Category Archives: Spring 2015

Protection in the Face of Destruction

The destruction of memory has disastrous implcations.  Though it may seem incomprehensible that groups such as ISIS in Iraq, and Assad in Syria, focus so intently on destroying museums, they use the destruction of cultural objects as a means to erase cultural memory.  When, if cultural history and memory are at stake, is it important to protect these sites and artifacts? At what cost should people fight against tyranny to protect cultural heritage?

In Dr. Richard M. Leventhal’s lecture, “Killing Culture: Heritage Destruction in the Syria and Iraq Conflicts,” he discussed the importance of cultural heritage, how it is being destroyed by groups such as ISIS and Assad, and what should be done about it.  Beginning his lecture with videos of ISIS destroying sculptures in the Mosul Museum and the ancient city of Hatra, Iraq, Dr. Leventhal emphasized the very real and imminent destruction of heritage in Iraq and Syria.  As I watched this graphic destruction, I wondered about the intent of individuals who are a part of ISIS.  Clearly, destroying objects in the Mosul Museum was a project designed to garner a reaction (as a video of the act was created by ISIS and was posted online).  The destruction was personal – individual men and women hacking away at ancient sculptures.


Photos from ISIS propaganda video depicting the destruction of sculptures in the Mosul Museum in March, 2014
Photos from ISIS propaganda video depicting the destruction of sculptures in the Mosul Museum in March, 2014

Image Source
Compiled Video Footage of ISIS in the Mosul Museum

When a state and its leaders are so determined to destroy, how can we protect heritage? When asked by curators at the Libyan National Museum how they can protect the objects in their museum from threats of destruction, Dr. Leventhal advised that they hide objects in their homes or put them in the ocean. He advocates the importance of protecting cultural heritage. Because once these world treasures are demolished, they are permanently lost, Dr. Leventhal, and a team from the Penn Cultural Heritage Center (CHC), are doing all they can to protect and safeguard objects and sites of cultural heritage.

Sandbags placed to protect mosaics at the Ma'arra Mosaic Museum against attack
Sandbags placed to protect mosaics at the Ma’arra Mosaic Museum against attack

For Image Source and Further Information

With the Safeguarding the Heritage of Syria and Iraq Project (SHOSHI), Dr. Leventhal and the Penn CHC are working to protect sites in Syria from attack. They work to catalogue objects, complete training workshops for a Syrian Heritage Task Force, and lead projects to protect cultural heritage sites. Beginning with a project to protect the Ma’arra Mosaic Museum with a careful layer of tyvek and sandbags (a technique used in WWI and WWII), the team at Penn and its collaborators on the ground in Syria hope to guard heritage sites against destruction. There are many brave men and women in Syria and Iraq working to preserve their culture through the conservation of these heritage sites.

For Further Reading:
Penn Cultural Heritage Center
The Penn Museum
Philly City Paper
New York Times

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

The Ethics of Looting for Cash

In Dr. Leventhal’s talk about the destruction of cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq, he discussed mostly the devastation at the hands of ISIS and the Assad regime. These groups have jackhammered artifacts in museums, blown up mosques, and obliterated minarets important to the Syrian people. All six of Syria’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites have been affected by this kind of destruction. As I did some more research about this issue, I came across information suggesting that the Syrian opposition, known as the Free Syria Army (FSA) has also participated in the looting of historical archeological sites. As one rebel, Jihad Abu Saoud, put it, “Some days we are fighters; others we are archaeologists” (Washington Post).

The Umayyad Mosque in the old town of Aleppo, which has been severely damaged during the fighting. The minaret is said to have been destroyed by Assad's forces.
The Umayyad Mosque in the old town of Aleppo, which has been severely damaged during the fighting. The minaret is said to have been destroyed by Assad’s forces.
The Umayaad Mosque before destruction.
The Umayaad Mosque before destruction.

The FSA is mainly transporting the looted goods to Jordan, where they sell them to antiquities dealers, who then sell them for around three times the price to locals or tourists. Of course, archeologists are dismayed by this looting. Not only is the removal and export of these artifacts illegal, it also makes it difficult, if not impossible, for these objects to be dated and studied. As Dr. Leventhal pointed out, many Syrians are very upset about the harm being done to the cultural heritage of Syria- they seen it as part of their identity being destroyed. Furthermore, the looting and destruction of these sites will harm the post-war tourism industry.

