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The Greenland repatriation experience

A conference on repatriation of cultural heritage is going to be held in Greenland early next year. At first, Greenland may seem an odd country to host such a conference – however, when you look into the details of it, Greenland has been at the centre of one of the worlds largest repatriation programs, whereby 35,000 items were returned to the country from Denmark since becoming semi-autonomous from the country. As a result of this, despite being one of the remotest places in the northern hemisphere, it is at the forefront of cultural property restitution having undergone a more comprehensive programme than possibly any other country in the world.
Giorgos Voulgarakis, the Greek Minister of culture will be one of the speakers at the conference.

From:
Greenland National Museum & Archives [1]

Repatriation of Cultural Heritage Conference 2007
The Greenland repatriation experience

The return of 35.000 objects
For 20 years Greenland and Denmark has been engaged in a successful partnership involving the repatriation of 35.000 items of cultural heritage. During the Colonial Period of Greenland (1721-1979), large quantities of ethnographic and archaeological objects relating to prehistoric and historic times have been collected and brought to Denmark by Danish officials, arctic explorers and missionaries. As a consequence of this collecting process, the National Museum of Denmark has held six important collections of cultural heritage originating in Greenland:

  • Archaeological collections relating to palaeo- and neo-Eskimo cultures
  • Archaeological material from the Viking age settlers, the so-called Norse people
  • Ethnographic objects from the late 19th – early 20th centuries
  • Water colour paintings from the middle of the 19th century
  • Archival information on prehistoric sites in Greenland
  • Collections of oral material, including drum songs

Today more than one third of these collections have been returned.

Since early 20th century there has been a growing Greenlandic interest in the return of Greenlandic cultural heritage. The main argument has been that the Greenlandic people ought to have immediate access to the physical remains of their own past, because these might provide them with a historical awareness of great importance in relation to Greenlandic identity formation. From the beginning, Denmark has been sympathetic towards these requests, but until the establishment of the Greenland Museum in 1966, Greenland was unable to provide the proper facilities for storing and keeping the material. Besides, as Greenland was part of Denmark, curating Greenlandic cultural heritage was still the responsibility of the National Museum of Denmark.

The Danish-Greenlandic Museum Cooperation
In 1979 Greenland eventually gained Home Rule, and from January 1st 1981 all matters relating to museums and the protection of ancient monuments became the responsibility of the Home Rule government. As part of this process, the Greenland Museum of 1966 was transformed into the Greenland National Museum & Archives, and negotiations were initiated with the National Museum of Denmark in order to get substantial parts of the Greenlandic collections repatriated. The Greenland National Museum wanted to be able to:

  • establish public exhibitions on Greenlandic prehistory and history with the best available material;
  • establish collections in Greenland for scientific study;
  • support students at the University of Greenland with prehistoric and historic material;
  • attract foreign researchers;
  • support local museums with material on loan from own collections;
  • obtain a database on prehistoric sites to be able to protect the sites from destruction.

First to be transferred was in 1982 a unique and extremely important collection of 19th century water colour paintings depicting Greenlandic everyday life and mythological features: 160 paintings by Aron from Kangeq, and 44 by Jens Kreutzmann from Kangaamiut. But this was only the beginning. The following year a committee was appointed for the Danish-Greenlandic Museum Cooperation, which consisted of three persons representing the Greenlandic Home Rule and three persons representing Denmark. The primary aims of the committee were to monitor the process of repatriation and work out principles for dividing the collections in Denmark. The Greenlandic and Danish committee members worked out the following five principles:

  • Both Greenland and Denmark would hold a representative collection of objects from Greenland;
  • Both collections would contain ample material suitable for popularization, research, study and teaching;
  • Collections or groups of objects naturally belonging together would remain together. In cases where this was impracticable, loans or permanent loans were to be negotiated between the two museums;
  • Should the Greenlanders wish the return of special finds or objects of importance for their cultural identity, such wishes should be respected;
  • The historical interests of Danish museums would be similarly respected.

The agreement was signed in October 1983 and took effect January 1st 1984. In the period 1984 – 2001, the committee made 9 proposals for the repatriation of cultural heritage originating in different parts of Greenland, and altogether 35.000 objects have been transferred during these years. Due to the sensitive character of human remains, the committee decided not to divide this material between Denmark and Greenland, but to repatriate the entire collection representing the remains of 1646 individuals of both Inuit and Norse origin. But even though this collection is in principle transferred to Greenlandic authority, the Greenlandic authorities decided to let it remain on Danish institutions, together with all of the zoological material and the Norse medieval clothing, till Greenland one day can offer satisfactory research facilities as well.

