“There is a legal duty for us to hold these things in trust and make them available to put on display,” says Stephen Corri of the British Museum in a recent article in the New York Times. Corri is referring to ceremonial masks from the Native Canadian Namgis tribe. The masks were taken from the tribe during a government raid of a ceremony in the 1920s. While the Namgis hold that this seizure was illegal and that these masks are invaluable parts of their cultural heritage, the British Museum refuses to return them on the grounds that they were legally obtained from a collector’s widow in 1944, says the article by Clifford Krauss. The museum also argues that it can preserve the mask properly and offer it for world-wide scholarly use.
This is not the first battle between a museum and a cultural group. Indeed, the very same British Museum is still in an ongoing battle about many of its collections, especially the high profile battle for the Elgin Marbles. Taken from the Parthenon in Athens by Lord Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, the Ancient Greek sculptures have been a key part of the museum, according to the news source Ananova. The Greek government wants returned what they see as part of their cultural heritage, which they view as illegally removed, whereas the British government and museum argue that they are caring for the marbles and that the pieces have become important to the culture of Britain as well.
In America, the looting of Native American gravesites by private collectors and federally-funded organizations became recognized as such a problem that in 1990 President Bush passed the North American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) which required human remains and funerary items from Native American burial sites on federal lands to be returned to the tribe with whom they were affiliated. Similar legislation was passed in regards to Pre-Columbian artwork coming into the United States from Mexico, and UNESCO in Europe held a convention in 1970 to call for the return of antiquities to their culture of origin. Many of the laws, however, are not retroactive, which means that some claimant cultures cannot legally get items back if they were obtained before the date of the legislation.
This issue of cultural property is indeed a thorny one, with important points being made on both sides. While much of the mentality governing the museum’s acquisition is rooted in 19th century practices of colonial looting and ideas of the superiority, museums do indeed offer an invaluable service of offering up items for scholarly and public examination. They also serve as places that offer cultural experience and hopefully a glimpse of cultural diversity to their patrons. If they were forced to return all items to their place of heritage their collections would be decimated, the British Museum argues.
However, cultural groups do indeed have a right to their heritage, particularly when it comes down to ceremonial and religious items. Perhaps, as it has been suggested in the case of the Elgin marbles, the disputed items can be returned to the cultural of their origin and museums dedicated to the preservation and public display can be established with the help of institutions such as the British Museum. This way, they are still publicly displayed and carefully preserved, but they are still back with the culture to which they belong. Likewise, this approach allows the cultural group to be active participants in the preservation and historic promotion of their own cultural artifacts.