Repatriation has become an important word in museum vocabulary.
In the U.S., the federal government passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990. Under this legislation, any museums that receive federal funding were to conduct an inventory of their collection and identify any Native remains or cultural objects, with the ultimate goal of repatriating such items.
As you can imagine, this is a massive undertaking. Some of these collections could be 500 years old and, as those in the museum world know, determining provenance of artifacts can be a challenge under the best of times. Further, Native Americans have to deal with the sometimes impossible task of proving their relationship to or ownership of these items (with the added roadblock that only groups that are federally recognized are able to benefit from the legislation). While many items have been successfully repatriated to Native American groups, the legislation and process is so complicated that many cases will be ongoing for years to come.
This situation in Canada is quite different. Although there is no legislation like NAGPRA, many museums and Aboriginal groups have taken steps to repatriate items. In the past 30 years or so, Aboriginal groups have begun to assert their rights to items that were taken by early settlers under questionable or coercive circumstances and/or items that are of great spiritual significance. Museums have (hopefully) become more critical of their role in Canada’s colonization of Aboriginals and are recognizing their moral obligations to these groups.
As a historian, and even from the perspective of a museum professional, I am supportive of repatriation. Although some will claim that these items were taken from Aboriginals legally or given up willingly, the context under which these items were obtained is much too complex to make those statements. For example, in Canada, many Aboriginals were forced to give up items when their traditional Potlatch ceremonies were banned by the Canadian government in 1884.
A prominent critique of repatriation I encountered in our readings argued that museums were institutions of public interest and, as such, should not accommodate special interests of certain groups. Some argued that Native artifacts should be maintained and preserved for the benefit of the nation.
I don’t find this argument convincing with regards to Canada’s Aboriginals and repatriation, simply because I think museums have been greatly linked with colonialism and should work to rectify their mistakes. However, I think this critique does raise an important issue.
If museums are funded by the taxpayers, as almost all are, then they do have a public interest to serve. Removing objects from collections means reducing the public’s access and ability to learn about those items. However, I think museums do need to be accountable to cultural groups in their presentation and interpretation of history.
As we get further into the 21st century, it seems this balance is going to be increasingly difficult for museums to maintain. More groups are calling for a greater involvement in museum processes, which, I think, is beneficial to everyone. However, museums will still struggle with defining and answering to the “public interest.”