First American Art Magazine No. 22, Spring 2019 - Page 54

THE RHIZOMES OF REPATRIATION Every collected object is tangled in a complex web of familial, historical, social, political, and legal roots. By Andrea L. Ferber, PhD R ECENT PROTESTS at several high-profile museums have brought on a renewed fervor to “decolonize” collections acquired illegally—often stolen during periods of traumatic violence. In the spring and fall of 2018, members of the group Decolonize This Place protested in the galleries of the Brooklyn Museum with banners that read, “How was this acquired? By whom? For whom? At whose cost? #decolonizethis- place” and “Reparations/Repatriation Now! Your collection contains thousands of objects acquired through imperial plunder.” 1 The Decolonize collective has seven demands, one of which is, “A deco- lonial inventory of colonial-era objects of African and Indigenous people with a view to settle the long-pursued claims of reparations and repatriation.” 2 The Brooklyn Museum’s Arts of the Americas collection consists of over 35,000 objects. Some objects definitely have questionable provenance, but the protests leave many wondering, Which items, specifically? Who are the protesters speaking for? Given that museum professionals have already been engaged in provenance research and repatriation cases for decades, it seems the protests are intended to raise aware- ness among the general public rather than within the museum itself. It is unknown 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. above Educational placard about NAGPRA in precontact ceramic display at the Sam Noble Museum, Norman, Oklahoma. Photo: A. Meredith. opposite Delaware Tribe of Indians youth and culture resource director Curtis Zunigha (at right) visit Lenape carving of Mesingwe in the Philbrook Museum of Art collections, Tu l s a , O k l a h o m a . I m a g e courtesy of Curtis Zunigha (Delaware). if the protesters did much research, given that their demands are so vague. 3 The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) became US federal law in 1990. It requires any organization receiving federal funding to inventory their collections and submit a report to the National Parks Service detailing any human remains, sacred objects, and funerary items in their possession, with the intent to return items to the rightful owners. This process is laborious and ongoing. The latest reports show that since 1990, organizations have posted notices of intent to repatriate over 1.9 million funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony, as well as 63,885 sets of human remains. 4 This includes a recent notice of intent posted by the Brooklyn Museum to repatriate a Wiyot woman’s dance skirt. 5 Since 2010 the Brooklyn Museum has offered to return a collection of 4,500 objects to the Museum of Costa Rica. This case is not NAGPRA related, nor was there any demand for repatriation. Notably, “there were no legal issues surrounding the Brooklyn Museum’s ownership of the objects, since they left the country before a 1938 Costa Rican law restricting export of archaeological artifacts.” 6 The decision Jasmine Weber, “Decolonize This Place Demands Repatriation of ‘Imperial Plunder’ at the Brooklyn Museum,” Hyperallergic (November 30, 2018), web. Hrag Vartanian, “Growing Coalition Calls Brooklyn Museum ‘Out of Touch’ and Demands Decolonization Commission,” Hyperallergic (April 12, 2018), web. Attempts to reach representatives of Decolonize This Place for comment were unsuccessful. “Fiscal Year 2017 Report,” National NAGPRA Program, 5, web. “Notice of Intent to Repatriate Cultural Items: Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY,” National Park Service (August 28, 2017), web. 52 | WWW.FIRSTAMERICANARTMAGAZINE.COM