First American Art Magazine No. 22, Spring 2019 - Page 56

the legal right to retrieve sacred material from public collections. As in the United States, many tribal communities opt to work with museums to manage their collections rather than demanding an outright physical transfer. Nadja Roby, manager of repatriation and Indigenous relations at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, touched on the complexities of repatriation in an interview with the Toronto Star: “Repatriation, Roby explains, is not one-size-fits-all. Some communities don’t have the capacity to store or care for objects, preferring to leave them with the museum for safekeeping. Others, like the Nisga’a in northwest British Columbia, prefer a shared custody arrangement, where objects rotate between the commu- nity and the museum, which takes them back for conservation.” 10 In 2015 Robert Janes, editor-in- chief of Museum Management and Curatorship wrote, “Both the idea and practice of repatriation enjoy a far more progressive climate in North America than they do in Europe.” 11 Though long delayed, recent developments suggest change is foreseeable in the future. Museums in the Americas often have an opportunity to partner with local tribal communities (for example, Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma, works with the Delaware Tribe of Indians; Glenbow Museum with the Blackfoot Confederacy). European museums do not have this option and will have to develop different methods of collaborating, often relying on language translation. Digitizing collections just to share inventory across continents should be the first priority. In May 2018 the Deutscher Museumsbund (DMB), or German Museums Association, published “Guidelines on Dealing with Collections from Colonial Contexts.” This funda- mental document broadly outlines the effects of colonialism; Germany’s partic- ular role in taking cultural heritage from its former colonies; and how German 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. museums can recognize those objects associated with colonial rule. Finally, it outlines ethical recommendations regarding prioritization of research, exhi- bition, and the return of objects that fall into this category. The guidelines stress transparency, timeliness, and mutual respect: With regard to the colonial era, repre- sentatives of the communities from where these objects originate want to discuss their issues on an equal footing with the museums. It is by no means always simply a matter of returning these objects, but mostly about partic- ipation, involvement, negotiation processes, the prerogative to interpret the past, and knowledge transfer. This provides a tremendous opportunity to learn more about the objects and their contexts, and to shape the future of the German museum landscape together. 12 Repatriation is not one-size-fits-all. The aims of the DMB are promising, and it will be especially interesting when the new Humboldt Forum in Berlin opens this year. This three-year project relo- cates the Ethnological Museum from the outskirts in Dahlem to Museum Island in the city center, giving curators the opportunity to organize and present its extensive collections with a “decolonial” approach. In the same month the guide- lines were published, the Ethnological Museum repatriated nine funerary objects to the Alaskan Chugach people. 13 Though these are initial guidelines and not federal mandates, this could prove a turning point in how German museums approach prov- enance research of Indigenous objects. Similar messages are coming from France, in this case from the pres- ident himself. Emmanuel Macron has been vocal in his demands that French museums repatriate objects stolen during the colonial era. However, the conver- sation has thus far centered on art and artifacts from Africa. It remains to be seen if action will be taken on Indigenous cultural heritage from the Americas. In her excellent book, Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums, Amy Lonetree (Ho-Chunk) writes that one of the most important goals in the process of decolonization is to “address the legacies of historical unresolved grief by speaking the hard truths of colonialism and thereby creating spaces for healing and understanding.” 14 Further, decoloni- zation involves “incorporating Indigenous languages, such as place-names, names of people, and proper nouns; and, finally, privileging Indigenous sources and perspectives over non-Indigenous ones.” 15 To “decolonize” is not simply to return cultural heritage. It must involve a change in public education, along with more accurate historical narratives, which will prompt critical thinking over the acceptance of unquestioned myths and popular representations. Though stolen cultural heritage and questionable ownership of human remains is a global problem, outside assessment of these cases can lead to deceptively simple conclusions. Even a cursory look into a few examples reveals how complex and multilayered a single resolution can be, requiring debates over jurisdiction, legal history, and terminology. Returning stolen property to rightful owners or heirs is complicated by the duration many items have been held and the interests of multiple parties. While increased public awareness surrounding these issues is good, the protests and/or the media coverage of protest events generally sets up a false us/them dichotomy: protesters/ museums; good people/bad institutions. Yet the reality and the way forward are, in fact, much more nuanced and collaborative. Murray Whyte, “Art so sacred, we’re not allowed to show it to you,” Toronto Star (November 18, 2017), web. Conaty, We Are Coming Home, 15. Wiebke Ahrndt, et al., “Guidelines on Dealing with Collections from Colonial Contexts,” German Museums Association Berlin (July 2018), 6, web. Christopher F. Schuetze, “Berlin Museum Returns Artifacts to Indigenous People of Alaska,” The New York Times (May 16, 2018), web. Amy Lonetree, Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 5. Lonetree, Decolonizing Museums, 8. 54 | WWW.FIRSTAMERICANARTMAGAZINE.COM