A ceramic tablet similar to those that are on the International Council of Museums’s Emergency Red List of artifacts that are at risk of destruction in Syria. Many of them date from as early as the 3rd century BC.

Still, I think that this issue is too complicated to simply condemn the looters without an examination of motives. I believe it is unethical for the Assad regime to destroy the cultural monuments of the opposition simply in order to hurt their morale or make a statement. I see ISIS’s intentional destruction of museum holdings in a similar light- their actions are ideologically motivated and intended to cause harm to the identity of a people, and are therefore unethical. Yet in my opinion the ethics of FSA looting in order to fund their opposition campaign is bit of a sticker issue- it requires us to weigh the fate of Syria and its people with the importance of its cultural heritage. Abu Majed, an FSA smuggler, says that, “People may judge us and call us thieves, but sometimes you have to sacrifice the past in order to secure the future” (Washington Post). Another member of the FSA defends his actions this way: “We have been left to face an entire army without arms, without money and without help from the outside world. It is within our right to use whatever resources we can find” (Ibid.). I’m not sure there is a right answer in this situation- though I do think part of the problem is the number of collectors that are willing to buy illegally obtained objects, and the number of individuals that are not informed enough to even know what they are buying and how it was acquired. In the end, I think that the destruction is devastating but that not all destruction is equally bad- the motivation and cause of the looters should be taken into account.

Further Readings:


First Image and Second Images

Third Image




A Case Study in Collecting: “Doctor Who” Style

“Henry Van Statten: ‘Exactly! I wanted to touch the stars!’

The Doctor: ‘You just want to drag the stars down and stick them underground beneath tons of sand and dirt and label them. You’re about as far from the stars as you can get. And you took her down with you.’”

– “Doctor Who” Season 1 Episode 6 “Dalek” (2005)

In many different ways, popular culture presents us with ideals epitomizing the habit of collecting. From the Pokemon games’ motto of “Gotta Catch’em All!” to the genres we love to read about and watch, it seems as if the companies behind those pastimes try their hardest to push our loves into consumerist obsessions. One example of this corporate control can be seen through my personal favorite Sci-Fi TV show “Doctor Who.”

The episode from which the opening quote is from provides a basis for a discussion on this type of collecting. In this episode, the Doctor and his companion, Rose Tyler, encounter eccentric American billionaire Henry Van Statten and his collection of extraterrestrial artifacts housed in an underground bunker beneath Utah in 2012. However, what they are not yet aware of is that Van Statten has recently acquired a new “exhibit”, one of the Doctor’s oldest enemies: a Dalek.

The initial shot of Henry Van Statten's collection of  extraterrestrial artifacts. In the episode, The Doctor and Rose are said to have landed on the 53 floor of the underground bunker housing the collection.
The initial shot of Henry Van Statten’s collection of extraterrestrial artifacts. In the episode, The Doctor and Rose are said to have landed on the 53rd floor of the underground bunker housing the collection.

The episode’s majority encapsulates the Doctor and his interactions with Van Statten regarding his collection of alien artifacts and the danger which he has stupidly brought upon himself and the world. When the Dalek frees itself from its chains, it goes on a rampage, ironically enough so that many fans call the episode “When the Exhibits Strike Back!”

The point to extrapolate from this episode in discussion is how the collecting done by Van Statten begins to emulate how devoted fans of the show may go to wit’s end in order to begin possessing the show. What this means is that for this fandom base, or any other, there are those who will not stop until they have every piece of memorabilia related to it that they can possibly own. And even more so, the BBC America corporation decides to use these types of people in order to make serious bank, selling everything from keychains and board games to DVDs and character cardboard cutouts.

The homepage of the Official "Doctor Who" Shop, where fans can buy a whole different assortment of souvenirs and memorabilia. This is only one of the many different online shops where fans can purchases show-related objects.
The homepage of the Official “Doctor Who” Shop, where fans can find a whole assortment of souvenirs and memorabilia from and related to the show. This is only one of the many different online shops where fans can purchases show-related objects.

