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Are Museums Guilty of Stealing? Historians Can Help Decide.

In the last few months the number of stories in the media regarding the repatriation of museum objects has exploded. Repatriation, or the return of sacred or culturally significant museum “specimens” (including human remains) to the nation of origin, has been a significant issue in museum politics for some time. The recent explosion in media attention, however, represents a fantastic opportunity for historians, especially those interested in the history of museums, history of science, anthropology, ethnohistory, or cross-cultural interaction.

Simply put, the media’s surge of interest in repatriation stems from two factors. One is the increase in international requests involving high profile artifacts such as the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles, and material from well-known sites, such as Machu Picchu. The other occurs within the United States, where museums and Native peoples are guided by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a bill passed into law in 1990. The National Park Service, which supervises the National NAGPRA program, has recently witnessed a marked increase in the number of repatriation requests.

Demands for the return of artifacts are not a new phenomenon. It is often cited, for example, that shortly after the Ottoman Empire lost control of the region, Greece began seeking the return of its Elgin or Parthenon marbles. The pieces had been taken to the British Museum with the blessing of the governing Ottoman Turks, not the original Greek creators. The ideological and intellectual principals that these demands are founded upon include ideas of ownership, power, stewardship, and the legal transitions of these factors. This constantly evolving body of ethics creates an ever-changing reality of who owns cultural property.

In late November 2005, the Associated Press (AP) ran a story documenting Peru’s official threat of legal action against Yale University. The Government of Peru is seeking the return of artifacts excavated from Machu Picchu after its discovery in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, who was a professor of Latin American History at Yale. CNN picked up the story within a few days of the AP report. Both went into some detail about how exactly Yale University acquired the artifacts. Those familiar with the history of archaeology are familiar with Bingham and his adventurous expeditions to South America. However, while both stories present a short outline about Bingham and his archaeological work for Yale, the stories fail to situate Bingham’s praxis into the larger historical framework of the discipline of archaeology. While many of Bingham’s practices might seem unethical today, the question is whether in that particular time-period, his modus operandi was in line with the rest of his colleagues. Unfortunately, the AP articles states that, “Richard Burger, chairman and director of graduate studies at Yale's Council on Archaeological Studies, did not immediately return telephone messages seeking comment.” Whether Burger was simply out of his office or chose to ignore phone calls, the lack of a Yale archaeologist’s or a historian’s voice in the article is regrettable. Burger missed an important opportunity to educate the public about the history of archaeology, particularly at Yale, and to put their archaeological holdings from the site in context.

Perhaps most visibly, the Italian government has been pressing for the return of artifacts that it claims were illegally sold to American museums. Specifically, the press has been publishing the accusations against the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, California. Both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times have reported how the Italian government claims that a group of artifacts from Greek sites within Italy are suspected to have been illegally excavated and sold via an art dealer whose acquisition practices have recently come under severe scrutiny. Both papers not only explain in great detail the issues at hand, but they also address the history of the institutions involved, including their role in the larger history of art collecting.

From the position of outside observers of these occurrences, historians might be able to add information regarding the Getty’s position as a late-comer to the American museum scene. The Getty’s desire to compete against, and catch up to, larger institutions founded decades earlier might have tempted the museum’s directors to accept material of uncertain provenance. It is possible that a discussion of the Getty’s position in the broader historical milieu could deepen public understanding of the issue.

In the national arena, the surge in NAGPRA repatriation requests is more clearly defined by statistics. The Minneapolis Star Tribune recently ran a story on the repatriation to the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa in Nett Lake, Minnesota of three Midewin birch bark rolls and six other sacred artifacts, until recently held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The story notes that the number of NAGPRA returns coming to fruition in recent years is directly related to an increase in funding from the federal government, “The speed-up has been aided by $2.4 million in grants to help tribes cover transportation and expenses. The Bois Forte Band got $9,105 to pay for trips to New York to document their claim.”

Rather than viewing repatriation as a threat to the existence of the Museum, many museum professionals regard it as an opportunity for consultation, learning, and cross-cultural exchange. While a few vocal scholars and members of the general public believed that NAGPRA would lead to the emptying of museum storerooms across the country, this has not happened. Since its inception, NAGPRA has ensured the return of objects collected under what may now be considered questionable ethics. NAGPRA proves to us that the museum, like everything else, is certainly not a static entity.

Museum professionals, more often than not, are not trained as historians and sometimes appear to struggle in explaining the history of their science and their institutions. While certain indigenous people and many members of the general public and media choose to color museums with the sins of its ghosts, historians as well as historically minded ethnographers and archaeologists should be more vocal in attempting to explain the context in which many of these museum professionals were working. Professional historians know the difference between providing justification and providing explanation and they must articulate this concept to the public.

Without the recognition of the opportunity to educate the public regarding the history of our cultural institutions, museum professionals run the risk of allowing their institutions to be demonized as outmoded and static relics of the past. While museum professionals realize that museum praxis has changed greatly since their founding, it might serve them to enlist professional historians in building a framework for disseminating their understanding of these watershed events.

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