How can museums keep the public’s trust? Because of their positions of power as cultural institutions, they must do more than obeying the law. They should serve the public interest and be ethical stewards for their collections. This means not only protecting them, but above all, ensuring a legitimate and moral provenance for each item. But what happens when everything goes horribly wrong?
Kenn Harper’s book Give Me My Father’s Body: The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo considers the pitfalls of ignoring museum ethics. He uses Minik Wallace, and the other Greenland Inuit brought to the American Museum of Natural History by Robert Perry in 1897, as a prominent example of the inequalities between indigenous peoples and museums. As a Polar explorer sent partly on the museum’s behalf, Perry established an unequal power relationship between the museum and the local people. He considered himself a paternal figure, and in return for cheap trade goods, he used the local people as laborers in his expeditions, and brought back items such as furs, ivory, and even a large iron meteorite considered sacred by the local Inuit to the AMHN. Perry brought the Inuit group back to the AMNH as human subjects for study, and after the entire group, except Minik, died from tuberculosis, their remains became museum property. Although Minik requested his father’s bones, he never received them before he died in 1918 from the Spanish flu. Eventually in 1993 after much controversy because of the book, the museum finally released the Inuit bones for repatriation to Greenland. What can we do to save our museums from this type of controversy?
I spoke with Eva Fognell, the curator of the Fenimore Art Museum’s Thaw Collection of American Indian Art, about how to be proactive about ethics. She explained that before she acquires any object for the collection, she thoroughly examines it for a legitimate provenance to determine proper compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Legislation such as this gives indigenous peoples such as Native Americans a voice in museums. Eva goes beyond the simple legal requirements of the legislation to involve the Native American community in managing and exhibiting the Thaw Collection.
Should museums share authority over their collections and exhibitions? Does this fit with their missions as public institutions?
By Colin Walfield
AAM. Code of Ethics for Musems, 1994.
Harper, Kenn. Give Me My Father’s Body: The Life of Minik, The New York Eskimo. South Royalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 2000.
Interview with Eva Fognell of the Fenimore Art Museum.