Knowledge and repatriation in museums

In this class we have focused on the nitty-gritty of museum work, from basic exhibit design techniques and audience research tools to fundraising and (this week) human resource management. We have not dwelled at all on the larger issue of what is a museum? What are museums for, and more importantly, what are the implications for cultural and political power that collecting, preserving, and representing history of a variety of cultures entails?

Via Ed Rodley, this article by British sociologist Tiffany Jenkins warns about repatriation trends in western museums and offers a definition of enlightenment-based universal museum. Courtney Johnston, director of an art museum in New Zealand, wrestles with Jenkins’ criticism. Johnston offers a thoughtful take on the current shift in museums’ identities and shifts in cultural power.

Take a look. Tell us what you think.

The chief bit of legislation that informs this conversation in the United States is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). You should be familiar with it.

5 thoughts on “Knowledge and repatriation in museums

  1. We discussed NAGPRA issues in our Collections class last semester. I think both of these articles provide a foundation understanding of repatriation issues in an international context, but in a more local/U.S. context I am still left with nagging concerns over artifact ownership and access. Federal Recognition of native American tribes is the primary issue concerning indigenous artifacts in the U.S.
    Ultimately, an indigenous community must be federally recognized in order to qualify for any NAGPRA benefit. Communities must enroll in a long and arbitrary process of proving a consistently spoken tribal language, lineal descent, and even blood purity to qualify for federal tribal status. Having worked with several indigenous communities in the past, primarily concerning tribal recognition issues, I have learned how disputed the entire process is. The Lumbee people in Pembroke, NC have struggled for years to meet federal guidelines for tribal status and have been subsequently denied federal status based on linguistic qualifications. The NAGPRA denies the return or acceptance of indigenous artifacts to any non-federally recognized groups. In response, the Lumbee partnered with UNC Pembroke to create their own museum (the building is in the shape of a scared animal, a turtle!). Many tribal elders view their museum as a greater service to their community being under the management of community members. Several community members I have spoken to lament the fact that Lumbee artifacts are still held by government run museums and will possibly never be returned. I find this to be a pretty clear indicator of disparaging governmental control over indigenous artifacts despite the efforts of the NAGPRA.
    The government is essentially deciding which tribes meet federal status and qualify to have their artifacts returned or curated. I think this issue has been severely over looked in the literature concerning artifact ownership and access in the U.S. The Jenkins and Johnston articles primarily deal with international artifact rights, one national government to another, but what about issues concerning native artifacts of domestic provenance? The Indian Removal Act of 1828 identified all indigenous people in the U.S. as “domestic dependent nations.” The NAGRPA tacitly embodies this language, maintaining a sense of paternal artifact curation that has much deeper political roots than we realize.


  2. I agree with Josh. This is a tricky, ongoing situation. Although I agreed with certain points in both Jenkins and Johnston’s article, I leaned more towards Johnston’s point of view. While it is a responsibility of museums to be inclusive to audiences (regardless of ethnicity, as Jenkins discusses), who has the cultural and curatorial authority to make decisions in regards to such sensitive topics and objects such as NAGPRA affected artifacts. I especially liked this quote by Johnston:
    “However, I personally and professionally believe it to be a goal and role that can’t be treated as one static set of unchanging rules and conditions, but one that must be aspired to, and worked on, at a level that effectively encounters each item that resides in a museum collection on its own terms, with respect to who it was created by, when, and where, and with what original intent – and the path it travelled from its source to the storeroom or gallery in which is now lies. I fundamentally support the collaborative care of collections in partnership with source communities. I acknowledge that the repatriation of objects is a far more nuanced and difficult topic – and one that changes in every instance under consideration – and I don’t claim to have any hands-on professional experience in this area, let alone guidance as to when repatriation is “right” or “wrong”.”
    Johnston identifies the importance that issues such as these can’t be treated as monolithic situations. As Josh pointed out, there are larger political roots here as well.


  3. Tiffany Jenkins ended her article with the statement that, “The encroachment of liberal guilt into curatorial decisions is undermining the traditional purpose of the museum…” However, this thought seems to do almost just that. I think this class has taught us that a museum has many uses, meaning that changing themes and interpretations come with the community that views the objects and visits the exhibit. In the Collections class it was established that older museums do not always know where their oldest objects came from, and if a NAGPRA group is successful in their process to get their artifacts back, they should go back. That said, if there were cases in which a group knew the object was at the museum but were not concerned with getting it back, or if it represents a community’s culture, there may be an opportunity to collaborate and interpret the object in a way that brings the community to the museum to learn about its own diversity.


  4. It’s easy to understand why these issues continue to influence museum operations. When museums face such dilemmas, I believe it is imperative that museums view them on a case by case basis. Laws like NAGPRA are great starting points to address issues, but as Josh pointed out, not all Native American tribes fall under NAGPRA. Therefore, museums need to consider what their role in the community is before they make decisions. For tribes requesting repatriation, it is important to consider if the tribe falls under NAGPRA as well as consider how the museum’s decision will affect the community’s view of the museum. For artifacts in the museum’s collection, it is also important to respect the the tribe’s culture, but maintain the museum’s responsibility to be transparent with information. There is no easy answer for these dilemmas, but museum officials should strive to understand the roles of both the tribe and the museum. In these cases, showing the utmost respect for all parties involved is crucial.


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