The Logical End Result of Repatriation Laws?

Nature has an interesting news item called Online anthropology draws protest from aboriginal group:

As Europe’s museums begin archiving their collections in digital format, skeletons are emerging — and not just of the physical variety. One South African tribe already says it will oppose the inclusion of images of its people’s remains in any multimedia format. The University of Vienna has started to digitize the collection made in the early twentieth century by Rudolf Pöch, considered one of anthropology’s founding fathers. The project, headed by Maria Teschler-Nicola, will improve the collection’s accessibility for researchers and store the delicate material in a sustainable way, using electronic records of physiological measurements as well as two and three-dimensional scans. But the full collection, which includes human remains and thousands of ethnographic artefacts, was gathered using unethical methods, such as grave-robbing.

Although, in general, I am sympathetic to the idea of repatriation there are limits. One of those is when it completely cuts of the notion of the scientific study of human kind. I have always thought that the digitization of artifacts and skeletons was an excellent compromise between the demands of human dignity and the needs of the scientific community. This, in my opinion crosses that line.

5 Responses

  1. I do have to agree-there needs to be some middle ground between returning artifacts and remains that were obtained under less than honest measures and the ability of science to study.

  2. This is a really tough area to get into – remains essentially stolen from many parts of the world which deserve respectful treatment, especially when the tribes or societies they came from ask for them back.
    I think the response from all sides needs to be a frank assessment of the gains from continued research versus the cultural implications of repatriation and burial. Is there more we can learn by holding on to these remains in their current locations, or is it time to gratefully acknowledge that the remains need to go back to their homes? I think, in cases of remains that have been in institutions for decades, we may have reached the end of their use as scientific data points, and they should be returned with some gratitude (and perhaps symbolic compensation). Perhaps we should also seek to develop anthropologic infrastructure in many of these countries of origin, so the recipients of the remains can be equal partners in their study.

  3. Well, yes, but that is not the issue here. The issue is that some museums want to digitize the artifacts, skeletons, and other cultural items before they are repatriated. Basically, the remains would be repatriated bu, because they had been digitized they would still, for all practical purposes, be available for future study via the digitized images. As pointed out above, some groups are objecting to that digitization.

  4. It reminds me very much of one of the old Arabian stories of the wise judge, in which the “theft” of the smell of cooking shawarma is “compensated” by the sound of a shaken bag of money.

  5. Thanks – had to giggle at that one

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