Why museums are returning cultural treasures | Chip Colwell

Why museums are returning cultural treasures | Chip Colwell


A confession: I am an archaeologist
and a museum curator, but a paradoxical one. For my museum, I collect things, but I also return things
back to where they came from. I love museums because
they’re social and educational, but I’m most drawn to them
because of the magic of objects: a one-million-year-old hand axe, a totem pole, an impressionist painting all take us beyond our own imaginations. In museums, we pause to muse,
to gaze upon our human empire of things in meditation and wonder. I understand why US museums alone host more than 850 million
visits each year. Yet, in recent years, museums
have become a battleground. Communities around the world
don’t want to see their culture in distant institutions
which they have no control over. They want to see their cultural treasures repatriated, returned
to their places of origin. Greece seeks the return
of the Parthenon Marbles, a collection of classical sculptures
held by the British Museum. Egypt demands antiquities from Germany. New Zealand’s Maori want to see returned ancestral tattooed heads
from museums everywhere. Yet these claims pale in comparison
to those made by Native Americans. Already, US museums have returned
more than one million artifacts and 50,000 sets
of Native American skeletons. To illustrate what’s at stake,
let’s start with the War Gods. This is a wood carving made by members
of the Zuni tribe in New Mexico. In the 1880s, anthropologists
began to collect them as evidence of American Indian religion. They came to be seen as beautiful, the precursor to the stark sculptures
of Picasso and Paul Klee, helping to usher in
the modern art movement. From one viewpoint, the museum
did exactly as it’s supposed to with the War God. It helped introduce
a little-known art form for the world to appreciate. But from another point of view, the museum had committed
a terrible crime of cultural violence. For Zunis, the War God
is not a piece of art, it is not even a thing. It is a being. For Zunis, every year, priests ritually carve new War Gods, the Ahayu:da, breathing life into them
in a long ceremony. They are placed on sacred shrines where they live to protect the Zuni people and keep the universe in balance. No one can own or sell a War God. They belong only to the earth. And so Zunis want them back from museums so they can go to their shrine homes to fulfill their spiritual purpose. What is a curator to do? I believe that the War Gods
should be returned. This might be a startling answer. After all, my conclusion
contradicts the refrain of the world’s most famous archaeologist: “That belongs in a museum!” (Laughter) is what Indiana Jones said,
not just to drive movie plots, but to drive home the unquestionable good
of museums for society. I did not come to my view easily. I grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and fell in love
with the Sonoran Desert’s past. I was amazed that beneath
the city’s bland strip malls was 12,000 years of history
just waiting to be discovered. When I was 16 years old,
I started taking archaeology classes and going out on digs. A high school teacher of mine
even helped me set up my own laboratory to study animal bones. But in college, I came to learn that my future career
had a dark history. Starting in the 1860s, Native American skeletons
became a tool for science, collected in the thousands to prove new theories
of social and racial hierarchies. Native American human remains
were plundered from graves, even taken fresh from battlefields. When archaeologists
came across white graves, the skeleton was often quickly reburied, while Native bones were deposited
as specimens on museum shelves. In the wake of war, stolen land,
boarding schools, laws banning religion, anthropologists collected sacred objects in the belief that Native peoples
were on the cusp of extinction. You can call it racism or colonialism,
but the labels don’t matter as much as the fact
that over the last century, Native American rights and culture
were taken from them. In 1990, after years of Native protests, the US government,
through the US Congress, finally passed a law that allowed
Native Americans to reclaim cultural items, sacred objects
and human remains from museums. Many archaeologists were panicked. For scientists, it can be hard to fully grasp
how a piece of wood can be a living god or how spirits surround bones. And they knew that modern science,
especially with DNA, can provide luminous insights
into the past. As the anthropologist
Frank Norwick declared, “We are doing important work
that benefits all of mankind. We are not returning anything to anyone.” As a college student,
all of this was an enigma that was hard to decipher. Why did Native Americans
want their heritage back from the very places preserving it? And how could scientists
spend their entire lives studying dead Indians but seem to care so little
about living ones? I graduated but wasn’t sure
what to do next, so I traveled. One day, in South Africa, I visited Nelson Mandela’s
former prison cell on Robben Island. I had an epiphany. Here was a man who helped
a country bridge vast divides to seek, however imperfectly,
reconciliation. I’m no Mandela, but I ask myself: Could I, too, plant seeds of hope
in the ruins of the past? In 2007, I was hired as a curator at the Denver Museum
of Nature and Science. Our team agreed that unlike
many other institutions, we needed to proactively confront
the legacy of museum collecting. We started with
the skeletons in our closet, 100 of them. After months and then years,
we met with dozens of tribes to figure out how to get
these remains home. And this is hard work. It involves negotiating
who will receive the remains, how to respectfully transfer them, where will they go. Native American leaders
become undertakers, planning funerals for dead relatives
they had never wanted unearthed. A decade later, the Denver Museum
and our Native partners have reburied nearly all
of the human remains in the collection. We have returned
hundreds of sacred objects. But I’ve come to see
that these battles are endless. Repatriation is now a permanent feature
of the museum world. Hundreds of tribes are waiting their turn. There are always
more museums with more stuff. Every catalogued War God
in an American public museum has now been returned — 106, so far — but there are more
beyond the reach of US law, in private collections
and outside our borders. In 2014, I had the chance to travel
with a respected religious leader from the Zuni tribe
named Octavius Seowtewa to visit five museums
in Europe with War Gods. At the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, we saw a War God
with a history of dubious care. An overly enthusiastic curator
had added chicken feathers to it. Its necklace had once been stolen. At the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, an official told us that the War God there
is now state property with no provisions for repatriation. He insisted that the War God
no longer served Zunis but museum visitors. He said, “We give all
of the objects to the world.” At the British Museum, we were warned that the Zuni case
would establish a dangerous precedent for bigger disputes, such as the Parthenon Marbles,
claimed by Greece. After visiting the five museums, Octavius returned home
to his people empty-handed. He later told me, “It hurts my heart to see
the Ahayu:da so far away. They all belong together. It’s like a family member
that’s missing from a family dinner. When one is gone,
their strength is broken.” I wish that my colleagues
in Europe and beyond could see that the War Gods
do not represent the end of museums but the chance for a new beginning. When you walk the halls of a museum, you’re likely just seeing
about one percent of the total collections. The rest is in storage. Even after returning
500 cultural items and skeletons, my museum still retains 99.999 percent
of its total collections. Though we no longer have War Gods, we have Zuni traditional pottery, jewelry, tools, clothing and arts. And even more precious than these objects are the relationships that we formed
with Native Americans through the process of repatriation. Now, we can ask Zunis
to share their culture with us. Not long ago, I had the chance
to visit the returned War Gods. A shrine sits up high atop a mesa
overlooking beautiful Zuni homeland. The shrine is enclosed
by a roofless stone building threaded at the top with barbed wire to ensure that they’re not stolen again. And there they are, inside, the Ahayu:da, 106 War Gods amid offerings
of turquoise, cornmeal, shell, even T-shirts … a modern gift to ancient beings. And standing there, I got a glimpse at the War Gods’
true purpose in the world. And it occurred to me then that we do not get to choose
the histories that we inherit. Museum curators today
did not pillage ancient graves or steal spiritual objects, but we can accept responsibility
for correcting past mistakes. We can help restore dignity, hope and humanity to Native Americans, the very people who were once
the voiceless objects of our curiosity. And this doesn’t even require us
to fully understand others’ beliefs, only that we respect them. Museums are temples to things past. Now they must also become
places for living cultures. As I turned to walk away from the shrine, I drank in the warm summer air, and I watched an eagle
turn lazy circles high above. I thought of the Zunis, whose offerings ensure
that their culture is not dead and gone but alive and well, and I could think of no better place
for the War Gods to be. Thank you. (Applause)

