All posts by drleventhal

Pick Your Heritage!

Dr. Leventhal’s talk about heritage destruction in Iraq and Syria was full of sadness and a little bit of hope. But what really hit me was the postscript to the main body of the talk. Here we transitioned away from the Middle East and into the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. The project in progress here concerns a small Maya town called Tihosuco and their efforts to preserve and develop historical site related to the Maya Caste War.

When people think of the Maya, many assume straight off the bat that they are an extinct people. This is far from true, they are still alive and well throughout Central America. If you were to guess what they thought their heritage was, you would guess the ancient Maya, the builders of the great pyramids and Chichen Itza and Palenque.

For the most part, the people of Tihosuco do not care about this. Click on picture for its source.

Again this is far from true. When I went down to Tihosuco for a month, I quickly realized that the people in the town, all Maya, did not care one ounce for their ancient descendants. They recognized the actual blood connections, but did not put out effort to preserve ancient sites. Those sites do not represent who they are. Are they willing to make some money off of tourists who ogle at the stonework? Sure. But they do not feel that deep connection that we all feel for our heritage.

The Maya of Tihosuco, they told me, identify much more strongly with the more recent Maya that rebelled against Mexico in the 19th and 20th centuries. They were very proud of the job they had done protecting and hiding the sites out in the jungle. Multiple ranches and even a whole abandoned town are out in the jungle, maintained by the people of Tihosuco.

A church in the jungle, one of the sites the people of Tihosuco protect and maintain. Photo credits to me!

Part of the effort of the ongoing project is to further develop these sites into actual tourist destinations that visitors want to go to. This will also help to develop Tihosuco itself, which lives mostly in poverty. They key to this project though, and this was a major point of the talk, is to make sure that the power of representation and heritage, through museums, tours, and other things, stays in the control of the local people on the ground. It is critical that the government not appropriate the rebellion or its legacy for their own purposes, although they have already begun to try. The Mexican government has co-opted the ancient Maya for their own purposes, and we have seen the modern Maya willingly throw away that part of their heritage.

Another important point is to let people choose their own heritage and identity, don’t tell somebody who they are or where they have come from. This has come up in class discussions (In a good way!) about NAGPRA where we recognize that some native groups may not want their objects back for various reasons. We have to respect what parts of heritage people pick to save and remember, and what parts they do not want.


Talking with the people in the town as well as my dad

Penn CHC

Further Readings:

The Machete and the Cross

Memories of War

J. Paul Getty’s Aphrodite

The Aphrodite statue. Click the picture to go to an article from the Smithsonian.

There are ethical guidelines set by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) that provide best practices for museum acquisitions of antiquities. Such guidelines do not have any force of law behind them. Some museums follow these rules to the letter, some may unintentionally violate these best practices, and some, like the J Paul Getty Museum, have knowingly tossed these ethics into the wind and ignored them.

In 1988, the Getty Museum in California purchased a 7 1/2 ft marble and limestone statue thought to depict the Greek goddess Aphrodite. The $18 million acquisition was the last purchase in a series of transactions that saw the statue travel from Italy to Los Angeles. When the statue arrived at the Getty, there was still dirt on the base of it and it had been recently broken into 3 pieces (so it could be smuggled out of Italy easily). However, the curator who had directed the purchase, Marion Truth, assured the museum administrators that the artifact was completely legal.

Getty Curator Marion Truth. Click on the picture to go to

There is much evidence that this statue had in fact been taken out of Italy after 1970, putting it in violation of the 1970 UNESCO agreement, AAMD’s guidelines, and Italy’s own cultural heritage laws saying that anything that came out of Italian ground after 1909 belonged to Italy. In addition to the recent fractures and dirt, the object came with a paper-thin false provenance that could have been torn though if a little bit of research had been done. The statue appeared to come out of nowhere, no antiquities expert had ever seen or heard of it before, increasing the suspicion that the object had been looted.

