Does one ethnic group own its cultural artefacts?

  • 2016-11-22
  • Aeon

Objects that once adorned display cases in museums around the world are disappearing from view. In recent decades, dramatic wooden Iroquois face masks, crafted by the nations and tribes of indigenous people of North America, have been taken off the shelves. Rattles and masks made by the Coast Salish peoples of the Pacific Northwest, in British Columbia, have been moved to restricted areas of museum storerooms. And at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, ‘secret/sacred’ Aboriginal objects have been separated from the main collection: only tribal members of particular standing are permitted to see them.

Such removals are political, enacted in the name of decolonisation and the right to self-determination of Native peoples. By way of restitution, argues the museum scholar Janet Marstine of the University of Leicester, ‘Institutions need to develop long-term relationships with source communities built on trust.’ ‘Source communities’ is the buzzword for groups of people, or tribes, considered to be affiliated to the artefacts, and Marstine believes that they should control the interpretation of the past. That includes how cultural artefacts are understood, presented and stored in museums – and if they are displayed at all.

The idea that one culture ‘owns’ a particular heritage is having a profound impact on museums. Just as campaigners are urging the nations of Greece and Turkey to see themselves as the true owners of cultural artefacts – such as the Parthenon marbles, or sculptures from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, both in the British Museum – so too do activists and sympathetic museum professionals, who are facilitating these removals, consider certain indigenous peoples – Native Americans, Aboriginal people, First Nations – the primary, if not sole, arbitrators of their history and cultural artefacts.