May 26, 2007

The ethics of repatriating artefacts

Posted at 12:45 pm in Similar cases

An interesting interpretation of repatriation in this article is that you don’t have to actually return the artefacts, but merely use them in a spiritual context. It would be interesting to see if the original owners of the artefacts agree with this analysis – I somehow doubt that they would.

Cambridge Evening News

24 May 2007
Voices from past and future

THE native art and culture of the South Pacific comes to Cambridge next week with the Pasifika Styles performing arts festival.

The week-long programme of events will feature contemporary drama, comedy and visual art from Maori, Samoan and Fijian and other Pacific island cultures.

The week is the centre piece of a project that started earlier this month with an exhibition at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology on Downing Street. The museum is displaying contemporary art from 30 South Pacific artists complementing its collection of artefacts, including jewellery, ornaments and hunting weapons, brought back by British explorers in the past.

“One of the main reasons for the festival is that we have this outstanding collection,” says festival director Alexander Leiffheidt. “But there is a big debate, not just in the UK but in Europe, about these kind of displays, and the British Museum is trying to steer away from being a flagship of imperialism.

“If you are thinking in terms of Maori culture then repatriating these artefacts does not necessarily mean taking them back to New Zealand.

The most important thing is that these artefacts are in use in a performance or spiritual context.

“If you organise a festival and an exhibition and invite these people over then in a way they can reclaim these things.

“As Europeans we tend to have a slightly mediated relationship with our own history and past, but these people are very much more in touch with their past.”

The week will open on Tuesday with an all day open-air event in the museum featuring performances and activities.

Then in the evening Makerita Urale’s play Frangipani Perfumeopens for a two-night run at The Playroom on St Edwards Passage next to the Arts Theatre. The black comedy follows three Samoan sisters as they emigrate to New Zealand and end up working as cleaners.

Then on Thursday, May 31, and Friday, June 1, The Playroom hosts And What Remainsby Miria George, set in a nearfuture New Zealand.

Also on Thursday and Friday the ADC Theatre will see the UK premiere of Niu Silastarring top Kiwi comedians Dave Fane and Damon Andrews. The story follows the lifelong friendship between an indigenous Pacific islander and a white Kiwi.

“We are committed to giving these artists from the South Pacific the platform to speak to British people on their own terms,” says Alexander.

All the plays begin at 7.45pm, and the Pasifika Styles exhibition will run until spring 2008. There will also be short films shown in the museum throughout the festival.

For more information on all the events taking place visit

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1 Comment »

  1. Alex said,

    09.27.07 at 6:18 pm

    ‘It would be interesting to see if the original owners of the artefacts agree with this analysis – I somehow doubt that they would.’

    Just a brief comment on this: The kaupapas of both festival and exhibition were developed in close consultation with Maori and Pacific Island communities both from New Zealand and the UK.
    There are probably as many different opinions on this form of ‘repatriation’ as there are Maori, but you’ll find that few would disagree on the importance of performative and spiritual uses of taonga, as opposed to their mere display as ‘artefacts’ in a European sense.
    The idea of a ‘spiritual revitalisation’ was not developed in isolation by us as the project organisers, but emerged directly from our conversations with artists and community leaders.

    The issue is of course far more complex than a newspaper article allows for, so: don’t believe everything you read in the papers – particularly not if it’s a direct quotation, as above ;-)

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