By Sharon Sullivan

Repatriation can be defined as the return of cultural property from a museum or a private collection to its place of origin, or to a place, country, or group for which it is considered to have particular significance and from which it has been removed. It is now commonly accepted in museum codes of ethical conduct and in a growing number of national jurisdictions that recently looted or illegally acquired or exported cultural property should be repatriated.

There are numerous examples of repatriation in modern museum management. But there are also less clear-cut cases that prompt controversy and raise interesting issues. What is our evolving practice in the case of requests for return of material acquired through historic theft or collecting activities that, while not illegal, are the consequence of colonization, conquest, or hegemony, and that in some way culturally impoverish the subject country?

I would like to look briefly at a few cases that illustrate several recent changes in practice and that pose key questions for curators and cultural heritage managers.

The Fate of Truganini

In 1876, a little less than 100 years after European colonization of Tasmania, the woman who was widely believed to be the last "full-blood" Tasmanian Aborigine, Truganini, died in Hobart. Before her death, she was often seen in the streets of Hobart wearing a red turban, a serge dress, and knitted cardigan and scarves, always accompanied by her dogs. She frequently expressed fears that she would be cut up like other Tasmanian Aborigines and placed in the museum. She wanted, she said, to be interred in the deepest part of the D'Entrecasteaux Channel, in her traditional lands. Instead, she was buried in the grounds of the Female Convict Factory. However, two years later, the Museum of the Royal Society of Tasmania (now the Tasmanian Museum) acquired Truganini's body, prepared it as a specimen, and exhibited it. Many of Truganini's Aboriginal contemporaries were similarly treated.

Truganini's skeleton stayed on display until 1947. It was not until 1974, following legal proceedings and the passing of special legislation, that the Aboriginal community in Tasmania succeeded in achieving the cremation of the remains and the scattering of the ashes in the D'Entrecasteaux Channel.

Why were Tasmanian Aboriginal remains stolen from Christian cemeteries and distributed to museums around the world? Ironically, their remains were valued in part because Tasmanian Aborigines had been rendered extinct through colonization. Also, they were regarded as important because they were believed to represent a missing link between modern humans and their less advanced ancestors. This erroneous belief had a profound effect upon the descendants of the "specimens" and on the way in which they were regarded in modern Australia. The supposed scientific value of the remains overrode personal and moral considerations.

In 1974 there was disagreement among Tasmanian Museum Trustees about the repatriation of these human remains. Today, human remains are treated with a great deal more respect and circumspection than was formerly the case, and repatriation of these remains has become law or practice in many countries. This is the case in Australia, even when the remains are ancient and of undoubted scientific value (though not all archaeologists or curators have accepted this extension of the Truganini principle to other human remains). Events such as the case of Truganini cast a shadow over the future of anthropological studies and collections generally, especially those from the colonized world.

A key issue is the different meanings that the object or group of objects have to different groups. The challenge is to pay full attention to all values of an object and to deal with it accordingly.

The Soapstone Birds of Great Zimbabwe

Sometimes collected artifacts are of great symbolic importance to a group or nation, and this symbolic value is increasingly seen as outweighing their value as museum objects.

Zimbabwe is perhaps the only modern nation named after an archaeological site. The site of Great Zimbabwe is of immense symbolic importance to Zimbabweans. When Europeans discovered the site in the late 19th century, it was immediately attributed by many to a lost white civilization, perhaps the lost realm of the Queen of Sheba. Colonists found this a convenient justification for the founding of the white state of Rhodesia. Though repudiated by scientists, the supposed nonindigenous origins of Zimbabwe played an important role in the defense of white Rhodesia, while claims of an independent African origin for Great Zimbabwe came to be a significant rallying cry for the Zimbabwean independence movement.

Conservation image

Early in this century, at least eight and perhaps ten imposing green soapstone (steatite) birds were excavated from the site, despite the concern of the traditional guardians. One could summarize the removal by saying it was the result of intimidation, trickery, and bribery. Certainly no regard was given to the traditional beliefs of the Shona people, for whom the site was of great significance. One stone bird was claimed by Cecil Rhodes and remains at the official government residence in Cape Town, South Africa. Four and one-half birds went to the South African Museum. Half a bird ended up in a museum in Berlin and the rest are unaccounted for. There's no doubt that one reason for the collection and exportation of these birds was their supposed connection with a lost white civilization.

Immediately after independence, the Zimbabwean government set about to reclaim the birds because of their high symbolic value and the belief that the potency of Great Zimbabwe as the guardian spirit of the nation depended on its possession of sacred artifacts such as these birds. The four and one-half birds from the South African Museum were repatriated, and negotiations are now under way for the return of the half bird in Berlin. Other birds may yet turn up. Their exportation split up a very valuable group of artifacts and caused the (at least) temporary loss of some. The repatriation of the majority, it can be argued, has enhanced the significance both of the artifacts and of Great Zimbabwe itself. Site managers are currently designing a new museum on the site to house the birds.

The Empty Library Cave of Mogao

At about the same time that the soapstone birds of Zimbabwe began their journey, Western adventurers were exploring the Silk Road. The Mogao grottoes site, on the World Heritage list, is an immensely rich ancient cave temple complex near Dunhuang in western China. Aurel Stein, a British adventurer and commissioned collector, arrived at Mogao soon after the discovery by a Daoist priest at the site of perhaps the largest and most important collection of Buddhist scriptures and other manuscripts ever found. Stein bought many of them from the priest, quietly took them out of China, and shared them among his patrons.

Conservation image

Other adventurers followed, and the priceless collection is now scattered in museums across the world. A very important part of the collection was given to the British Museum, where the manuscripts were stamped to identify them as its property. The manuscripts, one of the many glories of the British Museum and British Library, attract scholars from around the world and have been well curated and cared for. Meanwhile, the Library Cave is empty, and the well-managed and much-visited World Heritage site where the manuscripts were found lacks a key element of its significance, as do the Chinese scholars who work there. Opportunities to study these manuscripts have been more available to the international scholarly community than to Chinese scholars. Undoubtedly, the guardians of Mogao feel that these important manuscripts should be returned—or at least more equitably distributed.

Repatriation in this instance is less straightforward than that of Truganini's remains or the Zimbabwean birds. The collection of the spoils of empire has a long history. Cicero commented on it centuries ago: "Where do you think is the wealth of foreign nations which they are now all deprived of when you see . . . all Asia . . . and Achaia and Greece and Sicily now all contained in a few villas?"

Within Europe, the disposition of various pieces of European material culture—saints' bodies, royal jewelry, and works of art—similarly reflects the history of conquest and politics. David Lowenthal points out that the great treasure-house museums of the modern world are almost exclusively in Europe and North America and reflect a history of colonization and hegemony in their vast collections from the rest of the world.

In 1985 David Wilson, director of the British Museum, defended these museums: "The universal museums have looked after the collections for many years—are great monuments to man's achievement. They have saved much from oblivion. . . . Only in them can we grasp some idea of the totality of man's mind, its possibilities, its weaknesses, its similar or different reactions." He cautioned that "if once a group of objects were returned, then there would be a continual and increasing demand for return from all over the world: each one a "special" case. . . . This is a bandwagon which could result in wholesale cultural destruction for the sake of narrow nationalism. Such demands can only lead to cultural isolationism and mutual misunderstanding."

This squarely makes the case for what some perceive as the dangers of repatriation. But this argument is based on a strongly held but narrow assessment of the value of these collections and artifacts. It is also inconsistent with the actions of the holding nations with respect to their own heritage. The Mogao manuscripts will not leave Britain soon—but neither by law may any British heritage item held to be of national significance.

The Mogao manuscripts are of almost unique value to Chinese and international scholars. But we have similar contentious situations when the artifacts are much more commonplace.

Great-Grandma's Wedding Dress

Conservation image

There is an Australian museum story of an elaborate wedding dress donated to a museum by the wearer's family, and of the original wearer's great-granddaughter attempting to borrow it back for her own wedding—temporary repatriation, if you like. This request caused consternation and distress to the curators.

