Saturday, April 17, 2010

Personal and Community Claims on Cultural Heritage- Novik

Mahayana murals that are slowly falling apart. Sanjay Dhar presents the issues of conserving objects such as this one with minimal intervention in a site that is still being used. Is there a way to preserve these kinds of artifacts without disturbing the people and the religion? Or do you have to let the object live its life and then die?

A rendering of Sarah Bartmann

The readings this week provided us with some very different viewpoints examining the issue of owning and repatriating cultural objects. Nokomis Paiz told a personal story in which she acted as the link between an American Indian tribe and the museum. This article was troubling because Paiz revealed a darker side to a relationship that seemed so virtuous. It seemed very obvious that the original creators should be consulted when museums are conserving these objects, however Paiz felt that this experience was very uncomfortable. "and yet there (the objects) are, thousands of miles away from the people who created them, their people who may not know that they are there or even exist." Paiz seemed to feel two strong and conflicting tugs from both her ancestors and her profession. Her internal conflicts were fueled by beliefs similar to the objectives that the Banjilaka Aboriginal Centre at the Melbourne Museum has set forth. Their stated goal is to: "increase visitors understanding of Australian Indigenous rights, recognition, and perspectives." Paiz, however, seems to feel that this goal is not possible when these artifacts are housed in a museum instead of being returned to their original community. The Aboriginal Centre has three main goals in attempt to counter this issue: 1. Aboriginal involvement is essential. 2. The object is equally as important as the information it represents and contains. 3. All conservation efforts must adhere to the cultural requirements expressed by the native consults. While these ideas seem very good, are they truly possible? Can an object that was once used and loved continue to convey its information if it is sitting in a museum? Can the Aboriginal people ever be as 'involved' as they would like to be?
Christopher Pala and Jatti Bredekamp bring a new conflict to the table: human remains. I can easily understand the museums arguments for owning and displaying cultural artifacts. A museum is a place of knowledge and discovery and their main objective is to educate the masses. However, a whole new set of morals is brought into play when you are displaying what remains of a person. The case of Sarah Bartmann is a disheartening tale of the Western world. After being displayed as an African novelty her entire life, her remains were also used for display after her death. Where do the rights of a human come into play? Does the educational aspect of displaying human remains ever override the moral complications? To whom should remains be returned if no family remains? Is burial truly 'better' than being used for science if no one has a claim to the remains? The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA) was formulated to attempt to answer some of these questions about graves in Honolulu. Is there any way that a bill can determine the moral implications and arguments surrounding a human being?



  1. I think that the Edmonds/Wild paper presents one of the better solutions to deal with the cultural heritage of natives. The Aboriginal Center in Melbourne is a compromise between both sides and seems to allow everyone to participate and learn from these objects. This concept seems similar to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, because it allows for native input and use while at the same time preserving the objects in a museum/conservation setting. If similar compromises can be reached between natives and museums in other places, I think it would do a lot to educate and satisfy both sides.

    Human remains, of course, are a different issue and I think that there is no room for compromise there. However, there are a number of challenges regarding funerary objects. Not every object found near human remains was a funeral item, nor was everything found buried in the ground. In order to avoid the issues discussed in the Pala article, these objects must be looked at on a case-by-case basis in order to determine the proper path to take.

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  3. Hughes:
    Paiz describes her experience as a Native American liaison to a museum with a collection containing indigenous objects, some made by living members of her community, as an “enormous responsibility.” As a young intern she was still in the process of learning about her culture and felt uncomfortable acting as an authoritative link between her people and the museum staff. This personal account makes me curious about the procedures set up in museums such as NMAI and the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Centre in Melbourne for collaborating with Native representatives. How much do museum professionals rely on a single person or even a single group’s perspective and interpretation of a cultural artifact? Is it possible for one or a few people to act as the representative/s of an entire culture? In the case of the Forbes Collection repatriated by the Bishop Museum, there was quite a bit of ambiguity as to which native Hawaiian group could legitimately lay claim to these artifacts, causing years of debate and lawsuits. It seems that the solution to some of these problems would be to create more opportunities for Native people to become museum professionals with generous funding for education and internships.

    In contrast to Native American oral culture, the living Mahayana artistic tradition is extensively codified within written texts. I believe it is possible for conservators to have a certain amount of freedom to adapt their working methods to serve the purposes of this community while preserving the authenticity of traditional iconography and techniques.

  4. Carambelas: I don’t think a federal bill can solve all the ethical and moral implications of repatriation as there are too many unique factors in each case. When artifacts are at stake there’s the question of monetary value on top of historical, cultural, and possible sacred as seen in the Forces Collection example. I hate to say this, but it seems that whenever money is involved the situation is given greater attention by a wider variety of parties. While I agree with Spiegel that there is no room for debate in the repatriation of human remains, this situation can also get messy; for example NAGPRA was recently amended in the attempt to solve the issue of culturally unaffiliated remains. Amendment 43 CFR 10.11 (which is set to take effect 14 May) allows for the repatriation of such remains to Native tribes who are currently living or historically lived in the area where the remains were excavated. Some scientists are angered by this decision, claiming it denies them the chance to study the bones, particularly through DNA analysis, and research the origins of the first Americans. There are a variety of complicating factors on both sides but I still feel that keeping the remains is a violation of human rights.