Author: Kennedi Daugherty

100 thoughts on “Why museums are returning cultural treasures | Chip Colwell

  1. because apart from nobody knowing who wilder is, they sure af dont know what fury means when he keeps saying "lineal champion" you bunch of dossers.

  2. How about the fact they are safer in museums abroad than being destroyed by fanatics in their native lands? Yes, I'm talking about ISIS for one.

  3. Because of SJW politics that everything is offensive, possessing objects that we use to study a culture is offensive and “appropriating culture.” And cowtowing to people who don’t even use museums

  4. Before i watched this talk, i hadn't recognized how much important work archaeologists and museums do play in our world.

  5. ok, let`s say they want to get their cultural objective back for their own reasons, then pay back the money invested to find that object, i mean, that is fair. Let`s see how many will pay for them then.

  6. Returning museum pieces on demand of tribes is understandable. Proactively returning pieces to tribes that may not care anymore is something else.

  7. Religions are a thing of the past and should be gradually removed from cultures over time so they can act logically and ultimately make the world a better place for everyone.

  8. Humans land space ships on Mars and you’re talking about a stone ax. a painting I respect the past but the future is so much more relevant

  9. It sounds like cultures want to separate from populations they don’t want to share any of their history because they believe the people who possess it don’t deserve it maybe it’s true but how does that promote the human race

  10. So they would be destroyed because of lack of care of proper infrastructure and funding by barbarians that receive them.

  11. Use all the imaging technology you can to make near-perfect computer models which can be studied indefinitely by unlimited numbers of people and can be used as blueprints for identical recreations. Return the original artefacts to the cultures who created them.

