The controversies surrounding stolen artefacts appearing in museums are nothing new. A debate surrounding the Elgin Marbles has been raging for years and has captured the thoughts of many intellectuals, historians, and curators worldwide. Recently, a similar discussion has commenced involving the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow, who have received calls to return a collection of Native-American artefacts looted from dead bodies following the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre, in which an estimated 300 of the Lakota tribe were brutally murdered by American soldiers.
In 1932, the Wounded Knee Survivors Association was founded in an attempt to receive some form of compensation for the atrocities that occurred. As well as lobbying the American congress into stripping twenty soldiers of the medals they received for participating in the massacre, their demands for reparations included the return of the stolen property.
This included a Ghost Dance Shirt — believed to protect its wearer from any sort of harm – which was also previously in the possession of Kelvingrove. Its significance was only truly discovered in 1992, having been repatriated in 1988 after thirty years on display in the museum without any mention of its colonial past. However, it calls into question why the other artefacts were not returned and very much highlights certain issues with museums holding onto such objects, given the contested nature of their ownership.
This story followed on from the Egyptian government’s request, in 2019, that the National Museum of Scotland prove that their acquisition of a pyramid casting stone, which they have possessed since the late nineteenth century, was legal, otherwise demanding that it be returned. Although, from another point of view, the change of display surrounding the stone could have negative effects. There is a huge advantage to exhibiting objects in historical context, alongside items from other eras, as it gives us the ability of directly comparing past civilisations, enhancing the educational tool that history is for us. This is why housing them in diverse museums is of the utmost importance.
Nevertheless, it is vital to look at the manner in which artefacts arrive in a foreign country when determining where they should be kept. The means by which Kelvingrove obtained the Lakota items are well-known to be the result of an atrocity committed by United States soldiers. Due to this, there is an undeniable need for cultural sensitivity, which cannot be understated.
Firstly, the looting of clothes from the dead bodies was fundamentally unlawful, even in the society of the time. Secondly, the fact that people died whilst wearing the clothing that is currently held in Glasgow, gives them a sacredness according to Lakota beliefs, something which cannot be overlooked. Furthermore, it is important to note a clear difference between the case of the clothing and objects such as the Elgin Marbles, for instance. The necklace and bonnet have never actually been on display at the museum, and the moccasins only appeared for a brief period between 2006 and 2014. On the other hand, the Elgin marbles have been on display for almost 200 years, providing invaluable education for those who have been to see them. Importantly, this is also completely free of charge, which cannot be said for the new Acropolis Museum in Athens.
Moreover, claims that sending the Lakota items back to their home would lead to a “slippery slope” of returning much of what our museums hold are absurd. As stated above, there is an immense difference between their situation and the situation of other contested artefacts, something which cannot be ignored. It is hugely important that we acknowledge our colonial era and the mistakes that our country has made. However, while greater recognition of our unpleasant past is undoubtedly in great need, it is provoking many of us into thinking that returning all of the disputable artefacts that have been in our museums is the answer. It is not.
The most effective way to change and make sure that the past is not repeated is through education, and in many cases, sending items back to their place of origin would greatly impair this. Furthermore, it would also hugely undermine the benefits that multiculturalism in modern society brings us. There are certainly cases where returning artefacts appears to be the most ethical course of action. However, it cannot be allowed to become a blanket rule, otherwise the effects would be catastrophic.
Illustration: Verity Laycock
Image: cattan2011 via Flickr