Contesting the Box: Museums and Repatriation

Stewart Allen

Fig. 11.1 The Marischal College and Marischal Museum, Aberdeen (source: Ikiwaner / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Box: the museum and the museum exhibition space. Appearance: buildings of diverse size and style housing different kinds of exhibition spaces and glass display cases showcasing varied artefacts and objects. Size: from small to large. Habitat: museums around the world. Origin: the first public museum is generally considered to be the Ashmolean museum in Oxford, England. Older private collections, however, are recorded in Ancient Greece and Mesopotamia.

Keywords: displaying, collecting, ordering, classifying, protecting, mobilising, performing, educating, conserving, appropriating, concealing, repatriating

Museum: ‘A building or institution in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are preserved and exhibited. Also: the collection of objects held by such an institution’ (OED)

The modern public museum is known for its collecting, sorting, conserving, and exhibiting work; in this article, by framing the museum as a particular kind of box, I tell the story of how this box gradually relinquished these functions and came to be ‘unboxed’ in many ways.

I discuss the crisis of the museum box: the ways in which the function of the modern public museum shifted from a showcase and justification of Empire to one that could no longer translate nor encase its objects. A museum serves not only to contain and enclose particular objects but also to frame and tell stories or narratives with objects (see Appadurai 1988). This suggests that museum boxes are not simply given but rather emerge and are made by multiple practices, forces and actors, including political forces of colonialism and Imperialism and social forces of education and control. These forces are dynamic, not static; they are in a constant state of flux. Consequently, these same forces can also unmake a museum box or the objects it contains.

I tell the story of the museum box through the frame of the repatriation of a sacred headdress back to its originating community, and the exhibition that the headdress gave rise to. Along the way, I discuss how the museum box came to be opened and debated, how it relinquished its authority to define its objects, and in some cases relinquished the objects themselves. In the course of these processes, an altogether different kind of box was created, one based on newly developing notions of mutual respect, understanding, and increasing collaboration. The museum box, then, is no longer understood as a mere mute receptacle for the objects contained within it, but rather emerges in conjunction with its objects, each giving form to the other through their varied lines, traces, and trails (Ingold 2007).

A Sacred Bundle

In recent decades, an increasingly vocal debate has questioned the means and methods by which certain museum objects were acquired in the first place, the right of museums to display them, how they should be displayed and interpreted, and whether certain objects (human remains, sacred objects, looted art, etc.) should be returned to their country of origin or former owners (or the descendants of these owners). The call for repatriation, for cultural treasures and ancestral remains to be removed from display or storage and returned to their communities of origin,1 is one of the most pressing issues facing museums in the post-colonial era (Simpson 1996: 171). As this call grows ever louder, the debate has been brought firmly into the public and political arena, forcing professional institutions to address the issue. The debate has divided individuals who support such returns from those who are opposed to the loss of any part of their collections. So heated has the debate become that in 2002 the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums was published, declaring the importance of objects for all of humanity, and not just the citizens of one nation. This document was signed by all the great museums of the world, including the British Museum, the Louvre Museum of Paris, and the Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museums of New York.

One of the most striking aspects of the declaration is its claim that as universal institutions ‘museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation’ (Declaration 2002). This statement suggests that the museum, unlike other institutions, offers a value- and ideology-free space through which objects may be displayed to the benefit of all people, rather than only the people of the nation in which a particular museum is to be found (Curtis 2006: 118). It further reflects, however, as Curtis (2006) notes, an essentialist or modernist view of the world; one that sees the modern Western museum, and by extension Western thought, as depicting reality not only in a neutral way, but also in a true way over and above other ways of knowing (see also Hooper-Greenhill 2000). Such notions, however, as this article will illustrate, are increasingly being debated and challenged as museums and source communities wrestle with the complexities of this still emerging issue.

