Who owns the past? A Utah museum curator wants Harvard to return Indian artifacts

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

STORED in the vast and orderly shelving of Harvard's Peabody Museum are some Indian artifacts it acquired 60 years ago from an archaeological expedition in Utah. And the curator of a Utah museum wants them back. This tussle over a moccasin, some pots, and basket fragments raises the perennial question: Who owns the past?

The question of repatriation is not a new one in the museum world. Greece has been trying to get back the Elgin marbles from the British Museum, with no success. Now repatriation is becoming an issue in the Southwest, which, as it becomes more populated, is developing a regional cultural pride.

As one museum official put it, it's the ``sagebrush rebellion'' of archaeology. Native Americans are also seeking to get back sacred items and skeletal remains from Eastern museums, which found them decades ago.

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Utah is interested in having the objects in the Peabody Museum because now there's a place to house them: the brand-new, state-funded Fremont Park Museum. The museum was built to house a group of Indian artifacts found in 1983, the largest collection discovered so far. The items include unfired clay figures, pottery, smoking pipes, and mono matates (stones to grind grain). Curator Ken Kohler is conducting a one-man campaign to have the Harvard museum system return the objects it has to Utah.

The small collection at the Peabody is composed of baskets, pottery, clay figurines, and an unusual moccasin made from the foot of a mountain sheep. The dewclaws on the sole serve as hobnails, enabling the wearer to walk through snow. The items are from a tribe of hunters and gatherers that lived in the Clear Creek Canyon area along the Fremont River from AD 400 to 1300, according to Mr. Kohler. ``They were family-oriented, peaceable people. They were never found to have lived outside Utah.''

The artifacts were unearthed by a Peabody archaeologist, Noel Morss, in the '20s. According to Kohler, Dr. Morss told people in Utah during a lecture tour late in his life that he felt the items should be returned. But Peabody assistant director Rosemary Joyce says, ``To our knowledge, he never spoke to anyone here at the museum. If he had expressed a strong interest in seeing them returned, probably something would have been done.''

According to Dr. Joyce, ``In any legal interpretation the collection is ours.'' It's not the Peabody's policy to return disputed items, she says, but the museum is willing to lend them out, if an extensive review by various staff members deems conditions are right.

``An exhibition actually deteriorates artifacts,'' says Joyce. She points out disintegrating fur on the moccasin. ``That alone would cost several hundred dollars to properly conserve.''

Ed Able, executive director of the American Association of Museums, in Washington D.C., says, ``This is not a game of who gets the marbles.... when a museum accepts the objects, they're not just hoarding them. Professionally, they're accepting responsibility for the preservation and conservation of those objects. And that's a lifelong obligation.''

But Kohler points out that the $1.6 million Utah museum has state-of-the-art humidity control, lighting, and security.

One argument in repatriation controversies concerns who will get to see the artifacts. the Peabody, a research museum on the Harvard campus, it's researchers: Last year, 1,200 people sat in small study rooms and looked at items brought to them by staff members. At Fremont Park, alongside Interstate 70, the main travel route between the Midwest and the Los Angeles area, it's tourists. In the few weeks the Fremont museum has been open, at least that many visitors, including busloads of Europeans, have seen its exhibits, says Kohler. ``We hope to make Fremont State Park a real learning experience about the Fremont Indians for people.''

Joyce says that while the Fremont collection is not in itself significant, it is important in a comparative context. At the Peabody, she says, researchers can look at that moccasin along with others from different time periods and tribes.

Kohler contends that the items at the Peabody are needed to fill out the collection. The Clear Creek Canyon area was still untouched when Morss arrived, and the items he got were perishable. More recent excavations have been looted and vandalized, and the quality of the artifacts is not as good.

``Out here, we feel that the East exploited the West, not only in dinosaur bones but in native American things as well,'' says Kohler.

This is not the first incident of a Southwest state's wanting native artifacts returned, says Joyce. ``There's been a whole flurry recently from the Southwest. They're actively developing their sense of state pride and there are more museums and historical societies.''

Asa Nelson, director of the office of public archaeology at Brigham Young University, agrees. ``The general public feels quite strongly about local culture,'' he says. ``I see that more everywhere I go throughout the Southwest. There's more pride in local history and prehistory. Even within our state we have local residents wanting their artifacts brought back from our museum. And that's only a couple of hundred miles away.''

``You can ... berate `carpetbaggers' for ripping off the good stuff,'' says David Hurst Thomas, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. ``But a more balanced view points up that if the large Eastern establishments had not taken action when they did, the collections would have ended up in the hands of private collectors. None of us would have had access. Now all those collections are in the public domain.'' He says that a combination of a generous touring policy on the part of an Eastern museum and sharing research with local populations can help ameliorate the us-versus-them split between East and West.

``We at the American Museum lend dozens of artifacts to traveling exhibits around the country. We are also helping a museum in Nevada set up an exhibit of one of our projects: what we were doing and why we were doing it. Usually people come in and take and leave. We're trying to make sure we're making the fruits of our research available to local areas.''

As it stands, Joyce says a return of the artifacts is not possible, but forms for a long-term loan have been sent to Kohler. Kohler, however, with help from the office of Utah Rep. Howard C. Nielson (R), is searching for a permit that Morss might have filed with the federal agency owning that land. If Morss didn't file one, or if the agency decides the artifacts belong in the state where they were found, there's a possibility Utah may get them back.

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