Does one ethnic group own its cultural artefacts?

The idea that one culture ‘owns’ a particular heritage, or that certain practices are too culturally sensitive to be talked about, may create barriers between people.

Objects that once adorned display cases in museums around the world are disappearing from view. In recent decades, dramatic wooden Iroquois face masks, crafted by the nations and tribes of indigenous people of North America, have been taken off the shelves. Rattles and masks made by the Coast Salish peoples of the Pacific Northwest, in British Columbia, have been moved to restricted areas of museum storerooms. And at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, ‘secret/sacred’ Aboriginal objects have been separated from the main collection: only tribal members of particular standing are permitted to see them.


Such removals are political, enacted in the name of decolonisation and the right to self-determination of Native peoples. By way of restitution, argues the museum scholar Janet Marstine of the University of Leicester, ‘Institutions need to develop long-term relationships with source communities built on trust.’ ‘Source communities’ is the buzzword for groups of people, or tribes, considered to be affiliated to the artefacts, and Marstine believes that they should control the interpretation of the past. That includes how cultural artefacts are understood, presented and stored in museums – and if they are displayed at all. 

The idea that one culture ‘owns’ a particular heritage is having a profound impact on museums. Just as campaigners are urging the nations of Greece and Turkey to see themselves as the true owners of cultural artefacts – such as the Parthenon marbles, or sculptures from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, both in the British Museum – so too do activists and sympathetic museum professionals, who are facilitating these removals, consider certain indigenous peoples – Native Americans, Aboriginal people, First Nations – the primary, if not sole, arbitrators of their history and cultural artefacts. Lissant Bolton, a keeper at the British Museum, puts the point like this: ‘In the Australian context, this means that any Indigenous Australian is understood to have a greater right to speak about any Aboriginal object than any non-Indigenous Australian.’

The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), which opened on The Mall in Washington, DC in 1990, has been at the forefront of implementing new museums and policies that make formal concessions to particular groups on the basis of their ethnicity. The US arts journalist Edward Rothstein calls the NMAI and its ilk ‘identity museums’.

The devolving of authority at the NMAI embraced a range of activities, including who designed and built the museum, who selects what is in the collection, and how it is interpreted and presented – as well as how artefacts are conserved, and who can see them. In a similar spirit, in 1993 the Council of Australian Museum Associations endorsed a document, now titled Continuous Cultures, Ongoing Responsibilities, which set a new bar by compelling institutions to work collaboratively with indigenous groups on all aspects of running a museum. The premise behind this move was that indigenous people should be the ones to tell and organise their history: only Native Americans can speak for and tell the story of Native Americans. The Maori for the Maori. Aboriginal groups for the Aboriginal past.

The motives are understandable. Colonisation had a devastating impact on indigenous peoples. But the new identity museums are troubling on many levels – and not just because material is taken off display. Imagine if a museum was established, with public money (the NMAI is federally funded), where white people from one geographical area – sometimes only white men with status – were given the authority to decide what exhibits visitors could and couldn’t see. There would quite rightly be outrage. 

Instead of decolonising museums, the new practices echo and reinforce a racial discourse. They present an idea of culture as fixed and immutable – something people own by virtue of biological ancestry. This racial view of the world should trouble us. 

We need to ask who speaks for the relevant indigenous community, and on what basis. Even who qualifies as indigenous is a vexed question, as is the fact that ‘the indigenous’ rarely speak with one voice. Ethnocentric policies therefore tend to vest authority in anointed chiefs and elders (local equivalents of the privileged white male), without asking how many and which tribal members need to subscribe to the traditional view for it to remain authoritative. What about those who disagree? And what about those who want to change it, or challenge it from within?

It also follows, according to the logic of identity museum practice, that those outside the culture cannot truly understand it because they’ve never experienced it. It’s an approach that creates barriers between people. And also between people and artefacts. It advances the idea that cultures are separate and irreconcilable. When Seddon Bennington was chief executive of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington – formally a bi-cultural museum – he articulated precisely such a view: ‘There is a Western way of seeing the world and a Matauranga Māori way. The rest of the world cannot tap into Māori wisdom.’

But handing over the right to narrate history to those with the approved ethnicity is not the way that knowledge works. The pursuit of truth and the understanding of history must be open to everybody, regardless of class, ethnicity or gender. There must be universal access. That is how questions can be explored, and old forms of authority challenged.

We often hear about the problem of hidden histories, invisible and unheard because the stories of women and minorities have been written out of mainstream narratives. But identity museums are guilty of the same sin of omission, since surrendering the authority to shape museum collections to indigenous communities hinders the understanding of the very people it claims to help. It creates an idealised version of the past – one that never accounts for itself, because it cannot be questioned. 

The US anthropologist Michael Brown has observed how all kinds of information about past indigenous people, particularly religion, is now deemed ‘culturally sensitive’ and unsuitable for public discussion in these museums, leaving mainstream accounts of Native religion with little to report but ‘generic spirituality’. The effect has been to make it impossible to research indigenous life. And, paradoxically, to drain it of the individuality that earned it its distinction in the first place.

For more on the debates on museums and cultural possessions, see Tiffany Jenkins’s new book, Keeping Their Marbles, out now through Oxford University Press.

Tiffany Jenkins

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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