Many of the ethnographic objects in collections are not famous or exceptional. When collected, they were ordinary and everyday and were traded for objects judged more valuable. Often they were collected by people outside the culture from which they came, because Westernization and modernization made them rare or, in many cases, because their prescient collectors could see that this would happen. These objects were often traded for more highly desired articles. Because they have been preserved by a policy of assiduous curation, they are still available to be reclaimed by people who now value them as symbols of the continuity of their culture and who seek custody of them. The situation is made more complex by the fact that those who seek custodianship may not value or curate the artifacts in such a way as to preserve them as museum objects. When they are repatriated, they often pass again into the realm of living, used, and sometimes used-up artifacts. And the overriding reasons they are valued sometimes change.

David Lowenthal illustrates this clash of values when he quotes from a U.S. curator describing a meeting about repatriation: "Finally one Native American activist said, "why do you white people need to know all this stuff? Why can't you just let it go?" Listening, I had such a visceral reaction of horror, I knew he had hit on something very sacred to my culture. The thought of deliberately letting knowledge perish was as sacrilegious to me as the thought of keeping one's ancestors on a museum shelf was sacrilegious to the Indians in the audience."

Should the dress be worn again, even though it is fragile and rare? Should artifacts be returned to indigenous American groups to give them the chance of reclaiming their culture, perhaps at the expense of the existence of the artifacts themselves? We have come a long way in this century from the certainties of respectable grave robbers—The Royal Society of Tasmania—to the complex questions facing modern curators. As the tide of colonization ebbs, and as postmodern scholars become more conscious of aspects of their academic and material hegemony, workers in the field are beginning to consider the complexities of these issues and to develop new ways of thinking about them. One way professionals are addressing these issues is by reassessing the significance of the artifacts or collection under consideration.

Today all the values of a cultural place are assessed as a first step in considering appropriate long-term conservation and management strategies. The role of the cultural heritage site manager is changing from the expert who pronounces on significance and conservation to the partner who works with the community to elicit all the elements of a place's value and consequent future management. This approach gives places a multifaceted significance, making their management more complex but ensuring that all the identified values are conserved. We have moved away from one-dimensional significance assessment and the resulting tendency to freeze-frame a place—to set it in heritage aspic. Now we consider a broader range of conservation and management options in which concepts of present significance, local value, and the importance of continuing traditional use contribute to decisions about conservation and management.

Issues relating to objects require the same process, as has happened in some recent cases. Traditionally, we have isolated what I might call the museum value of an object or collection from its other cultural values. The task for the future is to integrate all these values, both intellectual and emotional, and to come up with solutions to the repatriation question which honor this range of values. Curators need to work closely with groups that claim ownership or custodianship of, or a special relationship to, an object or group of objects. The example below exemplifies this approach.

The Return of Lady Mungo

In the late 1960s, archaeologists made an extremely important find at Lake Mungo in western New South Wales—the 30,000-year-old remains of a young woman who had been cremated and covered in red ocher. Mungo woman (or Lady Mungo, as the Aboriginal people came to call her) was transported, carefully, but as a scientific specimen, to the Australian National University, which held her in temporary custodianship on behalf of the Australian Museum. During her time in Canberra, where she was carefully reconstructed by scientists, she taught us a great deal about ancient Australia and its inhabitants. But for local Aboriginal people, her removal and treatment as a scientific specimen were cause for offense and grief.

Twenty years later, Lady Mungo was returned to Lake Mungo in a custom-made wooden box lined in velvet. Accompanying her were scientists who had started with an intellectual curiosity about her but who had come to have much deeper feelings. She returned to a group whose feelings had begun as deeply emotional and deeply wounded; she was received as a gift enriched by science and made doubly significant for this reason. She now resides in a decorated safe on the site. The safe has two keys—both are required to unlock it. The archaeological community holds one key, the Aboriginal community the other. Since that time, archaeological work has resumed at the site with the full cooperation of the Aboriginal community.

This seems to be a successful example of repatriation. There are many others that illustrate trends in dealing with the issue of repatriation. David Lowenthal wisely suggests that issues such as these can be resolved "only by understanding what heritage means to myriad claimants, whose desires differ with culture, time, and circumstance."

Conservation image

Sharon Sullivan was director of the Australian Heritage Commission from 1990 to 1999 and head of the Australian government's Australian and World Heritage Group from 1995 to 1999. She previously served as deputy director of the National Parks and Wildlife Service of New South Wales. She is now an adjunct professor at the University of Queensland and at James Cook University, and she works as a heritage consultant in Australia and internationally.