  12. In Brazil we had 2 indigenous peoples' museums in Rio de Janeiro. The first one's collection had outgrown it, so the second one was established in a larger facility. The first museum then went into disrepair, and got to the point of being closed for safety reasons. And then something amazing happened.

    Indigenous people discovered the old abandoned museum and began camping inside the premises when passing through town. When questioned, they just said they were indigenous people taking care of the indigenous people's museum. In their own precarious situation, they breathed new live into the old museum, which quickly became a hub for indigenous populations, activists, athropologists and everything in between. A living thriving polytribe camping community developed. It has workshops, it had classes, it had a bit of social work, it had festivals, it had he tribes speaking for themselves to whoever wanted to learn from the primary source.

    But when this community applied for official recognition as an institution, a living museum and cultural centre, they were denied. When the academic community of humanities and social sciences vouched for this community, it was ignored. When the Soccer World Cup came and the community was considered too ugly, too ideologically dangerous, too prone to inconvenient protesting, it was removed by force. To this day the old museum remains empty, just a ruin and nothing else. And thus ended the best native american museum experience ever. The end.

  13. Many sacred objects have been stolen from tribes all around the world, sold by corrupt people or acquired officially through laws that don't recognize, much less respect the rights and wishes of their original and rightful owners. A lot of them have also been vandalized by people with "Artistic Spirit" trying to "Improve" them.
    What right do you have to take something that belongs to someone else? Even when they are constantly asking you to give it back? You could say "It's just a rock/a pile of bones/ a piece of wood, it's no big deal, get over it", well it may not be important to you but it is to them.
    What if I took the Mona Lisa to my home and improved it with a moustache? What if someone decided to dig a family member out of their grave without asking your family? What if someone stole your favorite statue from your backyard and hid it in their basement because "It's going to get ruined there"? Wouldn't you be angry and offended?
    Taking sacred objects away from people is taking away their right to practice their own culture and religion, which are basic human rights, however these tribes are often seen as simply primitive, ignorant and superstitious, so they are not given even minimal human respect and usually have no way of protecting themselves.
    I don't like religion or superstitions, and I get science is important, but not more than people, they have a right to believe and have their sacred objects with them, denying that from them is disrespectful, abusive and immoral.
    If you want to see it or study it you can ask for permission, it's not that hard, then this people can say if they'll allow it or not, it's their choice, not anyone else's.

  14. Got an idea. How about non whites randomly seek white households, churches, establishments, etc. And kill to loot and steal any treasure found. Then set these treasures up in THEIR homes, buildings, etc. And establish these as new museums. Using the logic of whites(many commenters here) this would be completely acceptable.(their goods will be kept 'safe'). These whites would.never want to be revealed a hypocrites(many will agree with this).

  15. Conservatives in one country fighting conservatives in another. While im sure they both imagine some other ideology being at fault here. Talk about culture of victimhood.
    It seems like the culturely sensitive people are just trying to bridge the gap rather then taking a big part in the battle.

  16. The reasons they are in museums is so they don't get stolen, lost, or destroyed throughout time so that history can be preserved. Without museums we wouldn't have much historical context because these items would have been looted by thieves, destroyed by warring factions or religions, or buried never to be found again.

  17. Those sacred objects were more often than not brazenly STOLEN, not bargained for or they got the village drunk to steal them and deliver them and these white grave robbers knew full well that they were stealing them with one hand as they threw the Judeo-Christian doctrines at our people with the other hand. A useless theology not even adhered to by the proselytizers of that false doctrine.

  18. i guess we better wait until ISIS takes control of everything , all artifacts will be smashed to bits , problem solved.

  19. I disagree with returning objects, they are part of all human history and should be treated as such, that means keeping them in good condition and preserving them for generations to come. That is best in western museums with stable political, social and economic conditions.

  20. "Cultural Treasures" What a joke. They are treasures because they've been preserved… where they came from they'd have been discarded or destroyed long ago.

  21. My countries(Bosnia and Herzegovina) birth certificate is in Russia and as is, it's not coming back. It's nice to hear that someone understands what history can mean for someone. (The document is called The charter of Ban Kulin if you're interested )

  22. Things like the Native Americans I understand, but the Egyptian artifacts are from an ancient civilization who's culture no longer exists. It's from so long ago that that you have whites, blacks and middle eastern all arguing over who the true descendants are.

  23. Do not forget that more than 80 percent of what we see in the French and American museums and admire is a precious historical treasure of a country other than their own. The fact that the cultural assets obtained by looting other countries in the past are packed as if they were cultural properties and that they are seen by others show that they are inferior to their own poor cultural properties ,.

    I think that human cultural assets are real values ​​when they are in the birth place of the cultural assets. The value of a cultural property is not in the museum that holds it, but in the place where the cultural assets were born. It is only the authenticity of the value .

  24. This speech is part of a bigger discussion about how we as the inheritors of the colonial era should be reminded about our past. We should change how we see and approach musea. So often it is about objects of great wealth and not about idea's or viewpoints unique to the past or a culture. A museum could make the world look smaller instead of showing off our wealth and captured treasure's.

  25. God of earth, god of thunder, God is three. None of this is true.

    The truth is just that.
    "Say, "He is Allah, [who is] One,
    Allah, the Eternal Refuge.
    He neither begets nor is born,
    Nor is there to Him any equivalent."
    (The Noble Quran. Surah Al Iklhas. Verse 1-4)
    Say, "It is only revealed to me that your god is but one God; so will you be Muslims [in submission to Him]?"
    (The Noble Quran. Surah Al Anbya. Verse 108)
    And [Abraham] said, "You have only taken, other than Allah, idols as [a bond of] affection among you in worldly life. Then on the Day of Resurrection you will deny one another and curse one another, and your refuge will be the Fire, and you will not have any helpers."
    (The Noble Quran. Surah Al Ankabut. Verse 25)
    And how many a city have We destroyed that was insolent in its [way of] living, and those are their dwellings which have not been inhabited after them except briefly. And it is We who were the inheritors.
    (The Noble Quran. Surah Al Qasas. Verse 58)
    Listen to the voice of the Noble Quran.

    Maybe your life will be changed If God allows.

    French : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVY8pwx9B74

    English: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Omh4oG8T_Fw

    German: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EXWTxB6oS6I

  26. At 10:40, that place looks strangely similar to the vault at Museo Larco in Lima, Peru. Those vases look more Mochica than Zunni. I smell something weird here.

  27. My teacher is from a very tight nit amd resilient indigenous community from the highlands of oaxaca. She said her town’s codex is somewhere in a museum in the netherlands! Its so messed up what use do random white academics with it and why do they deserve this so much instead of the communities whose ancient wisdom it is

  28. 1:28 – coincidence theyre all missing their heads?
    This lie couldnt stand the test of time had their "black" features not have been destroyed.

    "Egypt was the place where Alexander the Great went. He was in shock to see moutains w black faces (spinx)
    So they shot off the nose to impose what basically still goes on today you see?" -Nas

  29. I just simply want to say to researchers whoever scientists or archaeologists.
    if you want study something with human remains, dig your mom and dad's tomb and do what you like with that.
    I don't care what he or she do with their remains of their ancestors. But don't do with those of other ones' ancestors. It's literally jackass's work.

  30. The British , Iranian & Arabic invaders owe India billions due the amount of jewels , gemstones and gold they stole from the Indian people.
    However, those cultures are very arrogant and see nothing wrong in their sins.
    Most likely, nothing will happen.
    Iran and Saudi are [email protected] countries. The UK is now ok with India. Let whoever has the kohinor diamond keep it and obtain its bad karma. (India has many faults, not refuting that. Ethiopia is cleaner than India ).

  31. Chip, you said you have a one-million year old spear point. Sorry to tell you, according to new science, the earth is only about 6-7,000 years old.

  32. Egypt: thousands of ancient objects plundered from major Museums in Cairo during political upheaval;
    Brazil: two major museus burnt on fire, due to deficient maintenance. Among the items destroyed forever, there was the oldest human fossil from Americas;
    Afghanistan: Ancient Buda statues bombed by taliban extremists as part of a State policy while they were ruling the Country;
    Iraq: thousands of artifacts looted from museums;
    Siria: human cultural heritage being destroyed at an incalculable rate;

    Go on, SJW! If you want to have all these objects destroyed, why dont just set a large balefire and throw them all inside. It's cheaper than returning them, and the results are the same!

  33. Thank you so much. I really appreciate how you express and face the sorrow of many peoples hidden behind those wonderful 'objects' in museums. Absolutely, all of them must be returned to the places where they originally come from. If the descendants of the creators of those works decide to stop to treat them as the object of worship and display them in a museum, it is their choice.

  34. Why can't the natives willing to donate wood carving solely for education purposes? or make a wood carving to trade for the old one?

  35. I see here mostly comments about treasures of an african country being captured and secured by a civilised european country. But about the WWII? There are still a lot of e.g. Polish treasures you can find in Germany. What about this stuff?

  36. What if returning cultural artefacts would result in their destruction? For instance, the last remnants of the Bamiyan Buddhas would not likely survive if they were returned to Afghanistan

  37. Ignorance that's all the comments are. Culture and heritage that's what we are about! No you don't just make a new. These beings have been here longer than your colonialism. They will be here after you are JUDGED for all your ancestors Genocides. I know your history!

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