Pillagers called to account

Pillagers called to account

Rosemary Sorensen

The Australian, January 8, 2009

Michael Brand, the director of the Getty Museum in California, talks about his experiences with negotiating the return of looted artwork in this article from the Australian. I found the following passage particularly interesting:

And yet France, as Australian museologists discovered when they began talking about the repatriation of Aboriginal human remains, holds an intransigent and logically absurd position that anything acquired by the state in the past, no matter how dubiously, becomes part of French patrimony. Giving it up, therefore, would be a blow to French national pride, and is not to be countenanced.

A few weeks ago, our class watched the film Stolen Spirits of Haida Gwaii, about the repatriation of human remains from Chicago’s Field Museum. In a press conference during the Haida’s visit to Chicago, one reporter asks if the Haida are also going to try to repatriate the totem poles at the Field Museum. He expresses very much this same feeling, saying that the totem poles have become part of Chicago’s heritage. The Haida are quick to disagree, saying that despite the fact that the poles were brought to Chicago generations ago, they still belong to the Haida.

How can it be that French people can become so attached to Australian aboriginal human remains, or that Chicagoans can identify with cultural markers of a people that come from across the continent? Is it the simple pride of owning it? Does having “native” things, regardless of their origin, legitimize them in some way?

The other question that comes to mind is one of time. Is it a valid argument to say that because these artifacts, or totem poles, have been in a museum for a long time, that museum should be allowed to keep them? Obviously the museum has spent money and resources storing or maintaining its collection, but if they never should’ve had an item in the first place doesn’t this become a moot point?

It surprised me that Australian museologists would have trouble recovering Aboriginal human remains from French museums. Human remains seem to be, in most cases, the most obvious candidates for repatriation. NAGPRA puts the emphasis almost solely on human remains as claimable for repatriation. I’m less familiar with European repatriation policies, if they indeed even exist, so maybe they have different priorities. Still I find it difficult to imagine that a museum would refuse to return a person’s remains to their home country. See this similar case at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris.

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