Mu­se­ums are re­think­ing their ap­proach to in­dige­nous col­lec­tions and cus­to­di­an­ship in the wake of repa­tri­a­tion laws, writes Rose­mary Neill

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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,

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