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Is virtual repatriation the way forward?

Virtual reunification is often put forward [1] as a means of resolving cultural property disputes [2]. Whilst there have been notable uses of technology [3] for this purpose, the proposals are not normally seen by both parties involved in a dispute as an acceptable solution.

Ulster University [4]

Virtual Repatriation – The Way Forward
23rd February 2009

Dr Bill Hart, an expert on Sierra Leone’s rich artistic heritage, makes a good sound on a 19th century ceremonial horn

University of Ulster academic Dr Bill Hart is to play a key role in a multi-disciplinary research initiative that will make Sierra Leone’s rich cultural heritage accessible to a worldwide audience.

The project, Reanimating Cultural Heritage, has secured £456,000 funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to digitise the Sierra Leonean collections of three UK museums for use by students and researchers in the west African country and elsewhere.
Presenting the UK-based artefacts in a digitised form will mean that people in Sierra Leone will be able to access them through a form of “virtual repatriation”. By utilising advances in interactive digital technologies, the project could prompt a significant revaluation of how information is presented in museums.

An internationally recognised expert on Sierra Leonean art and culture, Dr Hart is a senior lecturer in the University’s Art and Design Research Institute. His association with Sierra Leone began during1969-72 when he taught at university there. He has made frequent return visits, studying traditional art and artefacts in situ and recording interviews with local people.
Dr Hart said: “Sierra Leone, like many other African countries, has a rich cultural heritage and one way of keeping this alive for future generations is to present it in a digital format.”

“Our partner institutions in the project, the British Museum, the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery and Glasgow Museums, have historically important collections of artefacts from Sierra Leone, most of which are held in storage and not on view to the public.
“Presenting photographic and other documentation relating to them in digital form will help bring those collections to life and make them accessible to a wider audience. Looking further ahead, we can envisage developing the database to include documentation from other museum collections in the UK and elsewhere.

“My role in the project will be as a consultant on Sierra Leone material culture, advising the three museums on their collections and supplementing the often very sketchy or inaccurate information on objects in their accession registers.”
Working closely with Dr Paul Basu, University College London and computer specialist Dr Martin White, University of Sussex, he hopes the research will help inform future museum policy.

In the museum world, the issue of returning cultural artefacts, such as the Elgin marbles, to their countries of origin is a controversial one. Whatever the case for repatriating cultural artefacts in general, Dr Hart says that in present circumstances it is not feasible to consider physical repatriation of artefacts to Sierra Leone.
“Security is poor in museums in Africa and funds are rarely available for conservation. In times of civil unrest or war, objects owned by local communities or private individuals can be lost or destroyed, and even in the best of times materials such as wood and leather are subject to attack by termites.

“So we have to look at other ways to keep a sense of heritage alive and one way of doing this is through virtual repatriation — making Sierra Leonean artefacts currently in UK museums available to people in Sierra Leone in digital form, using photographic images and audio and video clips.”
He continues: “The objects to be digitised range from simple household items, such as earthenware pots or woven baskets in everyday use, to rare ivory saltcellars and hunting horns carved by Sierra Leonean artists for the Portuguese royalty in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, works of art that today fetch high prices—even up to a million pounds—at auction.”

An important aspect of the project will be to use the digital images to awaken memories among older people living in Sierra Leone. Dr Hart explains: “For those who are illiterate, digital images can serve as ‘prompt’ cards to trigger their memories of ceremonial or other contexts in which different objects were used. These can then feed back into our digital documentation and help us to a better understanding of their cultural heritage.
“It will demonstrate how museums can have an important role to play in strengthening international relations and provide a platform for future research and capacity building initiatives.”

For further information, please contact:

Press Office, Department of Communication and Development
Tel: 028 9036 6178
Email: pressoffice@ulster.ac.uk