Should works included in a new Aboriginal Australian art exhibition be repatriated to the culture that produced them? The answer is complex, writes Jason Farago.

The British Museum in London is opening a major new exhibition with a rather interesting subtitle. Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation the most important show ever in the United Kingdom to look at the art and culture of Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders, and though the exhibition has a massive 60,000-year timescale, it presents indigenous Australian art as part of a continuous culture. Objects from the museum’s collection, such as a shield taken by Captain Cook from Botany Bay – now the site of Sydney’s airport – will be displaye1d alongside bark painting from West Arnhem Land, placards from recent indigenous protest movements and works of contemporary art that reckon with Australia’s past and future.

After the show closes in August, many of the objects on display will travel to the National Museum of Australia in Canberra – and there, debate is already roiling. Numerous indigenous activists are distressed, not to say furious, that artworks and artefacts they consider rightfully theirs will travel to Canberra only to return to London: “just rubbing salt into the wounds,” as one activist had it. What could have been a celebration has quickly become a major front in the endlessly challenging debate over the repatriation of artworks from museum collections to their place of origin. If, as the British Museum subtitle has it, indigenous cultures form an “enduring civilisation,” then are they the proper guardians of their own heritage?

‘Who owns culture?’

Indigenous claims to objects in Western museums should be understood separately from similar claims on behalf of nation states. The British Museum, of course, knows all about the latter: its prized Elgin Marbles, acquired (or looted?) in the early 19th Century, have been claimed by Greece since 1925. No country has been more forceful in its claims to cultural patrimony in recent years than Turkey, whose culture ministry has laid claims to Byzantine artworks made millennia before the establishment of the Turkish republic, and blocked loans to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre and the Pergamon. Such nationalistic muscle-flexing not only rests on sometimes dubious historical premises, but also on a myopic understanding of culture itself, which has never confined itself to national limits. So to the question ‘Who owns culture?’ we can confidently assert the truth of one response: not the nation state. Cultures do not line up with the boundaries on maps.

But in the case of works of art from indigenous Australia, we are looking at a very different question. Here the petitioners for restitution are not the government of the Commonwealth of Australia, but rather contemporary indigenous communities whose understanding of culture, time and kinship comes into direct conflict with the imperative of the Western museum. This is a much harder, much more fraught debate, raising some of the biggest questions of art and politics: what does it mean to be modern? Does all culture form part of a global heritage that should be available to everyone, even after centuries of war and colonisation? Must everything be presented for universal understanding, or is some knowledge correctly kept secret?

For many indigenous Australians, the objects in the London and Canberra exhibitions are not the material remnants of past lives, but very real connections to their history and their ancestors. They have a point – one that museums have ignored for too long. It remains all too common to see cultural works by indigenous peoples treated as natural history, to be filed away with rocks and bird carcasses, rather than treated as a vital culture in its own right. (When I was a student of art history, I remember the shock of discovering an aboriginal Australian painting in my university’s natural history museum rather than at the art gallery, even though the painting dated from 1988.) As many anthropologists have shown, there is nothing ‘natural’ about the designation of a cultural object as an ‘artefact’ or an ‘artwork’, as living or dead. The distinction is a historically freighted, constantly negotiable dance. In Paris, for example, pre-Columbian sculptures have migrated over and over: from the Louvre and the Musée Guimet in the early-to-mid-19th Century, where they were exhibited as antiquities; to the ethnographic Trocadéro in the late 19th Century, where aesthetics were irrelevant; and now to the Musée du Quai Branly, which proudly calls itself an art museum.

What should be restituted? Some cases are clear – notably the case of human remains, which were acquired (or stolen) by Western museums as recently as the mid-20th Century and have very rarely served any scientific or historical purpose. Indigenous peoples have rightly campaigned for the return of these remains, and they have had success. In 2010, the Smithsonian in Washington returned the skeletons of more than 60 people from Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory, all of which were less than 120 years old. In 2013, the Charité hospital in Berlin made similar repatriations to Australian and Torres Straits populations. These are excellent examples of museums respecting the claims of indigenous peoples and righting past wrongs.

Toward a solution

The case of sacred objects is trickier, and perhaps irresolvable. The idea of the ‘universal museum’, for all its Enlightenment virtues and educational potential, is at its core a Western imperial project, and museums that acquired sacred objects in earlier times absolutely must rethink their display, their function and their narrative. This can only be done along with native populations; the Association of Art Museum Directors, the main museum authority in the United States, instructs its members to work with indigenous groups on display and interpretation.

Yet the legitimate injustices of colonisation cannot be undone even if every object in every museum were restituted. What’s more, the very recourse to a terminology of “ownership” imbues ancient cultural questions with modern, capitalist practices – suddenly, culture sounds not so much like a living thing, but rather a lot like a copyright. The most extreme claims of cultural ownership can turn so absolute that it’s hard to account for them. Some indigenous people, for example, believe that a representation of an ancestor (such as in a photograph or a recording) embodies its subject – and thus no such documentation should be permitted. Important though it is to understand this cultural sensitivity, there’s just no way to undo the entirety of modern anthropology and museology. Some compromise has to be found.

The goal must be for museums to honour and nurture the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples and at the same time to foster the understanding and the cross-cultural communication that pluralist liberal democracy requires. This can be done – and Australian institutions in particular have shown a way forward. Since the 1970s, the Australian Museum in Sydney has collaborated with indigenous communities to improve its interpretive displays and to understand the sacred character of some objects. The museum has an outreach unit that trains indigenous people in New South Wales with curatorial and conservation skills. And it now collects contemporary indigenous artworks, whether in traditional or in ‘Western’ media, to counteract the damaging falsehood of static culture.

We cannot unwind the universal museum, but we can build a better one – one where indigenous peoples participate at every step of the way in the display, interpretation and exhibition of their heritage. In this way, indigenous people can use the universal museum to rectify historical inequities, rather than merely let the museum promulgate the sins of the past. Exhibitions of cultural objects can provide evidence for indigenous claims to land, for example. Indigenous collaborations with museums can lead to more heterogeneous understandings of national or regional culture, and thus to fairer laws and fairer representations. Museums, even the British Museum, should not be seen as old imperial villains, but as living and mutable enterprises that can transform our understanding of others and of ourselves. That would benefit not only indigenous peoples, but all of us who want to build a more just and more cosmopolitan future.

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