The National Museum of Scotland nearly had to call off the high-profile repatriation of a totem pole to Canada after the Scottish Government reneged on a promise to cover costs, The Herald on Sunday has learned.

There was initially a “political willingness” from ministers to pay for the return of the Ni'isjoohl Memorial Pole to the Nisga'a Nation.

However, government officials baulked when they learned they would need to stump up £710,000. They suggested the museum should try crowdfunding instead.

What makes the government’s willingness to pay unusual is that under the museum’s procedure for “considering requests for the permanent transfer of collection objects to non-UK claimants,” they state that “all direct costs associated with the transfer, including transport, will be the responsibility of the claimants.”

Correspondence released to The Herald on Sunday through Freedom of Information, shows that there was never any question of the Nisga’a paying.

The 36ft pole was taken in 1929 by colonial ethnographer Marius Barbeau and shipped to what was then the Royal Scottish Museum where has it been on display ever since.

Carved from red cedar in 1855, it tells the story of Ts’aawit, a Nisga’a chief. It was taken without consent while locals were away from their villages for the annual hunting season.

The museum believes it acted in good faith, but now understands the individual who sold it to Barbeau did not have "the cultural, spiritual, or political authority to do so."

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It is a complex and costly task to get the memorial pole from Edinburgh to the Nass Valley in what is now British Columbia, 4,200 miles away, involving a specially commissioned steel frame to surround the item while it’s moved.

As there is nobody local able to take on the job, the museum will have to pay for a team to travel to Edinburgh from south of the border.

To get the pole out of the building, NMS will need to clear entire galleries and remove a window while the totem is hoisted in a special cradle.

Roads will need to be closed as the one-tonne artefact is taken to the airport.

The Herald:

An email sent in May this year from the museum to the Scottish Government makes clear that at bosses at what is Scotland's most visited tourist attraction were expecting ministers to pay. It states: “Our transfer procedure is clear that all direct costs associated with the transfer are the responsibility of the claimants.

“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.

“This has been made several times throughout our discussions, with stating in writing that who will pay is for the ‘cultural leads in the SG’.

“It was as a result of these conversations that NMS did not directly address costs at the time the transfer was agreed.”

In their email, the NMS pointed out that they had been bypassed in much of the negotiation, with the Nisga'a delegation dealing directly with the SNP administration in a 'nation to nation' approach.

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 in Edinburgh.

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.”

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When official initially recommended the museum could help pay for the repatriation by crowd-funding, the museum had to point out that legally they cannot as this “diverts resources away from our core fundraising for our aims and objectives.”

Other emails related to us show NMS were able to reduce the costs of flying the pole back over the Atlantic by around £25,000 after the Royal Canadian Air Force became involved.

They also used money from their capital budget to pay for some of the internal work necessary to get the pole out of the building.

In one email, the museum official told the Scottish Government that they were worried about what might happen if the money for the repatriation could not be found.

“I know you are exploring options at the moment, but I do fear for the reaction both in Scotland and Canada should funding not be secured.”

The Herald:

The Scottish Government has now agreed to pay, contributing £300,000 towards the cost.

A spokesperson for National Museums Scotland told The Herald on Sunday: “The circumstances of the transfer of the Memorial Pole are unique in terms of the complexity of moving something of that size and relative fragility.

“That has made this a challenging project, and the costs reflect the materials and the expertise required. “National Museums Scotland was responsible for arranging the logistics of moving the Memorial Pole. “The project has been generously supported with funding from 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.

“Previous estimates of those costs evolved and were refined, from the time of the decision to agree the return of the Memorial Pole through to identifying and appointing appropriately specialist contractors. That is a natural part of any large project and particularly so in this case, given that this is not something that has been done before.

“The cost of bringing a replacement pole to Scotland would essentially be the same as transferring the original Memorial Pole, which is prohibitive in the current financial climate.

“We remain in positive ongoing dialogue with the Nisga’a Nation about what might be possible in the future. In any event, we will continue to represent Nisga’a culture and the story of the Memorial Pole in our public galleries”. 

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “In December last year the National Museums Scotland’s Board of Trustees took the decision to return the Ni’isjoohl memorial pole to its place of origin in the Nisga’a Nation in Canada. This followed a visit from the Nisga’a delegation who came to Scotland to explain the importance of their pole to their culture, people and community.”