In October, the DePaul University College of Law Center for Art, Museum & Cultural Heritage Law will sponsor a symposium to address the underlying legal, ethical and moral reasons and policies behind the repatriation of archaeological and ethnographic objects.
Repatriation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Objects
In recent years, countries of origin have successfully recovered illegally removed archaeological and ethnographic objects. Indigenous and Native American communities also have successfully recovered cultural artifacts excavated from ancient burial sites. Such recoveries are the result of a patchwork of legal rules, treaties and extra-legal pressure placed on the current possessor. The museum community and some market participants now accept that archaeological objects unprovenanced before 1970 should not be acquired without proof of legal export. However, countries of origin have recently sought to move beyond the “1970 rule” and are requesting the repatriation of objects appropriated during earlier times as a part of imperialism, colonialism, or armed conflict. The underlying bases supporting repatriation in such cases are often unclear, and the validity of these repatriation claims is hotly debated.
Well-known examples of historical claims include Nigeria's request for repatriation of the Benin bronzes that British troops removed during the 1897 "Punitive Expedition"; China's efforts to seek the return of bronze animal heads, once part of the zodiac fountain clock in the Yuanming Yuan garden of the Old Summer Palace that French and English troops looted and burned in 1860, and the recent move by Turkey to recover antiquities taken before 1970, including the Zeugma mosaic. U.S. indigenous communities have recovered cultural artifacts within the legal structure of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), but some claims and museums have acted outside of NAGPRA as well. Finally, the symposium will address the tensions that arise when a fiduciary duty arguably conflicts with a perceived legal or moral obligation to return a cultural object.
The symposium will bring together lawyers, museum professionals, representatives of indigenous communities, and other scholars and experts in the field. Participants will discuss the repatriation of cultural objects appropriated in the more distant past whose restitution some view as outside the scope of existing law, but others view as a matter of restitutionary justice. They also will address the repatriation of artifacts looted in recent times whose removal is often viewed as causing contemporary damage to the cultural heritage of communities and nations and to the historical and archaeological record.