Everyone has heard of the term cultural appropriation. Coined in the 1990s, today it is being levied at many celebrities. Everyone probably has a view in these debates, however, the same issues surrounding museums have often been overlooked. As growing numbers of indigenous groups push for the return of artefacts stolen during colonisation, there is an increasing awareness of the importance of decolonisation in museums. This has raised many questions over the extent to which museums should be returning their artefacts.
The National Museum of Scotland has recently decided to return the skulls of two Beothuk people to the Canadian government. These skulls were acquired by the museum in the 1850s but have never been put on display. Regardless of this, they remain stolen items. The scientific community often cites the important information that can be found in human remains. However, when discussing the impact of colonisation this is far too reductionist a view to take.
It must be recognised how significant these artefacts are to the cultures from which they came. For museums to deny the returning of such artefacts suggests a lack of trust and respect between the two sides, which can be damaging. The displaying of these artefacts can often mimic the dehumanisation of colonialism, presenting an objectification of a culture. The return of the Beothuk skulls from the National Museum of Scotland demonstrates the importance of returning artefacts back to their country of origin. It demonstrates respect towards indigenous populations, especially in the Beothuk case as they were viewed as savages by the European settlers in the 17th century and were systematically hunted with the aim of eradication. The entirety of the Beothuk people were wiped out within 350 years of their first contatct with the Europeans.
A recent letter written in June 2018 by 19 cultural, educational, and community organisations in the United States urged that cultural progress be made “through honest dialogue and commitment to follow through.” The communication between the National Museum of Scotland and the Canadian Governments was precisely that. This letter was a good indicator of the debate spreading across Western museums surrounding the impact that their colonial past has had on the narratives of the peoples represented in museum collections.
There is an argument to say that the use of artefacts merely perpetuates the imperialistic analysis of cultures and suggests that museums even today appear to lack interest in addressing this issue if they deny communities their right to take back their ancestral remains and artefacts. Recent legislation in the UK has been created to address the display and care of human remains in museum collections. As the government’s Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, published in 2005, recommends: “human remains should be displayed only if the museum believes that it makes a material contribution to a particular interpretation; and that contribution could not be made equally effectively in another way.” This resulted in many remains being returned to indigenous communities, like the Beothuk skulls.
The topic of displaying human remains will always be contentious. Especially now as we attempt to navigate towards a more generous world. However, within the context of education the decolonisation of exhibitions does not need to mean that all artefacts like human remains must be returned. Instead they can be used to raise awareness about the pressing issues surrounding global equality.
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