A ubiquitous, but nonetheless uncomfortable term in museum management, the idea that museums are the “owners” of items in their collection is interpreted variously. Whilst museums claim legal ownership, this inevitably leads us to questions around whose legal systems are recognised as valid in this assertion? The term ownership similarly implies a sense of legitimacy to collections. However, if items were certainly acquired under duress or looted, does this mandate an interrogation of who “owns” an item?
An interesting hybrid model that works in some specific cases as an alternative to repatriation/restitution is co-caring for collections, whereby the museum legally “owns” the material and holds it in collections, but management decisions and “spiritual ownership” are placed in the hands of source communities. This practice has been enacted by some institutions already and may be a model that UK museums can look to.