You should go check out this discussion over at FORA.tv. Here’s the blurb:
Panelists discuss cultural property issues, asset repatriation and the release of the 2007 Yearbook of Cultural Property Law (Left Coast Press).
Panelists include: Richard Buxbaum, Jackson H. Ralston Professor of International Law, UC Berkeley; Edward Luby, associate professor of museum studies, San Francisco State University; and Rob Roy Smith, cultural resources protection attorney with the law firm Morisset, Schlosser, Joswiak and McGaw.
It’s on the long side, so if you don’t have time to watch it all I’d skip ahead to the segment called “Q7 – Rightful Ownership”. It brings up an issue that came up a lot in discussion in ANTH 433 this term: how to deal with repatriation of goods that were sold by communities a long time ago? Even if the sale was legal, how do we know it wasn’t sold under duress? Do descendants have the right to reclaim something their ancestors sold? The panel doesn’t provide an answer, and indeed it couldn’t, complex as this issue is.
In response to my earlier post about this mini-series, I wanted to share that the first episode of the PBS American Experience mini-series We Shall Remain is now available online. I’m looking forward to watching it.
Totem: The Return of the G’psgolox Pole in its entirety is viewable on the National Film Board of Canada website. The film and the story of the pole struck me. The distance that the pole travelled, from BC to Sweden, is just extraordinary. I often forget that First Nations cultural material is not just contained in North American museums, but all over the world. I was also struck by the cooperation between the Haisla and the National Museum of Ethnography, with the construction of replicas to satisfy both parties.
As the film concludes, the pole has yet to be returned to the Haisla because the Swedish Museum requires them to build a facility to preserve it, which they can’t afford. Updated information from ecotrust.org says that the pole has finally been returned to Kitamaat, but doesn’t say whether it has been erected once more or not.
From the Musée du Quai Branly’s symposium on human remains and repatriation, here is Eva Gesang-Karlstrom’s (Director General of the National Museums for World Culture, in Götteborg, Sweden) perspective on the episode.
At least fifteen years ago the Swedish government decided that the totem pole should go back to the Haisla people in Canada. But it was a very difficult decision, both for the Haisla people and for the Museum of Ethnography because of following a requirement that the pole be stored in a way that ensures its preservation. The Haisla people had to find a house for indoor storage. And during 15 years there was different contacts between the Haisla people and the Museum of Ethnography but also between the Haisla people and the Same people in Sweden. and during those years the museum also received a gift from the Haisla, a replica of the pole, which we have raised in front of the museum. But I think it is very important the pole [… ?] in front of the museum. But I think that the answer of the government is complicated, because to build a museum is not in the Haisla people’s tradition, and they cannot afford it. But today the pole is back and it is preserved in the box that we built up, and we have also raised the replica outside the museum of ethnography.
I find it interesting that she says that the Swedish government “decided” that the totem pole should be returned, as if the Haisla had never made a request. It paints a much rosier picture of the whole encounter than the film does, unsurprisingly.
Case Western University in Cleveland recently posted this talk on their Youtube page. Dr. Patty Gerstenblith spoke there in January, about the looting of antiquities. It’s a long video but it’s a good overview of the state of looting and the worldwide black market of antiquities.
What particularly interested me about this talk was thinking about the differences between the repatriation of looted antiquities and the repatriation of cultural material to indigenous communities. Dr. Gerstenblith focuses on the legislation that exists to prevent the traffic of looted objects, but doesn’t really say anything about the responsibility of museums in the matter. From her talk, one gathers that looted antiquities should be returned because they are illegal, not because it is morally right for any reason.
In cases of cultural repatriation concerning indigenous communities, the moral question is usually at the forefront. Particularly here in Canada, where there is no legislation in place concerning repatriation, museums return objects because it is the right thing to do, or to seek forgiveness for past wrongs or abuses of native communities.
It strikes me that the agents seeking to repatriate antiquities like the Elgin Marbles are often countries with some measure of political pull, so legislation might just work better in those cases. Native communities still being relatively politically weak, the moral argument is a more effective one.
I’m looking forward to watching this miniseries on PBS. It will look at the Native side of American history. From PBS:
PBS American Experience presents WE SHALL REMAIN, a groundbreaking mini-series and provocative multi-media project that establishes Native history as an essential part of American history. Five 90- minute documentaries spanning three hundred years tell the story of pivotal moments in U.S. history from the Native American perspective. WE SHALL REMAIN premieres April 13, 2009 on PBS. A companion public radio documentary series, focusing on contemporary Native issues, will be distributed to public radio and Native broadcasters to coincide with the television program.
A discussion between a staff member from the Manchester Museum and Somali men about some objects in the Museum’s collection. This was posted to the Museum’s own youtube channel. My reading on repatriation has been mostly focused on Northwest Coast cases, it’s interesting to see such similar opinions as I’ve heard, coming from a community so far removed.