The outcome
Today the repatriation of Greenlandic cultural heritage stands out internationally as being very successful, because it was based entirely on cooperation and mutual respect and without actual claims having been raised. Mounir Bouchenaki, Assistant Director-General for Culture, UNESCO, describes it as “… an impressive example of cooperation between a country and a former colonized territory.” Besides ongoing and improved museum and research relations between Greenland and Denmark, the people of Greenland have achieved:

  • public access in Greenland to their own prehistory and history;
  • a very fine ethnographic collection of 1.158 objects;
  • a fine archaeological collection of roughly 28.000 objects;
  • an important fine arts collection of early Greenland art;
  • a complete copy of all recorded drum songs from the 20th century;
  • a National Museum which is an attractive partner in research, exhibition and administration.

From:
Greenland National Museum & Archives [2]

Program
Monday 12 February 2007 – Arrival and Evening Reception
Tuesday 13 February 2007 – Conference

Session 1. Whose Property / Whose Heritage? The Legal Status of Cultural Heritage
Speakers:

  • Catherine E. Bell, Professor of Law, University of Alberta, Canada
  • Timothy McKeown, Program Coordinator, National NAGPRA Program, USA
  • Guido Carducci, Chief of International Standards Section, Division of Cultural Heritage, UNESCO

Session 2. Why does Cultural Heritage Matter – The Politics of Repatriation
Speakers:

  • Moira G. Simpson, English and Cultural Studies, Flinders University, Australia
  • Tom Hill, Artist and Former Director, Six Nations Cultural Centre, Canada
  • Gordon L. Pullar, Director, Department of Alaska Native and Rural Development, University of Alaska, Fairbanks

Wednesday 14 February 2007 – Conference

Session 3. Ethical Considerations – Repatriation as a Ritual of Redemption
Speakers:

  • Georgios A. Voulgarakis, Minister of Culture, Greece
  • Victoria Tauli Corpuz, Chair, UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Executive Director of Tebtebba Foundation, the Philippines
  • Jonathan C.H. King, Keeper of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, British Museum, UK
  • George H.O. Abungu, Heritage Consultant, Okello Abungu Heritage Consultants, Kenya

Session 4. Preservation or Reuse – Repatriation as a Challenge to Museums
Speakers:

  • Te Taru White, Kaihautū, Māori leader of the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa
  • Amareswar Galla, Vice President of ICOM, Director, Graduate Studies in Sustainable Heritage Development, The Australian National University
  • Jack Lohman, Director, Museum of London Group, United Kingdom

Thursday 15 February 2007 – Workshop: Resolution

Friday 16 February 2007 – Departure Day

The 4 Conference Sessions:

Session 1 Whose Property / Whose Heritage? The Legal Status of Cultural Heritage

As most collecting of foreign cultural heritage took place prior to the establishment of legislation protecting against its alienation, from a legal point of view Western museums often are the legitimate owners of their collections (with reference to the UNESCO distinction between restitution and return). This implies a perception of cultural heritage as something to be owned – a ‘property ‘. But what is the validity of such legal claims in disputes involving societies with differing concepts, for instance the concept of cultural heritage as being a collective heritage not to be either owned or sold. And what are the legal means for settling the disputes?

Session 2 Does Cultural Heritage Matter – The Politics of Repatriation

Since most claims for repatriation are closely tied to the political changes after WWII regarding the decolonisation of 3rd World countries and the political organization of indigenous peoples, it is relevant to discuss the importance of cultural heritage in relation to cultural revitalization and identity formation. What national and imperial significance is ascribed to the possessing of foreign collections in the West, and what role did the museological representation of the exotic ‘other’ play in the imperial expansion of the West? Finally, not least, how is cultural heritage being staged by the new nations as a means of action in the struggle for self-determination and the power to present their culture at their own museums?

Session 3 Ethical Considerations – Repatriation as a Ritual of Redemption

When the legal status of cultural heritage is at times neglected, it most often happens on account of ethical considerations. Is it morally acceptable to uphold legal claims to objects, of which the appropriation was situated within a colonial or occupational context, or when the collecting involved objects not meant for collecting at all and thus violating some religious and cultural norms of the culture of origin? The latter is particularly relevant in relation to human remains and objects of religious importance. And to whom do we owe our ethical considerations – the now deceased original owners or creators, the living descendants of the culture of origin, the present legitimate owners or perhaps even humanity in general?

Session 4 Preservation or Reuse – Repatriation as a Challenge to Museums

According to most Western museum policies, cultural heritage is something we are obliged to preserve for the future and make accessible to both public and scientific communities. Consequently, in order to attain repatriation, claimants are often being met with specific conditions to fulfil regarding storage facilities, security matters etc. In what way are such prerequisites responsible for the formulation of universal museums standards, and how are these standards being challenged, when the objects are not requested for museum purposes, but to be used in a living tradition, for instance the reuse of religious paraphernalia or the reburial of human remains. And what are the potential, acceptable compromises for settling the dispute?