OWNING THE PAST
Museums are rethinking their approach to indigenous collections and custodianship in the wake of repatriation laws, writes Rosemary Neill
In the early 1990s, a climate of fear and anxiety — as palpable as any fast-moving weather front — closed in on some of America’s leading museums. With a poetic flourish, pioneering museum director Rick West says of this extraordinarily tense period: “I thought they [ museum directors and curators] could almost literally hear in their minds the quiet rumble of 18 wheelers at the back bay doors of their museums, just waiting to haul it all away.”
West — the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington — is describing cultural institutions’ panicky reaction to far-reaching US repatriation laws. Introduced in 1989-90, these laws deemed that Native American human remains, sacred and funerary objects and items of cultural patrimony in federally funded museum collections had to be returned to their originating communities on request (provided the claims were genuine).
Prominent gallery and museum directors and curators wrongly assumed the new legislation would decimate their collections, West recalls in a phone interview.
In fact, some cultural institutions considered “suing in court to try to get the law declared unconstitutional. It was an indication of just how upset museums were about this legislation,’’ he says.
West is visiting Australia this week to give a keynote address at a National Museum of Australia conference on the vexed question of indigenous collections and colonial legacies. Now director of Los Angeles’s Autry Museum of the American West, founded by Hollywood’s “singing cowboy” Gene Autry, West is a youthful 73year-old who likes to joke that he is “grossly flunking” retirement.
The museological innovator, who is of southern Cheyenne heritage, considers the NMA conference to be of “international significance’’. Inspired by the Canberra museum’s current Encounters exhibition — which displays many rare Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander treasures from the British Museum’s collections for the first time in Australia since they were col- lected — the conference will also focus on how a new, more inclusive paradigm is transforming relationships between indigenous peoples and museums across the world. Indigenous people are now far more likely to have requests for the return of human remains and sacred materials met unopposed; to be employed by museums; and to have their voices represented in exhibitions. Some communities, meanwhile, have established their own “keeping places” and cultural centres for repatriated material.
Titled New Encounters, the conference has drawn experts from Britain, Scandinavia, the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. They will explore how museums are rethinking their approach to indigenous collections and custodianship, as well as the more sharply contested domains mentioned above.
A quarter of a century after the US congress passed its repatriation laws, thousands of Native American remains and more than 1.4 million objects have been repatriated, and few, if any, of the dire predictions (or the legal threats) have come to pass.
“They really have not,’’ reiterates West. “Our collections have not been decimated.’’
Nevertheless, these laws have not been without conflict. Last month, The New York Times reported how Kumeyaay tribes from California won the right to claim ownership of rare skeletons dating back about 9500 years and discovered by the University of California. Three of the university’s scientists had taken their employer to court in a bid to stop the university handing back the remains. The scientists argued DNA evidence from the skeletons — discovered on university land — would be vital in helping to piece together North America’s deep past. The scientists lost in court, however, and declared the decision “a tremendous loss for science’’. (The victorious Kumeyaay have yet to decide whether they will allow the skeletons to be studied.)
This case demonstrates how repatriation programs and laws, combined with a new ethos of inclusiveness, have fundamentally shifted the balance of power between those on the inside of cultural institutions and those on the margins: indigenous peoples whose wishes and demands were, in the past, frequently ignored.
West has likened traditional museums to “a temple with a self-governing priesthood’’; and he has said of those critics who oppose museums’ more inclusive approach: “These intellectuals already have lost this pitched cultural and intellectual battle and they know it, however much they protest, pretend and resist.’’ He will address this issue further in his Canberra talk. Some archeologists and scientists worry, however, that their work is being impeded by the American repatriation laws, while certain tribes have found it difficult and costly to prove their links to contested artefacts and remains.
What about local museums’ engagement with the First Australians? Have things improved since Aboriginal heritage activist Henrietta Marrie complained in a 1992 paper: “The current situation regarding our heritage is a mess’’? Margo Neale, an NMA indigenous curator who has organised the conference, says that since the 1970s, reforms at Australian museums and galleries have been “massive”. She mentions the employment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff (including the NMA’s inaugural director Dawn Casey, another conference speaker); the voluntary return of scores of indigenous remains and secret sacred items; and the inclusion of indigenous voices in exhibitions such as Encounters, which she regards as “one of the bravest exhibitions mounted in this country”.
In Australia, unlike the US, there are no federal laws compelling cultural institutions to repatriate indigenous remains or objects. Even so,