  5. Although I agree that some artifacts and remains should be returned to the native peoples, the case with Sarah Barton and with the original inhabitants show that the situation is not that easy. Many native people such as in the situation of Paiz approach the objects with an emotional attachment, pride, resentment, and unease that Western institution, however polite and respectful they may be, can necessarily handle. The context, history, and meaning go beyond the physical art forms seen in Mahayana Buddhist reactions to the conservators' efforts. I think that Australian museums and The National Museum of the American Indian are heading in the right direction. More input and open communication can perhaps change what has been unfairly status quo for centuries. However, I cannot foresee a substantial improvement to many of the current issues in the near future. As Paiz demonstrates in the article, the cultural divide still runs very deep.

  6. I was also wondering the same thing as Hughes. Paiz says that sometimes Native Americans have to worry about surviving on a reservation before they can even think about issues like what is being displayed in museums. I wasn’t sure why museums in the United States don’t give Native Americans more chances to actually work with the objects as professionals as a job. It seems like that would not only allow the chance for a more positive outlook on museums by Native Americans and stimulate a respectable job market, but also allow museums the chance to perhaps keep and properly display these items without offending anyone. It seems silly to be so close in proximity to this group and not utilize their skills and their knowledge of these objects. Especially because Native Americans generally like to stay with their people (Paiz being one of the few besides soldiers to leave the country) it is up to the U.S. to make the most of the situation. Museums in Europe and across the world don’t have the same opportunity we do. Are museums afraid of losing grasp of their control, or afraid that Native American employees will try to slowly repatriate all of the objects in museum collections back to their own museums or people? While I do believe in the repatriation of human remains like Sarah Bartmann and those who lived such hard and remarkable lives, I can understand the plight of the scientist. I also agree that a bill can’t solve all of these issues and may even cause more. In a society that sues over spilled hot coffee, creating more federal regulations could potentially worsen relations. Something needs to be done, but a bill can’t always apply to every case.

  7. I definitely agree that human remains should be returned in cases where there is someone living who can legitimately claim a right to those remains, but I think that allowing scientists to study those remains even temporarily could be extremely beneficial to both parties. A few people have highlighted the benefits of working with native members to preserve their cultural artifacts, and I think this principal should extend to human remains;

    Paiz talked about how much she learned from visiting the Pitt Rivers collection, and how important her discovery was for her own understanding and that of all the Ojibwe people – the information gained from studying remains could shed just as much light on ancestors that would bring people closer to their heritage. While some groups would be adamantly opposed to this on any level (and those wishes should definitely be respected), I think it would be ideal if scientists and cultural groups could reach an understanding where the remains could be studied for a short amount of time before being returned – provided there is active involvement from community members in the research and study of the remains.

    Where there is no living connection to claim a right to the remains, or in cases like Bartmann’s it seems like the best thing to do would be to return the remains to their original resting place or home. While Sarah Bartmann was used for scientific purposes, her remains were obviously not treated with respect or tribute. While I think scientists have a right and responsibility to gather information where they can they are also obligated to preserve the integrity and the rights of the resources they utilize, whether they be objects or human beings.

  8. In reading through the discussion and comments blog for the April 17, 2010 class I wanted to offer some additional context for the discussion related to the Nokomis Paiz essay from Caring for American Indian Objects: A Practical and Cultural Guide, "The Value of Preserving the Past: A Personal Journey." Nokomis is the daughter of a lifelong advocate for her culture & community at Red Lake. Her mother is now the Tribal Government Secretary and previously developed the Red Lake Archives. Nokomis is very knowledgeable about her culture and has been exposed to many perspectives related to her community, and Red Lake & Ojibwa history in school and through her family. She interned with me at the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) and wanted to expand her knowledge base as well as see how such an institution might better document her culture, establish respectful protocols for its use and interpretation, and make indigenous culture more accessible.

    Our trip to Pitt Rivers with another staff member from MHS was an amazing experience for us all. Many native communities in the US today are unable or unwilling to send elders to view collections in museums either for NAGPRA purposes or for general interest in museum holdings. Younger knowledgeable individuals such as Nokomis are often asked to serve in that role and to represent their community, sharing the experience of the visit with elders and tribal government officials on their return. Many community members discuss these issues and share their expertise and while it is not unusual to find that two or more elders at the same reservation may have very different viewpoints, all must be valued and respected.

    Sometimes an individual is the link one has to a community group and while there are formal political relationships established by laws and statutes that are part of that relationship, the most successful conduit for sharing information and developing trust is established on a person to person basis over many years. There is no pan-Indian solution to the multitude of issues that must be addressed daily in every part of Indian Country.

    Many museums across the US, like the MHS and the Science Museum of Minnesota, work programmatically in collaboration with native language magnet schools, tribal colleges, reservation museums & cultural centers, and Indian Studies programs. And like these two museums, many also have Indian Advisory Councils that consist of tribal representatives associated with the state or region and/or related to collections emphases. Our committee consists of a representative appointed by each of the 11 reservation government bodies in MN and 5 at large representatives chosen by those 11 appointees. The full committee meets twice a year at reservation locations around the state and sub-committees meet frequently to discuss program activities & products planned in publications, education, exhibits, and collections.

    Perhaps future syllabuses could include guest speakers representing this working relationship between American Indians & museum personnel across the US. Such an exchange might provide the students with greater depth on this subject.

    Marcia G. Anderson
    Senior Curator
    Minnesota Historical Society