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Ethical Museum Practices

Chip Colwell's Talk on Cultural Treasures Advocates for Rightful Returns

— September 26, 2018 — Keynote Trends
Chip Cowell is an archaeologist and a museum curator, whose talk on cultural treasures highlights the importance of ownership and the ethical treatment of artifacts. The speaker specifically focuses on Native American art — a topic, which he has explored over the course of 11 published books.

Chip Cowell identifies museums as social and educational institutions with absolutely fascinating historic objects. However, in his talk on cultural treasures, he also defines the public space as a "battleground." He calls the audience's attention to instances when museums have appropriated meaningful heritage pieces and taken full absolutist control over artifacts. The famous dispute between the British Museum and Greece over the Parthenon Marbles is a good example.

The talk on cultural treasures zeroes in on Native American War Gods which are wood carvings made by members of the Zuni tribe in New Mexico. These breathtakingly beautiful and incredibly detailed figures have been discovered by anthropologists in the 1880s. Quickly assessing the merit and value behind the object, the pieces were actively collected and put into established museums as evidence of American Indian religion. While these institutions treated War Gods as art and allowed global access to them, these wood carvings had incredibly religious value for the Zunis and were placed on sacred shrines. Hence, from this point of view, museums "had committed a terrible crime of cultural violence."

During his talk on cultural treasures, Chip Cowell advocates for the restructuring of collecting practices. He highlights the achievement of returning War Gods from museums — a total of 106, to Native Americans and he encourages owners of private collections to do the same. Of course, there are ways to go as traditional treasures like pottery, jewelry, tools and the like are still held captive.

Good is to be found in the ethical treatment of culturally valuable artifacts. In the efforts of restoring these objects of fascination back to the rightful owners, institutions are able to form "relationships [...] with Native Americans through the process of repatriation" and thus, are able to respectfully ask these communities to share their culture globally.