10 August 2006
Museums Establish Guidelines for Treatment of Sacred Objects
By Hugh Eakin
When the Blackfoot Nation approached the Denver Art Museum about borrowing a
horse shawl for a ceremony a few years ago, the museum faced a quandary. Curators were eager to oblige, but they worried that the ritual would expose the early-20th-century relic to the damaging effects of horse sweat. After a delicate negotiation, a compromise was reached: The tribe would use the object in the ceremony without actually putting it on the horse.
The story is not unusual. As American Indian and other groups have become increasingly assertive about guarding their cultural heritage, museums have struggled to strike a balance between the traditional practice of collecting indigenous objects as art and the often competing interests of the people whose ancestors produced them. In many cases federal laws have enabled tribes to reclaim works outright.
Now the issue has become pressing enough that the leading association of art museums is asking its members to take “special consideration” when dealing with
what it terms sacred objects. In guidelines be released today, the Association of Art Museum Directors calls on museums to consult with indigenous groups to determine what works might fall into this category and to accommodate the wishes of these groups as far as possible in displaying, conserving and even discussing these works on museum labels and in catalogs.
The guidelines, which have been approved by the association’s membership but are
not binding, are intended to apply to indigenous and other religious groups both
inside and outside the United States, including American tribes that have not been federally recognized. An advance copy was provided to The New York Times. The recommendations exceed the requirements set by the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, known as Nagpra. That law, which specified the criteria under which groups could reclaim burial remains and objects deemed to have special sacred or cultural value, applies only to federally recognized tribes. And in cases when objects did not have to be returned, museums did not have to collaborate with tribes on their care.
Although the most prominent cases under the law have focused on natural history
and ethnographic museums, some art museums have also faced claims, including the Seattle Art Museum, the Denver Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Dan Monroe, director of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., and a co-author of the sacred objects report, said the museum association was motivated to issue the guidelines not in response to a specific case or demands but in an effort to encourage greater dialogue with indigenous groups. “We wanted to go beyond the technical, narrow provisions of Nagpra,” Mr. Monroe said.
Some museums with large indigenous collections have already done so. The Peabody
Essex has an agreement with native Hawaiian groups to allow ritual offerings to be made before a rare 19th-century Hawaiian temple image in the museum’s collection.
The Denver Art Museum, which houses one of the nation’s oldest collections of Indian art, a pioneer on the issue of collaborating, has met with 100 different tribal delegations about works in its collection.
“Its a whole new way of doing business for us,” said Nancy J. Blomberg, the museum’s curator of native arts.
It was not immediately clear how the new recommendations will be viewed by indigenous leaders, who were not consulted on the report. Joe Watkins, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico who has mediated between museums and tribal groups, said, “It’s a sign of maturity that museums are looking at the ethics of collecting and maintaining” indigenous material.
But Mr. Watkins, who is a Choctaw Indian, cautioned that sacredness has widely
different meanings among American tribes. The report acknowledges that drafting
a broad definition of a “sacred object” would “create immensely difficult problems for art museums as secular institutions.”
In an effort to restrict its definition, the report draws a distinction between works that merely “express religious ideas, values and feelings” and those that are “created for use in ritual or ceremonial practice of a traditional religion.” Some curators acknowledge privately, however, that such a distinction might be difficult to draw in reality.
The report comes amid a broader movement for indigenous rights in the collection
and interpretation of cultural objects. Controversy arose in 2004 over the new
permanent galleries at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, which generally forgo a scientific and historical approach in favor of indigenous traditions like oral history and storytelling.
This spring a group of archivists and librarians began working with a committee of indigenous leaders to establish Protocols for Native American Archival Materials, sweeping new principles for dealing with “culturally sensitive” materials in university collections and archives. The draft protocol, which has not yet been formally adopted, calls for a cautious, collaborative approach, but also states that Indian communities have “primary rights” for all “culturally sensitive materials” that are affiliated with them.
The museum association report, in contrast, identifies ritual objects more narrowly and does not address directly the issue of ownership or control. “We are aware of the potential risks,” Mr. Monroe said.
Still, by embracing indigenous notions of what is sacred, some scholars say, art
museums are taking a bold step.
“Sacredness is very elastic,” said Michael F. Brown, an anthropologist at Williams College. “It can easily be stretched to include all kinds of things that wouldn’t be sacred or religious to outsiders. And because of the nature of
American society, it is a very potent term right now.”