All of this is done to give the shows fans more of what they want: to become more a part of the show. To those fans, each object which they possess, whether it be an actual prop used in the show or simply souvenirs, is not just another thing they have but an intrinsic piece connecting them and the show as well as displaying their love of the show. As Knox stated, “The collector plucks the desired object out of the economic circuit, an act of selection that ‘rescues’ it from being a mere commodity, making it transcendent…” (Knox p. 287-288). It is in this manner through which we are made to be consumer collectors for the profit of companies.


Additional Readings (And Viewings):

“Doctor Who” Season 1 Episode 6 “Dalek” (Can be found on Netflix or streamed online)

Knox, S. (2003). The Serial Killer as Collector. Acts of Possession: Collecting in America. L. Dilworth. New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press: 286-302.

– If you’re interested, look around at how much some of the            souvenirs are as well as any of the TV memorabilia.


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.

In defense of collectors

In our class readings and discussions this week, we have examined some of the motivations and ethics of collectors collecting their collections. As someone planning on working in an art museum, I can certainly empathize with the frustration of knowing that countless treasures are tucked away in private collections. However, I wanted to take the time to examine how grounded that frustration truly is.

Take the museum institution closest to home: the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. The Loeb touts itself as a teaching museum. Indeed, Matthew Vassar’s founding vision of the college began with an art museum in Main. Access to art was a fundamental part of the education Vassar provided. Flash-forward about 150 years later and the art museum has moved to a new building with thousands of objects. Many may see this massive collection as a boon to the school, as more tools with which to teach. But with a collection so huge and an exhibition space so limited, how many objects have never been displayed?

While it is true that Vassar students can set up appointments to go down to storage, they must know what it is they wish to see and, more importantly, know that this service is available to them. In the case of the latter, I would say the majority do not. The Loeb does provide an online database of its (over 19,000) objects, however it is tragically incomplete. In terms of real access by the students of Vassar or the public of Poughkeepsie, how different is the vast array of stored items in the Loeb from a private collection?

From the database of objects provided by the FLLAC.
On the database of objects provided by the Loeb, many entries have no images

In line with questioning the assumption that museum acquisition of an object implies its availability to the public, we should also reexamine the perception held of the collector as some jealous hoarder of objects. In the case of the Loeb, collectors have been a major part of the museum’s growth. For example, were it not for collectors like Edd Guarino, the museum would have an abysmally small range of Native American art*. Guarino has donated and loaned a plethora of art objects from his private collection to the Loeb over the past decade. He has also been eager to share the wealth of knowledge provided by his collection with the wider public of the internet. Along with a handful of other collectors, Guarino writes a blog for King Galleries, featuring high quality images and art historical analyses of a large variety of privately owned Native American art.

Wild World, an inuit work on paper, displayed in the Loeb, from the collection of Edd Guarino
“Wild World,” an Inuit work on paper from the collection of Edd Guarino, formerly exhibited at the Loeb

When I worked with Guarino in 2013, his passion for educating others and sharing his collection was palpable. The experience taught me that the collector was not inherently a miser of beauty and knowledge. Rather, this collector wanted nothing more than to be surrounded by the objects he loved the most and to spread that love around. Certainly, Guarino should not be taken as the representative for all collectors, but his is a laudable legacy.

*It should be noted that, despite Guarino’s donations, no Native American objects are currently on display in the Loeb.

See also: the King Galleries “Collector’s Corner,” the website for an exhibit which was entirely comprised of objects from Guarino, the FLLAC database, and image source and information on Wild World

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial’s Hidden Collection


Photo by Ariel Min/PBS NewsHour
The NPS storage facility is essentially an underground museum

In the first chapter of his book Do Museums Still Need Objects? Steven Conn explains that over time museum exhibits have begun to display fewer objects. While fewer objects on display creates a more visually appealing display for visitors, “fewer objects means fewer opportunities for alternate stories to compete”(Conn 23). Fewer objects in exhibits also poses the question: what happens to the objects that aren’t on display? Are they still valuable to museums and the public or should they be repatriated?

