands that the community had settled on in the Nass River Valley of northwestern British Columbia since 1890.
In 2000, the Nisga’a won the right to self-government after years of negotiating with the Canadian government.
Part of their cultural identity relied on cedar wood, which would be used to mark their homes, canoes and ceremonial objects – such as the totem pole.
A Nisga’a chief dressed in a traditional robe
Totem poles, known as pts’aan, display family crests, commemorate histories, people and events as well as mark their territory.
When a totem pole was raised, a celebration would ensue with feasts held for the natives who would give thanks to the carver and tell traditional stories.
But the Nisga’a totem tradition was nearly lost with the arrival of European settlers in the 19th Century.
Missionaries would destroy the intricately carved cedar wood totem poles, thinking they were pagan statues. Others would be sent to museums around the world for exhibition.
Despite nearly being wiped out, the tradition has since been revitalised and Nisga’a totem poles now stand on the banks of the Nass River.
The Nisga’a are an indigenous people of Canada who reside in the Nass River valley of northwestern British Columbia.
The pole was carved from red cedar in 1855 by artist Oyea Tait and his assistant carver, Gwanes, in memorial of Ts’aawit, a Nisga’a chief of British Columbia, Canada.
It shows a series of interlocking figures relating to Ts’aawit’s family history through his ancestors, family crests, and his clan.
The pole originally stood in front of the house of Ts’aawit’s relatives in Ank’idaa village on the Nass River.
In 1929, Canadian Marius Barbeau purchased the pole from its Nisga’a owners on behalf of the Royal Museum of Scotland, which later became the National Museum of Scotland.
It went on display the following year and most recently was housed in the Living Lands gallery at the museum in Edinburgh.
Dr Chris Breward, Director of National Museums Scotland, said: ‘We are committed to promoting understanding and dialogue with respect to those parts of the museum’s collection associated with our nation’s colonial history and its difficult legacies.
‘The fact that our trustees have agreed to this request demonstrates our readiness to act on this commitment.
‘We are pleased to have reached this agreement and to be able to transfer the memorial pole to its people and to the place where its spiritual significance is most keenly understood.
‘We hope this is not the end of the process but the next step in a fruitful and ongoing relationship with the Nisga’a.’
Sim’oogit Ni’ijoohl (Chief Earl Stephens) of the Nisga’a Nation said: ‘In Nisga’a culture, we believe that this pole is alive with the spirit of our ancestor.
‘After nearly one hundred years, we are finally able to bring our dear relative home to rest on Nisga’a lands.
‘It means so much for us to have the Ni’isjoohl memorial pole returned to us, so that we can connect our family, nation and our future generations with our living history.’
Ian Russell, Chair of the Board of Trustees of National Museums Scotland, said it ‘will now begin to make arrangements for the transfer of the Pole to the Nisga’a Museum.’
Staff are now planning the complex task of safely removing the 11-metre pole from its display location and preparing it for transport home.
Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, Angus Robertson said the delegation who came in August to request the return of the pole had been ‘deeply moving.’
He added: ‘I would like to thank National Museums Scotland’s Board for their speedy but careful consideration of the request and for reaching such a positive outcome and also the Nisga’a delegation for helping us to understand the memorial pole’s history and importance to them.
‘It has been a pleasure to give the required ministerial consent to enable National Museums Scotland to proceed with the transfer of ownership to the Nisga’a Museum.’
A bronze plaque is one of the six artefacts handed back by the small London museum. CEO Nick Merriman said it was an ‘excellent example’ of leadership
The six items that were handed back to the Nigerian government as the start of the process of returning looted treasures
It comes after a small museum in south-east London announced it had begun the official process of returning 72 looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria last month.
The items were taken by force from Benin City in 1897 and have been returned by the Horniman Museum in Dulwich to the Nigerian government.
The Horniman described returning the looted objects as a ‘moral and appropriate’ response after a request from Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM).
Sculptures and plaques made for royalty in the former Kingdom of Benin and seized by British forces in 1897 have been the subject of growing calls for repatriation to Nigeria after Black Lives Matter protests.
But questions still remain about whether thousands of items which are held at large institutions globally, including the British Museum, will ever be sent back.
The fate of two Benin bronze sculptures gifted to the Archbishop of Canterbury which were set to be repatriated to Nigeria is now unclear after officials said the statues were made in the 1980s and have no links to colonialism.
