Museum in cash row with Scottish Government over return of 'stolen' Nisga’a pole to Canada
The return of an historic totem pole held by the National Museum of Scotland (NMS) to an indigenous community in Canada was almost undone by a row with Scottish ministers over funding, it has emerged.
Work on the high-profile repatriation of the artefact to the Nisga'a Nation, one of the indigenous groups in what is now known as British Columbia, is set to be completed later this month, bringing to an end its contentious presence in Scotland. The 11m-high pole was sold to the museum by Canadian anthropologist Marius Barbeau, but Nisga'a researchers claim it was stolen without consent while locals were away from their villages for the annual hunting season.
Last year, the board of trustees at the NMS agreed the pole should be returned, with culture secretary Angus Roberson welcoming the decision following a “deeply moving” meeting with a Nisga’a delegation.
But emails between the Scottish Government and the NMS show that while there was a “political willingness” from ministers to pay for the return of the pole, with the Government eventually contributing £300,000, they nearly reneged on their promise to cover the costs.
The correspondence, first reported by The Herald on Sunday, shows Government officials suggested the NMS could foot the bill by embarking on a crowdfunding campaign – a proposal that was rejected by the museum.
The task of transporting the memorial pole to its home in Canada is a complex and costly undertaking. The one tonne artefact will be placed in a specially commissioned steel frame, with the NMS having to clear galleries, and even remove a window, to take it out of the building.
According to the report, an email sent in May from the museum to the Scottish Government makes clear that bosses at what is Scotland's most visited tourist attraction were expecting ministers to pay. It stated: “There is nothing in writing relating to costs between NMS and the SG. However, our notes of the meetings which commenced in August state that there is a ‘political willingness to pay’ from the SG.”
However, when the Government was told the estimated cost of the repatriation, an official told NMS: “You will be disappointed, but perhaps not surprised, to hear that in our current financial circumstances we are unable to confirm any funding for these huge costs.”
Around half of the £710,000 came from the estimated cost of creating a replica of the pole to keep on display. The Government said the museum should “concentrate first” on finding money for the return of the memorial pole and “sadly leave the costs of a new pole to a later project”.
When an official initially recommended the museum could help pay for the repatriation by crowdfunding, the museum had to point out that legally they could not as this “diverts resources away from our core fundraising for our aims and objectives”.
A spokesperson for NMS said: “The project has been generously supported with funding from the Scottish Government of approximately £300,000 to safely lower the pole, remove it from the museum and transfer its ownership to the Nisga’a Nation prior to its departure from the UK. The rest of the memorial pole’s journey has been supported from within Canada.”
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