Millions of people visit museums every year to engage with stories that collections can tell. The collections and stories are diverse, but one thing they share is that, “[a museum’s] stewardship of collections entails the highest public trust and carries with it the presumption of rightful ownership”. 
But, what should a museum do if an individual makes a legal claim on one of its objects?
I spoke with Brian Alexander, former Director of the Shelburne Museum, about this ethical situation. He responded that museums should tread carefully and ascertain the legitimacy of that claim. He elaborated by saying that, “the claimant’s statement may call into question the museum’s ownership, but only if definitively proven otherwise should the museum even think about restoring the object to the claimant. Standards for this proof must be very high because setting such a precedent will call into question ownership of the museum’s entire collection. Even then, the museum must proceed with caution. Ultimately, the decision (and precedent setting) will rest with the museum’s Board of Trustees who act in the best interests of the museum and the public”. 
So far, so good. Sometimes, however, the ethical path may be less obvious.
Take, for example, the case of Kennewick Man, concerning prehistoric remains uncovered in Washington and dated to at least 8,000 years old. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) states that Native American human remains must be repatriated if native tribes can prove they are related to the remains. However, archeological scholars used the skeleton’s “Caucasoid” appearance and its age to dispute the relation of Kennewick Man to modern local tribes. Following a legal battle, the U.S. Government decided that the bones should reside at a neutral museum location and be available for study and interpretation. 
What do you think about this decision? Are there other cases where collections ethics can be murky?
1. American Association of Museums, “Code of Ethics for Museums,” 1994.
2. Alexander, Brian. Interview by Megan Hartmann and Araya Henry. 13 December 2013.
3. “Who is ‘Kennewick Man,’ also known as ‘The Ancient One’?,” Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, http://www.burkemuseum.org/kennewickman. Accessed 16 December, 2013.