THESE are gentle, polite scenes, belying the violence and disruption that stretch behind them.

The press photos show a hall or forecourt within a museum or university. Standing in a row, often participating in a ritual, are people of colour wearing ceremonial and traditional dress; they are joined by white officials in business suits, smiling determinedly.

An object – a sword, some clothing, a totem pole – is at the centre of the business. And sometimes, there are human heads.

Last week, the remains of four Paiwan tribal warriors, their skulls taken as trophies by Japanese soldiers invading Taiwan in 1874, were repatriated in a ceremony at Edinburgh University.

They were gifted to the university’s principal in 1907, and have since resided in the archives of the School of Anatomy – a residue of the heights (meaning depths) of imperial science, where the cranial distinction between races was of high importance.

In the handover ceremonies, the emphasis seems to be on kindliness and reconciliation. Taiwan News (TN) reports that the shaman (or “pulingaw”) conducting the Edinburgh ceremony, Civur Malili, provoked “tears and laughter” in the audience.

READ MORE:  Taiwanese warrior remains returned to homeland by Edinburgh University

“During her communications with the deity and ancestral spirits, the four warriors were initially reserved about returning to Taiwan, because they had died in unnatural circumstances and could therefore bring their descendants bad luck”, the TN report continues.

“The spirits eventually agreed to return home after they were reassured that it would help to pass historic memories to future generations”.

A certain Malcolm MacCallum, curator of Edinburgh’s anatomical museum, was even “welcomed into the spiritual circle” by the pulingaw, in gratitude for preserving the skulls.

This is hardly fashionable “wokery”, by the way. Edinburgh University has been repatriating human remains for 30 years to Sri Lanka, Australia and New Zealand. Indeed, Scottish museums are decidedly at the forefront of the movement in Western museums to empty themselves of imperial booty.

This August, Glasgow Museums signed the first deal in the UK to return items to India, including a (very beautiful) 14th-century Tulwar ceremonial sword. Glasgow’s repatriative reputation began with their return of the Lakota Sioux Ghost Dance shirt in 1999. Edinburgh’s Galleries returned the House of Ni’isjoohl Memorial totem pole to British Columbia’s Nisga’a Nation just this September.

Most provocatively, Aberdeen University became the first European institution to agree to return their Benin bronze (a bust of an “Oba”, or king) to the Nigerian authorities.

In 1897, deploying rocket launchers and machine guns, the British Army levelled the city of Benin. Unknown numbers were killed, with soldiers raiding its royal palace, seizing around 10,000 artefacts (their original function was to record history and guide ceremonies).

Some went straight to European museums, some were simply sold on the market. But the Benin bronzes have become a distinct point of difference between many regional museums and the British Museum.

The British Museum possesses more than 900 Benin objects and has more than 100 on regular display in its galleries. The museum is sheltering behind the British Museum Act of 1963, which stops them from permanently returning objects (extended loans are permitted.) Parliament has the sole power to change this law.

Meanwhile, the UK Government’s official advice is to “retain and explain” – meaning keep all the objects, but properly contextualise them. That’s not satisfying the descendants of those robbed.

“The issue is that these are stolen artefacts”, said the director for Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Abba Isa Tijani, this August. “They should be returned to Nigeria, to the communities that they belong to.”

As the chorus for decolonising Western behaviours and institutions swells globally, these are times for reflecting critically on familiar old habits. I take myself back to some of my earliest pleasures as a developing, eagerly-learning youth.

Once I’d cowered past the giant stuffed elephant, I’d often wander indulgently through the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow. Peering through the glass cases at tableaux of African, Indian or American artefacts, I was often struck by the sheer difference of the idea of humanity they embodied.

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Was I enacting the “imperial gaze”, delighting in the cartoonish exaggerations, feeling my own white superiority in the process? No doubt the curation that brought them to that great Victorian pile of Kelvingrove drank from that fetid well.

I don't recall any sense of racial supremacy. What I do remember (and this would come from being a space cadet) is thinking these artefacts looked like aliens or model spaceships. I was reading Erich Von Daneken’s Chariot of the Gods – subtitle: “Was God an Astronaut?” – so perhaps everything appeared that way then.

There was a press shot from the Edinburgh-Taiwan exchange, where a university official is pointing to the four Paiwan warriors’ heads. They’re surrounded by shelves and shelves of other skulls. I don’t know their status – perhaps they’re all medical donations, perhaps not. But it was a queasy image, one that easily evokes the general charnel-house of imperial behaviour in the last few centuries.

In short, and to be blunt: how can any Western museum justify the holding of material gained from the era of imperial plunder, supremacy and exploitation? One of the more bureaucratic pushbacks is that these artefacts are being sent back into less-than-perfect conditions for their continued preservation.

Returnee countries may be poorly constructing their own museums, with deficient controls for the effect of climate on artefacts.

Do you hear a resounding echo of old prejudices here?

As many experts retort, perhaps this is as much about reparations as repatriations. If the legacy of empire means the general impoverishment of these countries, isn’t there a responsibility for Western institutions to subsidise and support their museum infrastructure?

And what if the objects’ preservation is not defined by the values of Western museumry, as their ancestors decide to use them? On the Fleming Collection website, Queen Margaret University’s Anthony Schrag related the fate of a funeral garment from Tonga.

Made from straw and designed to decay, it’s preserved in a Scottish museum – and is now one of the last such items left on the planet.

“If it were to be returned, should it be allowed to decay, as its maker originally intended?” asks Schrag. “There is a sense of different value systems competing.”

Thorny. But we still need to create another stratum in the public discussion around all this. The Scottish Government is currently supporting an initiative titled Empire, Slavery & Scotland’s Museums (ESSM). This aims to progress museum practice – both about how to narrate, and how to repatriate, their collections.

I’m not surprised that the Scottish Government is directly involved.

One crucial part of any independence strategy will be the story Scotland tells, to a watching and trading world, about the country’s response to its colonial legacy. You could call this Scottish soft power. However, it’s well known that the best soft power strategies are the ones that back up their virtuous claims with verifiable actions.

ESSM member Abeer Eladany concludes a recent interview this way: “There will be more exhibitions, repatriations and documentation projects that will reveal some painful truths about the past, but I am sure there will also be healing – and connections forged with communities within Scotland and globally.”

Maybe that’s already happening.

Arts journalist Susan Mansfield reports on the fate of a sacred headdress from Aberdeen University’s museums, returned in 2003 to the Kainai Nation of western Canada.

There’s an annual sun dance undertaken by the headdress’s keeper – who has obtained a Bonnie Prince Charlie jacket to wear during the performance. Curator Neil Curtis is quoted: “He wanted to acknowledge its time in Scotland, which is now part of its history.”

As we are part of these communities’ histories – first terrible, now restorative.

More business suits and vibrant garments, in more shyly-conducted ceremonies, please.