Museums cannot decide by themselves how to tell indigenous communities’ stories.
By Rosa Corral ’06
Beginning with a senior project involving the La Boyteaux Collection of New Guinea Art at CLU, I’ve had a series of opportunities to work with indigenous collections. Each time, I’ve learned practical skills involving the care and the exhibition of cultural material, but more importantly, I have gained perspective on the ethics of cultural property.
I’ve learned a simple lesson: possessing an object does not entitle a museum to interpret and display it as they please. Many collections housed in museums have deep meaning for the descendants of people who made and used them − meanings which may or may not align with the stories told by curators. However, museums are transitioning away from this imperialistic paradigm and are starting to build relationships with the communities in which their collections originated. Collaboration between museums and indigenous communities on the process of interpretation and display is becoming the common practice.
In 2007, I moved to Australia to attend a graduate program in museum studies at the University of Sydney. While conducting research for the Aboriginal Heritage Unit of the Australian Museum, I learned first-hand the importance of developing positive relationships between museums and indigenous communities. I received an invitation to attend a repatriation ceremony. Specialists at the Australian Museum were working with the University of Sydney to repatriate Kuringgai ancestral remains that were believed to date back to the 1500s. These were the last of 36 Indigenous Australian ancestral remains that the university had held for more than a century.
With the Metropolitan Aboriginal Land Council, descendants of the local Kuringgai community organized the ceremony and the traditional burial in a designated Aboriginal resting place. The ceremony took place north of the city in Sydney Harbour National Park, overlooking the Manly Quarantine Station that was originally used during the rise in European immigration in the 1820s.
The repatriation ceremony was emotional – a reminder of the painful history endured by Indigenous Australians. It had different meanings for each of the parties involved. For the University of Sydney, it was a rewarding moment, symbolizing a relationship of mutual respect with local Aboriginal communities. University officials saw repatriations like this one as a move toward reconciliation between Aboriginal people and the Australian government.
For the museum staff, the ceremony affirmed the Kuringgai people’s right to reclaim their cultural material in all of its forms. In Australia, museums are often more advanced than the government in their attitudes and policies on these issues.
For the Kuringgai community, the return of ancestral remains meant that the spirits of the individuals would finally be at rest.
For me, witnessing the effect that it had on the community, the reburial ceremony brought the realization that repatriation is more than the transfer of objects or ancestral remains. It was a transfer of power and part of a healing process.
After completing my program, I returned to the States intending to continue my work with indigenous collections and projects that incorporate indigenous perspectives. I began working on a project for the Minnesota Historical Society, digitizing a significant regional collection of Ojibwe and Dakota cultural material. This process included the creation of a virtual exhibition called In Honor of The People (inhonorofthepeople.org), which also serves as a platform for American Indian voices and raises awareness about Minnesota tribes.
Similar to a repatriation, the website restores community access to cultural materials. In support of ongoing language revitalization efforts in Minnesota, it includes Ojibwe and Dakota translations for the titles of objects. When making decisions about content, design and display, and throughout the process, our team consulted an American Indian Advisory Committee of local Dakota and Ojibwe community representatives. At the committee’s request, we omitted the images of a number of culturally sensitive items. Photographs of objects considered possibly sacred were not included.
This year, as museums in Minnesota observe the sesquicentennial of the U.S.–Dakota War of 1862, controversy is sure to arise about which items to put on display and which ones to withhold from public view. My experience tells me museums have a challenging task ahead. If there is to be any success, American Indian communities will need to be equal partners throughout the process.
Rosa Corral, a program researcher for the Minnesota Historical Society, credits her introduction to indigenous cultures to a California history course with professor Michaela Reaves.
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