Who owns the past? A Utah museum curator wants Harvard to return Indian artifacts
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?Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.