Members of the cultural group Ngati Ranana look at a statue as they attend a conference where they performed rituals prior to the opening of the exhibition ‘Gottfried Lindauer – The Maori Portraits.’ Photo: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images
Objects that once adorned display cases in museums around the world are disappearing from view. In recent decades, dramatic wooden Iroquois face masks, crafted by the nations and tribes of indigenous people of North America, have been taken off the shelves. Rattles and masks made by the Coast Salish peoples of the Pacific Northwest, in British Columbia, have been moved to restricted areas of museum storerooms. And at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, ‘secret/sacred’ Aboriginal objects have been separated from the main collection: only tribal members of particular standing are permitted to see them.
Such removals are political, enacted in the name of decolonisation and the right to self-determination of Native peoples. By way of restitution, argues the museum scholar Janet Marstine of the University of Leicester, ‘Institutions need to develop long-term relationships with source communities built on trust.’ ‘Source communities’ is the buzzword for groups of people, or tribes, considered to be affiliated to the artefacts, and Marstine believes that they should control the interpretation of the past. That includes how cultural artefacts are understood, presented and stored in museums – and if they are displayed at all.
The idea that one culture ‘owns’ a particular heritage is having a profound impact on museums. Just as campaigners are urging the nations of Greece and Turkey to see themselves as the true owners of cultural artefacts – such as the Parthenon marbles, or sculptures from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, both in the British Museum – so too do activists and sympathetic museum professionals, who are facilitating these removals, consider certain indigenous peoples – Native Americans, Aboriginal people, First Nations – the primary, if not sole, arbitrators of their history and cultural artefacts. Lissant Bolton, a keeper at the British Museum, puts the point like this: ‘In the Australian context, this means that any Indigenous Australian is understood to have a greater right to speak about any Aboriginal object than any non-Indigenous Australian.’
The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), which opened on The Mall in Washington, DC in 1990, has been at the forefront of implementing new museums and policies that make formal concessions to particular groups on the basis of their ethnicity. The US arts journalist Edward Rothstein calls the NMAI and its ilk ‘identity museums’.
The devolving of authority at the NMAI embraced a range of activities, including who designed and built the museum, who selects what is in the collection, and how it is interpreted and presented – as well as how artefacts are conserved, and who can see them. In a similar spirit, in 1993 the Council of Australian Museum Associations endorsed a document, now titled Continuous Cultures, Ongoing Responsibilities, which set a new bar by compelling institutions to work collaboratively with indigenous groups on all aspects of running a museum. The premise behind this move was that indigenous people should be the ones to tell and organise their history: only Native Americans can speak for and tell the story of Native Americans. The Maori for the Maori. Aboriginal groups for the Aboriginal past.
The motives are understandable. Colonisation had a devastating impact on indigenous peoples. But the new identity museums are troubling on many levels – and not just because material is taken off display. Imagine if a museum was established, with public money (the NMAI is federally funded), where white people from one geographical area – sometimes only white men with status – were given the authority to decide what exhibits visitors could and couldn’t see. There would quite rightly be outrage.
Instead of decolonising museums, the new practices echo and reinforce a racial discourse. They present an idea of culture as fixed and immutable – something people own by virtue of biological ancestry. This racial view of the world should trouble us…