These contestations and dialogues are readily apparent in the current case, which centres on a sacred First Nation headdress which had lain in the storeroom of the Marischal Museum, University of Aberdeen, for over twenty years. In July 2003 it was repatriated to its original custodians, the Horn Society of the Kainai Nation/Blood Tribe of Alberta, Canada, and reintegrated back into important rituals and ceremonies. Neil Curtis, then senior curator of Marischal Museum, has written about the repatriation (Curtis 2006, 2008, 2010), describing how for many years the Kainai had been searching for a missing fourth headdress, part of a sacred bundle consisting of items used in ceremonies and rituals, which they believed was lost overseas. The headdress, a two-metre long red cloth with black and white eagle feather trailer, plays a crucial role in the Kainai Nation’s annual sun dance. Mrs A. Bruce Miller of Aberdeen presented it to the museum in 1934 along with a number of other items from the Blackfoot Reservation in Montana, USA. It is thought likely that she visited the reservation in the 1920s and purchased the headdress along with a number of other items, including a decorated buckskin shirt and moccasins (Curtis 2008). Since no details were available on the origins of the headdress (e.g. tribal name), it had been catalogued for many years as a ‘war bonnet’ (Curtis 2010). Some eighty years later, the Kainai learnt of the headdress in Aberdeen from a former volunteer of the Marischal Museum who was working with the Kainai Nation at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. In November 2002, a delegation from the Horn Society visited the museum where they were welcomed by the University Principal and museum staff. They conducted a ‘smudging’ ceremony before positively identifying the headdress as part of the missing sacred bundle.2 A request for its repatriation was submitted soon after, and was considered by a special panel appointed by the University, including representatives from other museums in Scotland and a nominee suggested by the Horn Society. The panel agreed that the headdress was of fundamental spiritual significance to the Kainai Nation and should therefore be returned. Following approval by the University Court, a ceremony was held in July 2003 at the Marischal Museum where ownership of the headdress was transferred to the Kainai Nation’s Mookaakin Cultural and Heritage Foundation. A memorandum of understanding between the Kainai and the University was also signed to help develop links between the two parties. In September 2003, the University’s Marischal Museum opened an exhibition inspired by the story of the repatriation of the headdress, entitled ‘Going Home: Museums and Repatriation’ (Curtis 2008).

In The Social Life of Things (1986), Arjun Appadurai argued for a ‘methodological fetishism’ in the analysis of objects as they circulate through space and time. That is, in order to understand the complex ways in which humans invest objects with different values, we must follow their ‘careers’, ‘lives’, and trajectories in motion as they are inscribed with different meanings and significances. From such a perspective, we can clearly distinguish the ways in which the headdress was bestowed with different meanings and uses as it circulated in and out of different social contexts. Prior to the 1920s, it existed not as an aestheticised object as such but rather as a sacred item central to religious ceremonies and cultural life. With its purchase by Mrs Miller, it was transformed not only into an object with economic value but also into an object that now represented a particular culture and way of life as an abstraction and as part of a private collection. This re-evaluation was further reified by the donation of the headdress to the University of Aberdeen in 1934, as it now became part of a publicly displayed collection that stood not only for a particular region and culture but also as part of a socially constructed hierarchy of value and classification. Finally, with its repatriation in 2003, it fades as a museum object and is reanimated once again as a ritual ‘object’ within a living culture.

Marischal Museum

Marischal Museum lies in Marischal College, in the centre of Aberdeen. A colossal building with a pinnacled, neo-Gothic façade, the College is said to be the second largest granite building in the world, after the Escorial in Madrid. Although its present form dates from 1906, it was originally founded in 1593 as the second university in Aberdeen following the foundation of King’s College in 1495, giving rise to the boast that the city had as many universities as the whole of England! The two universities merged in 1860 as the University of Aberdeen.

