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Books: Analysis of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act a self-righteous attack on the temple

Essays explore US museums’ responsibilities to religious groups

This book claims to deal with the role of religion in museums, but it, in fact, charts the impact of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). This mandated hundreds of museums to send inventories of all their Native American collections to Aboriginal groups and to consult with them as to how “their” collections were to be interpreted, handled and stored, and to determine whether any items, particularly human remains and sacred artefacts, should be returned to them for reburial or use.

Museums, on the whole, buckled down to the task with goodwill and enthusiasm, despite the lack of additional funding. By 2001, 28,000 human remains and 600,000 funerary objects had left museum collections. This seemed only to be righting a wrong: Native Americans had been treated as sub-human by the majority of Whites and handing back a few museum objects was certainly cheaper than returning land.

This book provides a patchwork account of what happened to museums after NAGPRA—with a few odd comparisons from abroad, such as the impact of the Second Vatican Council on State-owned churches in France. But the book gives no overall assessment of the impact of this legislation, nor does it ask any key questions, such as what the losses of collections could mean for future research. Or what would happen if other religious communities wanted to be given equal rights; what if Catholics, for example, set their eyes on the altarpieces and statues in the Metropolitan Museum? Have museums allowed their crucial right to pry to become subservient to the right to pray?

Instead of asking questions, this book gives the impression that NAGPRA has opened a glorious new phase in museum history, although it fails to give instances of advances. Reference is made to knowledge gained from consultations which was not known to researchers before—but no actual examples are given. Much is made of the new consultation process itself, although this was developed by museums in many fields in the Eighties.

Elaine Heumann Gurian goes so far as to claim that “native people have demonstrated that museums can be added to the list of places where emotional and spiritual responses are both appropriate and welcome”. Is she not forgetting the wonder on faces in science museums and the deep feelings—often religious —stirred by art museums? This is not to say native people, all over the world, have not contributed greatly to our experience of what it is to be human, but our awareness of their contribution is part of a growing alertness to people’s different cultures and beliefs, which museums have done so much to foster.

The National Museum of the American Indian, surely the most high-profile product of NAGPRA thinking, opened last year in Washington. Its director, W. Richard West, Jr, makes it clear in his essay for this book that one of the museum’s most important aims is to promote contemporary Native American culture, not to depict it as a “romanticised cultural residuum frozen for ever in time”. This smacks of propaganda. Surely the main job of this museum is to help visitors comprehend, feelingly, who the Native Americans were and are, and what happened to them and why. But this is a history that belongs to everyone. It cannot be “owned” by one sector of the community.

Dr West believes he is creating a new type of museum that is not going to be a “temple” run by a “self-appointed and internal priesthood”, but a “dialogical, bilateral, and mutually participatory” institution run not by curators but “stewards”. Unfortunately the book contains no analysis of the shift in responsibility that this term implies. Stewardship is accepted, without question, as a new working title by all museum practitioners writing in this volume, except one. His contribution sticks out like a sore thumb.

James Cuno, director and president of the Art Institute of Chicago, maintains that art museums are temples, run by curators, which contain what he calls “the highest aesthetic achievements of our common human culture”. The trouble with his argument is that he does not define, probably due to lack of space, what he means by this suspiciously Western-sounding, authoritative phrase. Most profound works of art from the past—whether a Haida transformation mask, a Buddhist statue of Tara, or a painting by Picasso—share aesthetic qualities in common. But these do not have to be put on a pedestal. That merely turns our modern idea of art into a new faith. And another unassailable belief is not what is needed to challenge the apparently inclusive, but, in reality, exclusive self-righteousness that seeps through the pages of this book.

Author of The poetic museum: reviving historic collections (Prestel, 2002) and The art of wonder: the story of how we have seen the world (Prestel), autumn 2005

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The self-righteous attack on the temple'