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Top Museums Unite To Fight Aboriginal Claims

Several museums in Europe and the United States have issued a landmark declaration opposing the wholesale repatriation of cultural artefacts seized during imperial rule or by means now considered unethical.

The museums say the universal value of collections of archaeological, artistic and ethnic objects in promoting culture outweighs the desire by individual countries or racial groups for their return.

The declaration is the most significant attempt by the world's leading museums to protect treasures, often seized during colonial rule, from governments or descendants of original owners.

Both sides are looking at this as a win-lose situation. If the museums give the artefacts back to the natives, then they lose their ability to teach their visitors about the societies in question, while the natives gain their cultural heritage. And vice versa. The same arguments were aired when NAGPRA -- requiring US museums to return Native American remains -- was passed.

But a funny thing happened when museums started complying with NAGPRA. They found that an open and cooperative approach improved their relations with Native Americans and ultimately made them more able to learn and teach about Native culture. Native Americans, meanwhile, discovered that they weren't simply gaining at the expense of their (often misunderstood) enemies. A partnership between the teachers and the subject matter turned out to be, on the balance, beneficial for both of them as well as the students (the public). Colgate's Longyear Museum is a good example. Complying with NAGPRA -- including the return of five Oneida skeletons -- helped Colgate and the Oneida Nation foster closer relations.


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