Records indicate that a museum was established in 1786 with material that had been donated by generations of graduates, staff and friends of the University. The museum space was re-established in 1907 as the University’s Anthropological Museum, incorporating the collections of the King’s College Archaeological Museum, the Wilson Museum in Marischal College, and ethnographic and historical items from elsewhere in the University (Curtis 2012). As Southwood (2007) describes, the exhibitions and displays of the new anthropological museum were organised regionally around a theme of world ethnography. Tracing a route from Europe through North Africa, Asia, the Americas, Oceania and Southern Africa, the exhibits were generally organised in the ‘modernist’ tradition, with culture and race rendered unproblematic structuring categories (see also Curtis 2012). It was in this exhibition that the headdress made its first and last appearance.

Eilean Hooper-Greenhill (2000), in a discussion of objects and their meanings, traces how the public museum developed in nineteenth-century Britain as an institution of power and legitimation for colonising other lands. She discusses how the museum idea, which she calls the ‘modernist museum’, shaped and constructed a certain view of other cultures for the ultimate aim of domination. The nineteenth-century public museum, she states, emerged in what became known as the modern period – the range of economic, political, and social transformations that took place following the Enlightenment, and the championing of reason as the source of progress in society (Hooper-Greenhill 2000). Drawing upon Benedict Anderson (1991) and his argument that three technologies of power characterise the modernist period (the map, the census, and the museum), Hooper-Greenhill notes how the modernist museum shares many of the underlying functions of the map. She notes how the modernist museum, like the map, depicts ‘reality’ in an apparently neutral way. Just as maps fix a name and a shape to a place, the modernist museum fits text to objects that signals how the object should be viewed (Hooper-Greenhill 2000). Museums and maps present a particular way of viewing the world, one that constructs relationships, defines territories, and proposes hierarchies of value depending on what is included or excluded. More importantly however, maps, like museums, are given the authority of the official; they are legitimated through the apparently neutral and inevitable medium of science.

Museums as public mediums of representation have the power to affect lives through the kinds of exhibits that they display. They shape attitudes and opinions towards the self and others, and as such are culturally generative, constructing frameworks for understanding (Hooper-Greenhill 2000: 19). Objects, depending on which are selected for display, how they are classified and how they are interpreted, construct meanings that have real effects on the world that is portrayed by them. This is why museum display is a political matter, and why today, in our multicultural societies, museums are such highly contested arenas.

The appointment of the University of Aberdeen’s first professional curator in 1979 signalled a shift from the museum as a university research and teaching resource to one more in line with other public museums (Curtis 2012). Subsequently, new permanent exhibitions were inaugurated that not only took into account its consumption by a newly visiting public but also modernised the exhibits around more contemporary anthropological themes. From 1985 onwards, with the creation of a new permanent exhibition titled ‘About Being Human’ (1985–1994) that focused on cross-cultural themes such as gift-giving and attitudes to death, it was decided that the headdress should be placed in storage, since there were more appropriate artefacts to represent the themes of the exhibit (Curtis pers. comm.). This position continued, as Southwood (2007) notes, with the most recent permanent exhibition, titled ‘Collecting the World’ (from 1995), which focused on the collections and biographies of different benefactors and donors to the museum. This exhibition contrasted the ‘exoticism’ of the colonial era, through photographs and written extracts from the collectors, with reflections on the politics and ethics of colonial contact, contacts that resulted in the display of the objects on show. The displays therefore aimed to reveal the history of the museum and how museums classify collections (Curtis pers. comm.). ‘Collecting the World’ turned out to be the final exhibition at Marischal Museum, with the headdress remaining in storage until it was ‘rediscovered’ in 2002.

The shift from modernist museum display to a more reflective stance that questioned the power relations inherent to museum display arose from a broad trend within anthropology of questioning the power relations between academics and those whom they study. This attitude emerged from several related historical, intellectual, and political developments in the 1960s and 1970s, when anthropology’s epistemological foundations and claims to ethnographic authority were shaken. Faye Ginsburg distinguishes these developments as the end of the colonial era with the assertions of self-determination by native peoples, the radicalisation of young scholars in the 1960s and the replacing of positivist models of knowledge with more interpretive and politically self-conscious approaches, and a reconceptualisation of ‘the native voice’ as one that should be in more direct dialogue with anthropological interpretation (1991: 95).

