Natives at the Museum: Repatriation and the Reconceptualization in the Museum Space

by Sabena Allen | 5/16/19 2:00am

In 2002, the Hood Museum returned a Tlingit Chilkat shirt to southeast Alaska. The shirt, which was said to have been made before the 1880s, had been in possession of Axel Rasmussen, the superintendent of schools in Wrangell, AK. After his death, it found its way into the possession of a New York City art dealer, and when it was not sold, it was donated to Dartmouth in 1959. 

In 1995, a delegation of Tlingit people came to Dartmouth, recognized the robe and was able to recount the legend about two brothers who inherited a “naaxein” (Chilkat blanket) and cut it in half to create two tunics to share. Since the object has sacred and ceremonial value as well as continued cultural relevance in the Tlingit community, it was returned under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a law which dictates that if an item can be traced to a particular group of people as the rightful keepers, it must be given back to them. This was an ideal case of repatriation under NAGPRA, but sometimes things are not so clear-cut, especially when international law gets involved.

Despite the complications, repatriation of these sorts of items is still feasible for all museums, especially when we rethink museum’s relationships to indigenous communities, objects and artists.   Late last year, five ceremonial objects that had previously been in the possession of galleries, auction houses and private collections all over the world were returned to Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico. These items, at the discretion of the Acoma Pueblo people, will not be on display and have not been named in press releases because Acoma society restricts ceremonial knowledge to a select few.This is one example of why items like these need to be returned — they are sacred objects that were never meant to be outside of the Pueblo and are not mere aesthetic objects for people outside of the community.

However, for most museums, repatriation is a slightly more complicated process. One need only look as far as the labels at the Hood Museum to see that meticulous and accurate records on the origin of an object are often not kept. In the case of objects of Native American heritage, even if it is clear which tribe or region an object came from, the specifics of clan or division are not always clear. As a result, if the origins of a piece are ambiguous, a museum can avoid repatriation by simply leaving questions unanswered.

That being said, for smaller museums, repatriation can be nerve-wracking because it raises the fear of emptying out the museum. To mitigate this fear, digital repatriation is an option that is being used with increasing frequency. For example, some audio recordings of songs and stories important to the Passamaquody people of Maine, were held at Harvard’s Peabody Museum and inaccessible to the tribe until the Library of Congress obtained the recordings and sent to them to the tribe in 1980. 

At the time, the recordings were of poor quality, and the Passamaquody people had no curatorial agency over the recordings. But now, experts at the Library of Congress are making the audio much clearer and digitally available to the tribe, as well as giving the tribe curatorial rights on whether or not it is available to the public. 

As such, digital repatriation works well with audio files, as there is no physical object involved. However, for physical objects, digital repatriation is limited in that it entails returning digitally-created 3D models of the object, and not the original, which may have sacred meaning to the community it originally belonged to. This point can be overlooked by museums because the sacred aspect of an object is not a function that a museum typically values. Additionally, it may be inappropriate to digitally recreate some items, such as the private sacred items that were returned to the Acoma Pueblo.

Another option for repatriation is returning the original piece and replacing it with a new piece by a contemporary artist. The British Museum has in its collection the Hoa Hakananai’a, a Moai statue from the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island. Representatives of the Rapa Nui have been in discussions with the museum on returning this piece to them, as they argue that it is very spiritually important as an ancestor and thus qualifies as ancestral remains. 

The British Museum leadership maintains that it is important for them to feature art from around the globe. In an article in artnet News, they argue that they must consider, as all museums must, the impact of losing a key piece in their collection that is one of the most popular and most photographed items in their collection, according to a museum spokesperson.  However, an indigenous artist from the island, Benedicto Tuki, has offered to make another statue to replace the one in the museum for free. Thus, the museum would still have a piece of the culture to be displayed, but one that is art and not a sacred ancestor. 

Naturally, replacing old, sacred objects with contemporary art is not always an option, but could be a feasible solution for museums to maintain the breadth of their collection while also respecting the communities they are representing and financially supporting contemporary Native artists. However, a major concern is that collections will be greatly reduced in volume and quality if there are no “authentic” pieces left to see.

No method of repatriation is perfect — all would likely come with backlash unless there is a reconceptualization of the museum space in which we move away from the ideas that old equals “authentic” and that all objects are meant to be seen by the public. For those looking to see a physical object, contemporary art can be similar to and just as impressive as art made hundreds of years ago. 

If artists are willing to create new art for museums, as is the case with Tuki, the fear of empty museums can be mitigated, especially if visitors accept that those newer pieces are just as worthy of displaying in a museum. Additionally, any concerns that all cultural objects “need to be seen by the public” is disrespectful to the culture it belongs to in some cases. Just because something exists does not mean that the world has a right to see it. Many indigenous cultures, like the Acoma Pueblo, have specific ways of passing down knowledge that should be respected.  

Again, the problem is that the public consciousness, in regards to what is “good enough” for a museum, tends to evaluate worthiness by “originality” and “authenticity.” However, if you were to do some background research on many so-called Western masterpieces, visitors might find that the touch of the conservator is even more visible than that of the original artist. 

Authenticity is as much an illusion as it is a cultural construct. Just because an item is new does not mean that it is not authentic or fails to represent a culture, and in turn, can still be appropriate for a museum. Thus, we must all shift our focus away from the idea that replacing an item means it is a “copy” and simultaneously shift museum culture away from a fascination with old things and the preservation outdated museum practices, and toward the facilitation of cultural respect and active learning.