An edited collection of valuable and timely information concerning the care and conservation of human remains in museums and academic institutions. With a foreword by Brian Fagan.
Human Remains: Guide for Museums and Academic Institutions
By Vicki Cassman
Published by AltaMira Press, 2008
ISBN 0759109559, 9780759109551
via Human Remains: Guide for Museums and … – Google Book Search.
The project for which ATR was created comes to a close tomorrow. Though it is by no means the end of my writing this blog, I did want to conclude this first phase with one last excerpt from The Return of Cultural Treasures. It is a quote from 19th-century American author Nathaniel Hawthorne.
[Yesterday] … I visited the British Museum; an exceedingly tiresome affair. It quite crushes a person to see so much at once; and I wandered from hall to hall, with a weary and heavy heart, wishing (Heaven forgive me!) that the Elgin marbles and the frieze of the Parthenon were all burnt into lime, and that the granitic Egyptian statues were hewn and squared into building-stones, and that the mummies had all turned to dust, two thousand years ago; and, in time, that all the material relics of so many successive ages had disappeared with the generations that produced them. The present is too much burdened with the past. We have not time, in our earthly existence, to appreciate what is warm with life, and immediately around us; yet we heap up all these old shells out of which human life has long emerged, casting them off forever. I do not see how future ages are to stagger onward under all this dead weight, with the additions that will be continually made to it.
With all due respect to Mr. Hawthorne, I think the past is a noble and useful thing to examine, but I agree that putting so much emphasis on old things, to put it bluntly, can be detrimental. Both to the museum, who can forget that some objects in its collection are related to real, living people, but also to the indigenous community trying to get this ‘old stuff’ back, who is in danger of forgetting that their culture is evolving and that they must look into the future as much as they do into the past.
[[Hi Sue! Feel free to navigate the site however you like, but in case you want to read it chronologically, go to the first post and follow the links forward.]]
That is to say there are two approaches [to defining cultural property]: one internationalist and one nationalist. In the former case cultural property is referred to as the common heritage of mankind. This is misleading because cultural property cannot, being within any state’s sovereignty, be regarded as res nullius (property belonging to no one), or res communis (property belonging to the whole world). It is a concept which can have little bearing on the issue of the return of cultural property, because making ‘cultural property’ universal contradicts the notion of ‘return’. (365)
More on the book.
The concept of res communis leads me to the dilemma I often face when thinking about repatriation and restitution. On the one hand, I think illegally acquired cultural objects should be returned to their rightful owner(s). On the other hand, that conviction is fueled by an idea that these objects have some measure of value or significance. That has been the hardest thing for me to reconcile when thinking about these issues. I see and agree with the moral rectitude of repatriation, but the academic in me can’t help but feel the loss of potential knowledge that comes with it.
At the same time, I don’t think that the concept of a universal museum, gathering all cultural heritage under one roof for the world to see, is necessarily a good one, because I think it turns the museum into a cartoony, Epcot centre type institution. But in North American cases, like I have been looking at, repatriated objects are usually sacred, or spiritually or religiously significant, or they are associated with human remains. Which means, in many cases, that they will hidden, buried or destroyed upon return. And while I will fight to the end for the right to dispose of one’s cultural heritage as one desires, I can’t help but feel a twinge of sympathy for the scientific side of the debate.
Since the 1980s there has been wider recognition of the rights of indigenous or aboriginal people – First Nations – to reclaim their cultural heritage through retrieving their relics and the bones of their ancestors. Sometimes the issue of artefacts becomes intermingled with the question of funerary objects, particularly bones. The history of their loss has often been painful. Repatriation involves restoring the collective memory, and in some respects it is as much about putting the ancestors to rest. These things were not originally treasured for their material worth but for the fact that they emanated from the marrow and the spirit of their owners and their earthly existence. It could be argued that no museum can fully convey that. (300)
More on the book.
I’m starting to notice more and more to what point cases of looted antiquites and those concerning indigenous communities are vastly different when it comes to repatriation, and I think this excerpt describes why that is.
But despite its title this is not a book about emptying the great museums of the world of their many treasures. ‘Return’ is part of a wider movement of cultural treasures and need not only mean restitution in the sense of reparation for wrongful taking. It may also refer to other kinds of restoration, reinstatement, and even rejuvenation and reunification. Inevitable museums are often central to this issue. What emerges is that objects ‘migrate’ sometimes legitimately and sometimes not. There are historical, political, legal, material and aesthetic considerations which govern this. A congruent feature of war, colonialism, missionary and archaeological expeditions and other cataclysmic events has been the transportation of art treasures on a global scale. Sometimes objects have also been peacefully and uncontroversially collected and bought. Such movemnts are a fascinating reflector of human history. Hardly a nation or tribe has remained untouched by this experience. All manner of individuals have participated, from common looters to men who attained high rank and office. The route of objects has sometimes been no less colourful and dramatic than that of the persons who initiated their journey. (xiii)
More on the book.
I’ve just started reading this book, I’ll be sharing from it in the weeks to come.