These developments led to what has been called a ‘crisis of representation’ within anthropology that can broadly be subsumed under the banner of postmodernism. Postmodernism constitutes a rejection of all claims to truth about cultures. It rejects modernist understandings, both grand theory within anthropology and the notion that ethnographic reality can ever be complete (Barnard 2000: 168). This new spirit led to a burst of literary critique in the 1980s that problematised the power relations between anthropologists and the people they have traditionally studied (see Clifford and Marcus 1986; Fabian 1983; Stocking 1985). This critique subsequently fed into museum contexts (e.g. Clifford 1988, 1991; Ames 1990, 1992; Karp and Lavine 1991), forming the basis of this emerging area of study.

As we can see, many different social, cultural, and political forces influence museum display, shaping how particular objects are made and ‘unmade’. The public museum, particularly the public anthropological museum, reflects the deep social and political entanglements that academic anthropology underwent, and continues to undergo, affecting how objects are displayed and interpreted. The exhibitions of the Marischal Museum are indicative of this process, shifting from traditional accounts of objects and their relation to the people who produced them, to more reflective concerns with the role of the museum and the conditions under which its objects were collected.

The Exhibition

The broad social and political developments discussed above influenced many aspects of the museum, including how objects were to be interpreted and displayed. Museums began to slowly change from bastions of truth, certainty, and authority to institutions that questioned and reflected upon their own foundations of being and knowing. Such transitions can be seen most forcefully in the exhibition that resulted from the repatriation of the headdress itself, which was centred on an absence, both of its principal object, and its meaning and use. Unable, or perhaps unwilling, to frame its objects in the traditional sense, the exhibition ‘box’, like the headdress itself, transitioned into something else. The exhibition became as much about a ‘disappearing’ object as about a disappearing museum.

During the time of the repatriation discussions, the University was in the process of withdrawing teaching from Marischal College and arranging for the principal part of the building to be leased out for redevelopment. Although the area occupied by the museum was not directly affected, long-term exhibition planning became impossible (Neil Curtis, pers. comm.). This is in contrast to most other museums, which have exhibition programmes that sometimes run years ahead. This state of affairs resulted in a very flexible policy with regard to proposed exhibitions, and provided the means whereby the museum could stage an exhibition on repatriation at short notice. The repatriation exhibit, ‘Going Home: Museums and Repatriation’, was an outcome of the experiences that the museum had encountered through the repatriation of the headdress, yet also, the particular constraints and uncertainties that the museum was subject to. The senior curator at the time, Neil Curtis, curated the exhibition and as he told me, he wanted to tell the story of the headdress from the museum’s side while also exploring the repatriation debate in a wider context.

Fig. 11.2 Poster for ‘Going Home’ exhibition in Marischal Museum 2003–2004 (source: courtesy of the University of Aberdeen Museums, Scotland)

The exhibition itself was to fill the area used for temporary exhibitions – a small area at one end of the mezzanine level of the south gallery, consisting of three glass display cases and a partition that displayed the story of the headdress hand-over ceremony, the story of the repatriation as it was told in the national and international press, and a discussion board that invited visitors to have their say. The first case displayed various items such as moccasins and a beaded jacket that were also given to the museum by the same donor; the second case displayed a replica of the Lakota Ghost Dance Shirt,3 loaned by Glasgow Museums to highlight other cases of repatriation; and the third case displayed other items held by the museum that further related to the issue of repatriation, such as a replica of part of the Parthenon Marbles.

The exhibition is a good example from which to consider the emergent nature of particular boxes, how they are made and materialised, and the uncertainties and absences that may engender knowledge production. Such uncertainties and absences occur at every level, from the disappearing Imperial project, to doubts over the role that an academic field science can serve, to ambiguities around the educational role of the public museum. As the following summary of the exhibition demonstrates, however, absences and uncertainties may actually help engender new understandings and insights rather than acting as a deleterious and unwelcome outcome.

The repatriation exhibit was shaped not only by wider social and political forces as outlined above, but further by the ideas and knowledge that emerged from the curator’s engagement with members of the Kainai during the negotiations in the lead-up to the hand-over of the headdress. As Peers and Brown state, ‘one of the most important elements of new relationships between museums and source communities is the extent to which they promote learning and growth for the museum profession’ (2003: 10). Seeing artefacts that have previously been part of the museum’s collection in their cultural contexts forces museum staff to become open to alternative ways of doing things. Museum members may become aware that these artefacts are part of living cultures and have ongoing meanings and uses for descendants of the source community. One example of how this was most viscerally experienced by museum staff was through their participation in the smudging ceremony4 in the museum during the identification of the headdress by Kainai members. This gave museum staff an opportunity to appreciate what the headdress means to the Kainai today, enabling them to experience first-hand the appropriate care and respect accorded to a sacred bundle.

The smudging ceremony was the most visible form through which understanding and learning took place between museum staff and Kainai Nation members. However, learning and the creation of new knowledge and understandings was an ongoing process that began from the moment the two parties met. Neil Curtis has commented that from his experience of working with the Kainai he became further aware of his own preconceived ideas of Western rational superiority, since when he has become more sensitive to the issues of representation entailed in interpreting what the headdress means to other people and cultures (Curtis pers. comm.). This was reflected in the form that the exhibit took. That is, instead of arranging an exhibit about the headdress from an ethnographic perspective, Curtis focused on telling the story explicitly from the point of view of the museum rather than trying to represent Kainai beliefs. For this reason, the exhibit focused on the theme of repatriation and said very little about the headdress itself. This also meant that he decided that the exhibition texts did not need to be approved by the Kainai first; an aspect that was also important given the short timescale of the exhibition’s planning. Instead, the exhibition is the story of the repatriation from the Museum’s point of view, and not a representation of another culture’s cosmology. Thus, the traditional museum ‘box’ came to be undone. It stopped functioning either as an Imperial showcase or as a modernist tool of education and control. Rather, the Marischal Museum opened the lid to its particular box and laid bare its inner workings, and in the process initiated a whole new round of understanding, knowledge formation, and the creation of new relationships. Furthermore, learning and understanding continues through the curator’s university teaching, as insights gained from the repatriation episode are communicated to other people – further highlighting the museum’s reputation as somewhere that tries to reflect upon and challenge parts of its colonial past (Curtis pers. comm.).

Fig. 11.3 Photograph of repatriation ceremony in Marischal Museum, 2003 (source: courtesy of the University of Aberdeen Museums, Scotland)

Although formal collaboration was not involved in the creation of the exhibit, the exchange of ideas and the learning that took place between the two parties meant that the senior curator – the curator of the exhibit – was aware of, and sensitive to, many of the issues involved in representing another culture. This ‘Other’ was no longer embodied by an object frozen in time behind a glass partition, but was instead represented by the experience of knowing the living descendants of the original keepers of the headdress. This allowed for a much more acute cultural sensitivity, which was reflected in many related aspects of the repatriation exhibition. Foremost among these aspects was the University’s agreement not to ask for a replica of the headdress. As Curtis (2008) describes, during panel negotiations, the Kainai explained that the headdress was a sacred item and that a replica of it would cause great offence, while the publication of photographs of it would also be disrespectful. It was therefore agreed that no replica would be requested and that photographs of the headdress would only be used within the University, despite this significantly limiting its ability to publicise the exhibition.

The repatriation of the headdress thus acted as a locus that allowed all kinds of new meanings and insights to develop, a locus predicated upon dialogue, respect, and understanding that ultimately led to the beginning of new links between Aberdeen and one of the First Nations of Canada.

Opening the Museum Box

Museums, for many years, were symbolic of unswerving knowledge-sets and steadfast understandings, reflected through their classical façades and resilient, authoritarian buildings. However, as Clifford has stated, they increasingly work the borderlands between different worlds, histories and cosmologies (1997a: 212). They are places of hybridity, exclusion, struggle and transit as different groups and people negotiate identities and collaborate over the meanings and representations of material artefacts. In this article, I have tried to show how one museum ‘box’ was opened and re-evaluated, and how a period of uncertainty and crisis was necessary for it to arrive at new roles and relationships. The experience of the Marischal Museum is also increasingly exemplary of a wider change in how museums see themselves and are seen by others. From being predominantly display cases of Empire, they now increasingly serve the people they once helped rule. Objects themselves, as Peers and Brown point out, and as I have demonstrated, can act as catalysts for these new relationships, both within and between different communities (2003: 5). Objects such as the headdress, which originated in communities often far away from the museum that appropriated them, are ‘entangled’ (Thomas 1991) within complex relations of colonial power. Their trajectories, the meanings placed upon them, and the uses to which they have been put, come to reflect the histories and ideologies of different societies. However, objects can also act as powerful driving forces for societal change, bringing people together, initiating dialogue and debate, understanding and respect. Objects in this sense are not just props to the centremost discussions of their human handlers, nor are they mere vehicles of symbolic meaning; rather, through their own particular material and phenomenological qualities – their ‘emotive materiality’, in Fontein’s (2010) term – they exert real and tangible effects on the proceedings underway. The museum box, like the headdress, will continue to change and transmute, as new histories, experiences, and events are encountered and lived. Once a visual showcase of the artefacts of Empire and the latest classificatory schemas, the modern museum increasingly addresses the legacy of its colonial past through the entanglements of its objects with their original communities. History cannot be re-lived, but the choices that are made in the present moment, and the future, may at least help address past fractures and initiate new understandings.

In 2006, with teaching having been withdrawn from the building, most of Marischal College was leased to Aberdeen City Council for 175 years, to be restored and refurbished as its headquarters, with the newly restored building opening to the public in 2011. The University retained the east wing that includes the museum, Mitchell Hall and the former Anatomy Department. The museum has been closed to the public since July 2008 and now operates as a museum-collections centre, with conservation laboratory, research stores, offices and workshop, supporting the work of the University of Aberdeen’s museums elsewhere. Once again, the museum and its collections are undergoing a new phase, shifting from a public museum back to a research centre, just as the headdress was transformed from a display piece back to a ceremonial artefact. Boxes, like life, are always on the move.


1 Source communities (sometimes referred to as ‘originating communities’) are defined by Peers and Brown (2003) as both the communities from which material artefacts were collected, and also their living descendants today. The term most often refers to indigenous peoples in the Americas and Pacific, but also includes diasporas, immigrant groups, religious groups and settlers. It recognises that material artefacts play important roles in the identity of source communities and that such groups have legitimate moral and cultural stakes of ownership and control (Peers and Brown 2003: 2). In this new relationship, museums are conceived of as stewards of such material heritage, in contrast to their traditional role as authoritative interpreters of artefacts.

2 A smudging ceremony generally involves the burning of certain herbs (in this case ‘sweet grass’) to produce a cleansing smoke to purify people, sacred objects, and particular spaces, e.g. ceremonial grounds (Portman and Garrett 2006).

3 The Lakota Ghost Dance Shirt is a relic believed to have been worn by a Sioux warrior killed in the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. In 1891, the shirt was brought to Glasgow and sold to Kelvingrove Museum where it was displayed from 1892 to 1999. After a four-year campaign for its return led by Marcella Le Beau, secretary of The Wounded Knee Association and great-granddaughter of one of the survivors of Wounded Knee, it was repatriated back to the Lakota people.

4 A smudging ceremony generally involves the burning of certain herbs (in this case ‘sweet grass’) to produce a cleansing smoke to purify people, sacred objects, and particular spaces, e.g. ceremonial grounds (Portman and Garrett 2006).


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