Does an ethnic group own its cultural artifacts?

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The objects that once adorned the windows of museums around the world are disappearing. Over the past few decades, spectacular wooden Iroquois face masks, made by the nations and tribes of the indigenous peoples of North America, have been pulled from shelves. Rattles and masks made by the Salish peoples of the Pacific Northwest coast of British Columbia have been moved to restricted areas of museum storage. And at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, “secret / sacred” Aboriginal artifacts have been separated from the main collection: only tribal members of a particular rank are allowed to view them.


These deletions are political, enacted in the name of decolonization and the right to self-determination of indigenous peoples. By way of restitution, says museum specialist Janet Marstine of the University of Leicester, “institutions need to develop long-term relationships with source communities based on trust. “Source communities” is the buzzword for groups of people, or tribes, considered to be affiliated with artifacts, and Marstine believes they should control the interpretation of the past. This includes how cultural artefacts are understood, presented and stored in museums – and whether they are displayed.

The idea that a culture “owns” a particular heritage has a profound impact on museums. Just as activists urge the Greek and Turkish nations to see themselves as the true owners of cultural objects – such as the Parthenon marbles or the sculptures in the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, both at the British Museum – activists and sympathetic professionals of the museums do it too. , who facilitate these movements, consider certain indigenous peoples – Amerindians, Aboriginals, First Nations – the first, if not the only, arbiters of their history and their cultural artefacts. Lissant Bolton, a custodian of the British Museum, explains: “In the Australian context, this means that any Indigenous Australian is supposed to have a greater right to speak about any Indigenous object than any non-Indigenous Australian.

The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), which opened on The Mall in Washington, DC in 1990, has been at the forefront of implementing new museums and policies that make formal concessions to particular groups on the basis of their ethnicity. American art journalist Edward Rothstein calls the NMAI and its ilk “museums of identity”.

The transfer of authority to NMAI encompassed a range of activities, including who designed and built the museum, who selects what is in the collection, and how it is interpreted and presented – as well as how artifacts are preserved and who can see them. . In the same vein, in 1993, the Council of Australian Museum Associations approved a document, now titled Continuous cultures, continuous responsibilities, which set a new bar by requiring institutions to work collaboratively with Indigenous groups on all aspects of museum management. The premise behind this movement was that Indigenous peoples should be the ones who tell and organize their story: only Native Americans can speak and tell the story of Native Americans. Maori for Maori. Indigenous groups for the Indigenous past.

The reasons are understandable. Colonization had a devastating impact on Indigenous peoples. But the new identity museums are troubling on many levels – and not just because the material is removed from the exhibition. Imagine if a museum were created, with public funds (the NMAI is funded by the federal government), where whites in a geographic area – sometimes only white males with status – would have the power to decide which exhibits visitors could and could not see. There would rightly be indignation.

Instead of decolonizing museums, the new practices echo and reinforce a racial discourse. They present an idea of ​​culture as fixed and unchanging – something that people possess by virtue of biological ancestry. This racial view of the world should trouble us.

We need to ask who is speaking on behalf of the affected indigenous community, and on what basis. Even who qualifies as aboriginal is a delicate question, as is the fact that “aboriginals” rarely speak with one voice. Ethnocentric policies therefore tend to place authority in the hands of chiefs and anointed elders (local equivalents of the privileged white man), without asking how many and which members of the tribe must subscribe to the traditional view in order for it to remain authoritarian. . What about those who don’t agree? And what about those who want to change it, or challenge it from within?

It also follows, according to the logic of museum identity practice, that those who are outside of culture cannot really understand it because they have never experienced it. It is an approach that creates barriers between people. And also between people and artefacts. He puts forward the idea that cultures are separate and irreconcilable. When Seddon Bennington was managing director of the New Zealand Museum Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington – formerly a bi-cultural museum – he expressed precisely such a vision: “There is a Western way of seeing the world and a Matauranga Māori way. The rest of the world cannot tap into Maori wisdom. ‘

But handing over the right to tell the story to those of approved ethnicity is not how knowledge works. The search for truth and the understanding of history should be open to all, regardless of class, ethnicity or gender. There must be universal access. This is how questions can be explored and old forms of authority challenged.

We often hear about the problem of hidden, invisible and unknown stories because the stories of women and minorities have been written from traditional narratives. But identity museums are guilty of the same sin of omission, as ceding the power to shape museum collections to Indigenous communities hampers the understanding of the very people they claim to be helping. It creates an idealized version of the past – one that never realizes on its own, because it cannot be questioned.

American anthropologist Michael Brown has observed how all manner of information about indigenous peoples of the past, especially religion, is now considered “culturally sensitive” and unfit for public debate in these museums, leaving traditional accounts of indigenous religion with little to report except “generic spirituality”. The effect has been to make research on indigenous life impossible. And, paradoxically, to empty him of the individuality that earned him his distinction in the first place.

For more on the debates over museums and cultural goods, see Tiffany Jenkins’ new book, Keep their marbles, now via Oxford University Press.

Tiffany Jenkins

This article originally appeared on Infinite time and has been republished under Creative Commons.


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