In this debate we encounter the fascinating dilemma of cultural property and national patrimony, terms themselves under a great deal of scrutiny and the subject of much contention. The speakers come from Canada, the United States, and Mexico and represent a variety of disciplines—archaeology, art history, museography, and anthropology. They discuss how debates over cultural property affect their professional worlds and how disputes get resolved.
The debate is as old as antiquity and has tended to be linked directly to the concept “to the victor go the spoils.” Winners exercise the right to own, display, exploit, and interpret the objects and ideas of losers—whether those things derive from losers contemporaneous with the winners or derive from previous civilizations or ethnicities. Debate occurred in ancient Greece, Rome, and fourteenth century Tenochtitlan about the appropriateness of preservation, display, and veneration of objects from vanquished states and previous civilizations. (We need think only about the aftermath of the burning of the great library of Alexandria.) The urge to preserve and protect has been linked intimately with the urge to destroy. The erasure or transformation of cultural property (broadly defined to include ritual)““the decision of what to keep and what to destroy—has often been the first order of business concomitant with military victory and/or religious conversion.
The emergence of the post-colonial world order gave rise to new notions of not only national patrimony but of cultural property. New claimants materialized, new arguments arose, and new regimes asserting authority coalesced. The debate that had lingered at the national level took on sub-national or supranational overtones. Countries with rich archaeological and art resources such as Egypt, Mexico, Turkey, and Greece formulated laws defining and restricting use of national patrimony. Ethnic groups within countries asserted claims against their own or other governments or museums. Regional supranational ethnic coalitions emerged (such as pan-arctic groups including members from the US, Canada, Greenland, Russia, Sweden, Norway, and Finland).
Most of us are familiar with these arguments in their most blatant form. Who owns the Acropolis? Greece. Who should own the Elgin marbles from Athens (referred to typically by the name of their putative owner rather than their creator/place of origin)? This is a tricky question. Under its own laws of national patrimony, Greece asserted its claim in the international courts. Tibol and Matos Moctezuma discuss the current state of Mexican national patrimony laws and their impact.
Naturally, claimants on both sides of these controversies have arguments in their favor—especially when possible repatriation creates more problems than it resolves. For example, Monroe explains, “There are many cases current today, and I’m sure they will continue, in which things have not been returned in spite of requests by nations or governments that they be returned. In some instances, such returns would almost guarantee that some bureaucrat in some nation, who was in the cultural division, would have his or her pockets lined. In other instances, it’s far from clear what would happen to the material, and it’s far from clear who in fact has a right of possession. So there’s a whole variety of difficult issues on one side, and on the other side much tighter standards that must be put in place today, whether they’re with respect to art stolen by the Nazis or whether they’re with respect to illegal archaeological digs. Most often things are simply mined quite illegally, there’s no information collected, things are just taken out of the ground of context and removed for their market value. Museums simply cannot be harried of that process any longer.”
What about photographic, filmed, or recorded representations of rituals considered sacred or secret by a particular group? What about the identification and exploitation of plants used for medicinal-religious reasons? How do human remains fit into this equation—especially if DNA analysis determines that there are no directly related peoples living near the site of discovery? What about the DNA itself? Does it matter if the objects were given as opposed to taken (i.e. the case of Moctezuma’s headdress in Vienna) or if the object can be proven to be other than what it is purported to be but is nevertheless believed to be authentic by the current people of its country of origin (i.e. that same headdress)? Brown, Monroe, and Feest raise these and other new issues that have begun to surface with some regularity.
According to our speakers, we no longer live in a world where “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” Length of possession, circumstances of acquisition, future economic benefits of exploitation of the object, and significance of the object to people other than the possessor should all be taken into consideration.
Finally, what is the impact of technology, globalization, and international conventions on the identification and recovery of stolen, misplaced, or misidentified objects? Schmitt discusses the types of protocols and standardizations currently being developed to aid police, museums, countries, and ethnic groups themselves in tracking objects both in time and in space. As Schmitt points out, “the information about a stolen object needs to travel faster than the object,” but it cannot travel indiscriminately. As Brown comments for reasons of security, cultural sensitivity, scholarship, and politics, authorities become “gatekeepers” of information as well as of objects. The number and kind of “stakeholders” (those with a stake in the outcome) have changed. The number and type of “things” that are on the table for discussion have changed—the term “cultural property” may include things other than physical objects such as ritual and usage, ideas and prayers.