As part of an internship with the National Park Service (NPS) I had the opportunity to take a tour of the NPS Museum Resource Center in Landover, MD. The Museum Resource Center stores about 2 million artifacts from various NPS sites in the Washington D.C. area. Most of the artifacts I saw were items left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial such as dog tags, notes, flags, wooden crosses, teddy bears, and even a motorcycle that was left at the wall by a group of veterans from Wisconsin. Since the memorial was built the NPS has collected, catalogued, and stored about 50,000 items. Seeing these artifacts was really cool but I couldn’t help thinking about how privileged I was to view them because the NPS Museum Resource Center like most museum storage sites is restricted to the general public.

While there are plans to build an education center at the wall by 2016 there is currently no place to display all these artifacts. Even once the education center is built it still won’t be able to display all 50,000 items. How will the education center decide which soldier’s stories to tell? Or which of the thousands of notes or decorated wooden crosses to display? Can one object represent a group in cultural and history museums the way it typically does at science museums?

Gifts left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

In a video interview with the Washington Post, Jason Bain, a senior collections curator with the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Fund, explains that the education center will be unique because it will be curated by the public because they have decided which objects to leave at the wall. As long as most of these objects are hidden from the public in a storage facility the education center will never truly be curated by the public. In the end the NPS and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund will be the ones deciding which objects to display and which stories to tell. While I believe that whatever choices these groups make will ultimately be beneficial in educating the public about veterans and fallen soldiers’ experiences during the war as well as the experiences of their families and loved ones it is important to recognize that the objects that will be exhibited are just the tip of the iceberg of the whole story and that most artifacts remain in storage and hidden from the public.

References and Additional Reading:

“The Things They Left Behind” By Ariel Min. PBS News Hour.

“Stories of grief, love and penance live among what’s left at the Vietnam Wall” By Michael E. Ruane. The Washington Post.

“The Things They Leave Behind: Artifacts from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial” By Rachel Manteuffel. The Washingtonian.

Image 1: By Ariel Min.

Image 2:


“The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky”

When I entered The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky at the Metropolitan Museum this March, I was prepared to be dissatisfied. What I found instead was an exhibit too complex to have such a black and white reaction to. While I left the exhibit having greatly enjoyed it, I felt that there were subtle mistakes made and opportunities missed that may be symptomatic of larger issues in play, and would like to take this space to examine those.

The first example I would like to focus on is that of a an object in the second case the visitor encounters: an “ancient” buffalo effigy dating from 1600-1800 CE. Would anyone think to call a painting by Dutch artist Rembrandt (1606-1669) “ancient”? The idea seems laughable, yet, here in front of me was a piece of the same vintage being ascribed that loaded term.

"Ancient" buffalo effigy, 1600-1800 CE. What does the description of this piece as "ancient" say about our ingrained perceptions about Native American peoples and culture?
“Ancient” buffalo effigy, 1600-1800 CE. What does the description of this piece as “ancient” say about our ingrained perceptions about Native American peoples and culture?

A quick Google search of “ancient” turns up this definition: “belonging to the very distant past and no longer in existence. Synonyms: of long ago, early, prehistoric, primeval, primordial, primitive” (emphasis added).  This description is problematic not only because it is inaccurate, but mainly because it reinforces dangerous language and stereotypes used against Native Americans, and Native people everywhere, to this day. Such language perpetuates harmful representations and tropes, and its use in this environment allows visitors to pass through the exhibit without having their previous perceptions challenged.

Another possible  teaching moment is passed up. Beginning the section “Death of the Buffalo 1860-80” is a block of quotes from four of the exhibit’s most prevalent voices: Emma I. Hansen, Pawnee scholar, Arthur Amiotte, Oglala Lakota artist and scholar, Gaylord Torrence, curator of the exhibit, and Colin G. Calloway, scholar. What seemed to be an opportune moment to discuss the systematic slaughter of buffalo by the U.S. government and army (see article by Adrian Jawort) was passed without very explicit mention. The following quote comes closest to such a discussion:

“The horse-and-buffalo culture that Plains Indian peoples built in the 1700s and 1800s collapsed under assault from epidemic diseases, American soldiers, government agents, buffalo hunters, railroads, and settlers.”

– Colin G. Calloway, Scholar

In the same space it would have been possible to include explicit mention to the intentionality of buffalo extermination and its role in the genocide of the Plains Indians. This politicization, it seems, was decided against.

