Where Should These Remains Remain? — Plumbing the Depths of Museum Ethics

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”.  [1]

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”. [2]

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.  [3]

What do you think about this decision?  Are there other cases where collections ethics can be murky?

Source Citations:

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.

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5 Responses to Where Should These Remains Remain? — Plumbing the Depths of Museum Ethics

  1. Jeanette says:

    I know with NAGPRA they only return items to only federally recognized groups which can cause some controversy. The museum itself does not need to repatriate the item back to said group or even acknowledge that the item is theirs.

    • hartmc89 says:

      Until you mentioned this wrinkle, I didn’t know that about NAGRA, Jeanette. In the legal sense, I can see why it’s only federally recognized tribes, since it’s federal law. But, should museums hold themselves to a higher standard and consider the claims of all tribes?

  2. keswartz says:

    It sounds like neither side had a strong claim and that decision is not a compromise. The ruling firmly favored the museum. Even if the remains was not related to the local tribes, the museum should treat them with respect to avoid controversy. Interesting problem: how do you deal appropriately with the parties involved when the museum is in the right? A bad reputation can be a disaster for a museum, even if it is technically acting ethically.

    • hartmc89 says:

      Good points, Kirsten. I guess I picked this example to talk about because it is in such a gray area. But, as you said, no matter what is decided in the long run, the museum should treat the remains with respect because Kennwick Man was a real person who had loved ones and a community he belonged to. The question you pose I think is a really hard one to answer. Although the museum may be in the right, their reasons for wanting to keep the skeleton are at odds with why the native tribes want the remains to be returned. Is there a path compromise here?

  3. kcsten08 says:

    We cannot parallel the provisions of NAGPRA with cultural property acquired from other countries, but they are related issues. Museums across the world own objects acquired illicitly in the past from Egypt, Greece, Italy, and many other countries. If a definitive claimant can be found, is it a requirement that museums return all stolen artifacts that originally belonged to that country? Some museums have provided the excuse that they were only trying to better protect stolen objects, while others have purchased objects from robbers without considering whether those objects should be purchased. Egypt, for example, has been adamant about having its stolen artifacts returned, especially artifacts that had once been in Tutankhamen’s tomb. Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities has also worked on developing strategies to recover stolen cultural property with other countries that face the same problem, such as Greece, Italy, China, Peru, Mexico, and many others. [1]

    In 2009, Egypt demonstrated its frustration by cutting ties with the Louvre, which had held illegally obtained Egyptian frescoes. The Louvre quickly responded by returning the frescoes, but the French government also argued that the museum had acquired the objects to better preserve them. [2] In 2010, The Museum of Modern Art also returned artifacts that had been stolen from Tutankhamen’s tomb and acquired by the museum in the 1920s-1940s. [3] However, there are many museums throughout the U.S. (and other countries) which boast Egyptian artifacts which might have been stolen. It is difficult to request that all museums return Egyptian artifacts that were not legally added to their collections. The return of cultural property continues to be a challenge, even if you can determine what country an object originally came from, since many of these objects have been museum staples for decades.

    [1] http://www.sca-egypt.org/eng/RST_ICHC.htm (main site)
    http://www.sca-egypt.org/eng/pdfs/RST_ICHC_SA%20Communique_2010-08-20.pdf (Cairo Communique)

    [2] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/08/world/middleeast/08egypt.html?_r=0 (cutting ties)
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/10/arts/10arts-EGYPTANDLOUV_BRF.html?_r=0 (Louvre returns the frescoes)
    [3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-11728564

    Additional source on UNESCO’s policy on stolen objects (which the United States did not accept in its entirety) http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=13039&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html

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