The statue was eventually returned to Italy in 2010, the last of about 50 other looted objects that were in the Getty collection. But the 22 years between acquisition and repatriation were not smooth sailing. After making their claim to the statue, the Italian government increased the pressure against the Getty by indicting the curator Marion Truth with violation of their patrimony laws. This was an unprecedented turn of events which ended up uncovering a large number of connections between the Getty and black market antiquities dealers, leading to many arrests and convictions.

I think what is most striking about this case study is not the blatant violation of museum ethics by the Getty, but how the case was handled by the Italian government. In international repatriation claims, museums have all the power to ignore claims from other countries. There is very little that can be done to museums, as the AAMD and UNESCO rules do not have much power behind them. The extreme move the Italians took in seeking prosecution, one of the first for a repatriation claim such as this, shows how countries must resort to drastic measures to reclaim parts of their heritage that they desire. We must find ways to return the power to the countries that have lost their heritage and would like it back. Loan agreements and partnerships between museums and countries would be a great first step.



LA Times #1

LA Times #2 

NY Times

Trafficking Culture

Additional Readings:

A possible solution to this issue?

AAMD 2013 Guidelines on Acquisitions

Chasing Aphrodite: These guys wrote a whole book on this case, I have just scratched the surface.

Tlingit and UPenn: A Case Study

The Lituya Bay Robe, one of the objects the Tlingit are trying to get back from the Penn Museum. Click on picture to go to original Alaska Dispatch News story.

In 1995, the Tlingit Clan of Hoonah in Alaska filed a NAGPRA  repatriation claim aimed at approximately 40 items housed in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The case is still partially ongoing today, in 2015.

I chose this specific case for two reasons. First because I feel a personal connection to this case as both of my parents work at the Penn Museum. As I dug deeper into the case however, I found that it is a perfect case study to examine because it incorporates many of the conflicts and debates that commonly arise in repatriation cases all tied into one narrative. This emphasizes the complexity of repatriation, as there are many opinions and discussions and sides all at the same time, as well as how these cases can come to be so drawn out that they can take over 20 years to complete.

The first conflict I want to focus in on is over the  “Right of Ownership” as defined by NAGPRA. In Section 2, Subsection 13, the law states that right of ownership, “means possession obtained with the voluntary consent of an individual or group that had authority of alienation” (Fine-Dare P. 199). This means that the objects in question must have been given up willingly by a member of the tribe who is allowed to give them away or sell them. The controversy becomes clear when the history of these objects is revealed. In 1924, a native Tlingit curator working for the UPenn Museum named Louis Shotridge purchased the objects from the head of the Snail House of the Tlingit clan for $500.

Louis Shotridge 1928. Click on picture to go to original story by the Pennsylvania Gazette

The Penn Museum claims that this willing transaction clearly gives the museum the right of ownership under NAGPRA. In contrast, the Tlingit believe that although the seller was the chief of the house, he still did not have the right of alienation because the objects were/are communally owned by the Tlingit. This debate over right of ownership was “Settled” in 2010 when the NAGPRA review committee voted 6-0 (with one recusal) in favor of the Tlingit, stating that the Penn Museum does not have any right of ownership to such objects. Despite this victory, the review committee did not say that the objects must be returned, nor would they be capable of enforcing such a decision.

Tied in with the question of ownership comes controversy over definitions and categories of objects. In the original claim by the Tlingit, the tribe argues that all 38 objects are both sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony, as defined under Section 2 of NAGPRA. In a 2009 response, the Penn Museum said it had determined that 8 of the objects under question had some level of sacredness or patrimony. The museum then returned these 8 objects, even though it still claimed right of ownership. The rest of the objects are still being fought over, and many have been included in a new exhibit opened in 2014 about Native American cultures. This discussion about sacredness and patrimony raises of questions of who gets to determine such categories.

In closing, I want to acknowledge that I have only scratched the surface of this case. There are so many more layers to pull back. Really I want you, the reader, to take this specific case and think about all of the questions that can and have come from it. Then apply those questions to nearly every other NAGPRA case and you will begin to see why repatriation can be a long, complicated process.

Further Readings: