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Ministerial mandate to repatriate: but first, we need to identify items in museum collections

Research to identify items by Indigenous community of origin often needs to happen before repatriation can occur.

10 January 2020

Steven Guibault, Minister of Canadian Heritage, has been given his mandate letter by Prime Minister Trudeau. The letter includes the responsibility to “Co-develop, with Indigenous Peoples, a framework for repatriating Indigenous cultural property and ancestral remains.”

One of the huge barriers to repatriation—which museums don’t discuss—is the very weak identification of Indigenous items in museum collections. This has come about for many reasons. Collectors and donors often knew very little about the people they acquired material from, since they spent very little time in the area. Some held tremendous prejudice against Indigenous cultures, classifying items only as “Primitive” and failing to record the names of makers of items. Anthropological collectors felt that “tribal” attribution mattered more than artist’s names. After arriving in museums, objects were separated from records about them in many ways, and documents that might have come with collections have been moved to archives, not recorded in museum records, or information has been lost.

Pitt Rivers Museum 1886.1.845, label detail on a legging, fringed and lightly covered with red ochre. The old label says a great deal about the state of knowledge about many museum collections of Indigenous heritage/cultural items.

Other factors contributing to this lack of identification of many Indigenous heritage items include the fact that most museums lack specialist staff with knowledge about Indigenous cultures and collections. And, until very recently, museums failed to work with Indigenous peoples around their collections.

All of these factors have created a situation in which items are identified in many cases only by region, such as “Northwest Coast” or “Woodlands.” In some museums, I have challenged identifications at the wrong continent level (no, that’s not African…). In most, though, large numbers of items have only regional attributions, which is not sufficient to support repatriation to particular Indigenous communities.

We need to get beyond this, and to decide, as a museum profession and with Indigenous participation, how to refine the identification of items from region to specific groups of communities, or cultures in the ethnographic term. We need to involve artists, whose knowledge of making is often far deeper than art historians’ and curators’ surface perceptions. We may need to learn from Maori/New Zealand museum collaborations, which have begun isotopic testing of organic materials to link the locations of origin of materials in museum collections to specific mapped regions on specific Indigenous territories.

Museums need a research program to take forward the Minister’s mandate and to ensure that items repatriated go to the right communities. Such a program could develop and strengthen Indigenous-settler relations across the museum profession and contribute significantly to reconciliation.

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