Two ‘Benin Bronze’ sculptures gifted to the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1982 that are set to be repatriated to Nigeria were made in the 1980s, officials have said
Lambeth Palace, the residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, had pledged to return the two statues gifted to former Archbishop Robert Runcie and the Church of England by the University of Nigeria in a visit nearly 40 years ago.
However, the two sculptures that are set to be returned as a ‘gesture of goodwill’ were in fact made in the 1980s, 100 years after most Benin Bronzes were seized, and have no links to Britain’s colonial past.
Experts are now questioning why the sculptures are being returned at all, with critics accusing the Church of England of ‘penitent decolonialisation’ despite the items being unrelated to imperialism.
Another relic at the centre of a longstanding dispute are the Elgin marbles which Greek authorities have claimed were violently ‘hacked’ from the Parthenon in Athens.
George Osborne, the chair of the British Museum has been conducting top-secret negotiations with the Greek prime minister over the transfer of the Elgin Marbles.
It is understood that the classified talks between the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis over the relocation of the classical Greek masterpieces have been ongoing since November 2021.
The Elgin Marbles are currently on display at the British Museum, but the Greek government has been demanding their return since they were removed from Greece in the 19th century.
The British government has agreed to Unesco-backed talks on the repatriation of the Elgin Marbles, pictured on display at the British Museum, which could see the artefacts brought back to Greece and resolve the long-standing issue
But after the revelations over the secret negotiations between Mr Osborne and Mr Mitsotakis, the ancient sculptures may eventually be removed from the British Museum and returned to Greece.
The Elgin Marbles are made up of 17 marble figures and are part of a frieze that decorated the 2,500-year-old Parthenon temple on the Acropolis, made by sculptor Phidias.
The sculptures were taken by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century when he was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and have since been the subject of a long-running dispute over where they should be displayed.
Around 260ft (80metres) of the marbles are in London, whilst Athens is home to a smaller 164ft (50metres) section.
The Elgin Marbles (pictured) are a 17-figure collection of classical Greek marble sculptures made by architect and sculptor Phidias, a Greek sculptor whose statue of Zeus, the god of the sky in ancient Greek mytholgy, was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world
But the Greek prime minister wants the rest of the Elgin Marbles – or Parthenon Mables as they are known in Greece – returned home.
Meanwhile, a London museum came under fire recently for a long-running free exhibit about medical history which was accused of perpetuating ‘racist, sexist and albeist theories and language’.
The Wellcome Collection’s ‘Medicine Man exhibit’ which was on display from 2007 until last month closed over concerns it ‘neglected to tell’ the stories of those ‘we have historically marginalised or excluded’.
The charity, which runs the museum, said it had had been telling the story of Henry Wellcome, a 19th century American pharmaceutical entrepreneur and medical artefact enthusiast who founded the collection.
It said that Wellcome, who was born in a log cabin in Wisconsin, was a man with ‘enormous wealth, power and privilege’ who had acquired hundreds of thousands of objects with the aim of ‘better understanding of the art and science of healing throughout the ages’.
A man and woman stand in the Wellcome Collection’s ‘Medicine Man’ exhibit, with a photo showing Henry Wellcome dressed in Indigenous people’s clothing behind
A collection of four Yoruba and Songye figures displayed in the ‘Medicine Man’ exhibit
These items include wood, ivory and wax models from around the world and a variety of cultures, some of which date back to the 17th century, as well as curiosities such as Charles Darwin’s walking sticks.
In a Twitter thread the museum said it had decided to close the exhibit from Sunday, November 27, adding that it had recently been asking itself ‘what’s the point of museums?’
‘When our founder, Henry Wellcome started collecting in the 19th century, the aim then was to acquire vast numbers of objects that would enable a better understanding of the art and science of healing throughout the ages,’ it said.
‘This was problematic for a number of reasons. Who did these objects belong to? How were they acquired? What gave us the right to tell their stories?
‘The result was a collection that told a global story of health and medicine in which disabled people, Black people, Indigenous peoples and people of colour were exoticised, marginalised and exploited – or even missed out altogether.
‘We can’t change our past. But we can work towards a future where we give voice to the narratives and lived experiences of those who have been silenced, erased and ignored.’