Send precious relics home
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Indigenous peoples in Canada received an encouraging sign Sunday when Pope Francis announced the Vatican’s willingness to return artifacts from First Nations which have for many years have been lodged in the Vatican Museum.
The pontiff’s statement — in which he also voiced openness to returning other colonial-era objects on a case-by-case basis — comes after many pleas by Indigenous groups for the artifacts to be returned.
Assuming the Vatican makes good on Francis’s words, this would be an excellent opportunity for other hoarders of historical ill-gotten goods to follow in the church’s footsteps.
The Vatican is far from the only institution to haul away another culture’s history to put on display. The British Museum has in its collection around eight million items, many of them obtained illegitimately — British barrister Geoffrey Robertson told the Guardian in November 2019 the museum is the world’s “largest receiver of stolen property.”
Some institutions have begun to see the light: in the U.S., Philadelphia’s Penn Museum has made strides to recognize its role in this practice, and to repatriate looted objects; in Canada, the B.C. Museums Association has called for publicly funded institutions to return Indigenous artifacts, and the Royal Ontario Museum has repatriated both Indigenous objects and human remains in recent years.
Museums are, to be sure, enriching experiences and valued institutions, but museums which sit in the heart of current or former imperial powers have long been rich in others’ antiquities.
The process of colonization was not just one in which contemporary generations were degraded, but previous ones, too. Clothing, artwork and even the bones of their dead were packed up, shipped far and wide, without the consent of the peoples to whom they belonged — all so sightseers in distant imperial capitals could point and gawk in exchange for the price of a ticket.
To some extent, our culture has even glorified this looting. The opening of 1981’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” for example, is regarded as exhilarating fun. But we seldom ask who wanted Indiana Jones to steal the little golden idol from its Peruvian pedestal (replacing it with, in a moment too on the nose, with a sack of common sand). He has the company of Peruvian guides, but there’s nothing to suggest his search has anything to do with Peru’s own efforts at historical preservation.
Rather, he appears to be taking it on the behalf of an American museum.
Indy’s attitude that precious relics from around the world “belong in a museum” (preferably the ones he works for) is just a reflection of decrepit, long-enduring attitudes that Indigenous cultures can’t be trusted to preserve or interpret their own histories, on their own terms.
Closer to home, we can find examples of disputes between Indigenous groups and museums that display historical artifacts with links to these communities. In 2017, a walking stick that belonged to Métis leader Louis Riel was donated to the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg by the Royal Winnipeg Rifles Regimental Museum. The artifact, which had at the time of the donation been on loan to the Manitoba Museum, was given with the hope that “the widest possible audience would have an opportunity to appreciate its significance,” according to a CBC article.
Before the donation took place, the walking stick had been the subject of a petition by a former reservist who asserted that the object should be returned to the Métis people. Yet, as late as 2022, Riel’s walking stick was still on display at the Manitoba Museum.
It is possible some museums believe it is too cumbersome an endeavour to return all their looted antiquities. These artifacts need not all return home, if their home nations don’t wish it; but reparation or reconciliation must be made in any case. If a museum in England or Germany or Canada is sitting on a stolen 200-year-old artifact from the other side of the world — or in our own backyard, for that matter — they should be considering ways to either return it, or make a deal to keep it.
Museums exist not only so that we may know and study history through them, but also so we can respect it. The least the museums can do, then, is respect the people from whom its collections have been obtained.
It’s time for the real-life tomb raiders of the world to make a choice: pay for the little golden idol, or put it back where it belongs.
» Winnipeg Free Press and The Brandon Sun