Introduction to the 3rd to last section of the exhibit. Should this space have been used to hold the U.S. accountable?  Photo by the author
Should this space have been used to hold the U.S. accountable?
Photo by the author

The reviews of The Plains Indians have been mostly positive. It is for this reason that I have focused on negative aspects, in order to provide a more critical take. The exhibit is not without virtues. The descriptions, for the most part, go a good job of weaving together ethnographic details with artistic analysis, crediting and providing a picture of the artist where possible. The final section of the exhibit, “Reservations and Urban Life 1910-65,” showcases works by contemporary Native artists whose work has often been left out of museums, art and anthropology alike. However, at a time when the roles of museums and their relationship to Native peoples are changing, I believe it is important to analyze even the most acclaimed exhibits with a critical eye.

References and Further Reading, Listening, and Viewing:

“Genocide by Other Means: U.S. Army Slaughtered Buffalo in Plains Indians Wars,” by Adrian Jawort, Indian Country Today

“Full Circle: Plains Indians Exhibit Takes Top Billing at Metropolitan Museum of Art,” by Theresa Braine, Indian Country Today

“Review: ‘The Plains Indians,’ America’s Early Artists, at the Met,” by Holland Cotter, New York Times

Exhibition Audio Guide

Catalogue of Exhibition Objects

Image Source:

Buffalo Effigy

DNA Exploitation

With DNA testing, most people think of sci-fi movies, superhero action movies, and other top secret government conspiracies. But they are also ignorant of the possible DNA exploitation of Native Americans in regards to repatriation and heritage.

However, in order to reclaim items, it is desired for Native Americans to allow scientists to take their DNA and match it to the ones on the potential repatriated items. This in itself is wrong. Sure, if I lost something at Vassar, I would probably have to describe it. For a wallet or a backpack, it would be the contents, how much money was in it, what does it look like. But I wouldn’t have to undergo a DNA test to prove my ownership or connection to that particular item.

The same holds true in this case. It is any other item; the Native Americans are being forced to give up something of theirs. And frankly, even though it may not be for something dangerous, it can be misused for other purposes. And with a history of broken promises and being back-stabbed, Native Americans have every reason to decline to genetic testing.

And sure, scientists today can have good intentions. Maybe they’re trying to understand the culture and ancestral ties or maybe even improve the medical field.  But this isn’t the way it should be done, deeming your culture and knowledge as superior to another sacred culture. Because no matter how many experiments you can do with the DNA, it will never amount to the price of interfering with a culture and dishonoring a human life.

Unfortunately, this is the way the American legal system works, unyielding and giving, rather than receiving, the burden of proof.  This is seen as the easiest and most reliable evidence of today.  And it has helped in many cases and, to some extent, it even has expanded our knowledge of the world.  But, it has made us inconsiderate and only further ingrains our ignorance.  This is just another way of not respecting the sacred, religious ties the Native Americans have to items.  We may discover things that were meant to be lost.

Granted, just as some tribes don’t want to be bothered with and don’t want anything to do with repatriation, some tribes do.  Some tribes are all for DNA testing, and that’s completely okay.  But it should not be assumed that there is a general and genuine consent for all tribes to reclaim every stitch of their culture.  Because, again, some culture is made to be left alone, a process they may view as sacred and special.

In short, instead of using DNA testing and then learning about the culture (and possibly offend the tribes), why don’t we take the time to learn whenever possible?  Although it’s hard, especially with an infamous history, make a true and genuine effort without any selfish ambitions.  What are these festivals?  What are these dances?  Take a mental note of how certain emblems are used.  Then, when it is found, one can made an educated guess based on the culture and not based on personal opinions.



The skeleton of Kennewick man, who, from DNA testing, was confirmed as being Native American.  Previously, he could not be repatriated because there was not enough evidence to prove his descent.  With this breakthrough, the case may be revisited.×0.jpg



DNA testing helped ties modern day Native tribes from around the world, including Native Americans, to these 24,000 year old skeleton bones.  Repatriation of Native cultures, then, doesn’t just affect Natives of America, but all over the world.  This is an international issue.



Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science by Kim TallBear








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: