International Law, Museums and the Return of Cultural Objects.

Author:Nafziger, James A.R.

International Law, Museums and the Return of Cultural Objects. By Ana Filipa Vrdoljak. Cambridge, New York, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. xxxviii, 342. Paper, $48.

Imperialism, Art and Restitution. Edited by John Henry Merryman. Cambridge, New York, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. x, 267. $84.

In a little less than forty years, the field of cultural heritage law has evolved into a significant regime of treaties and customary practice accompanied by an impressive array of scholarly literature, specialized journals, professional groups, blogs, and other services. One of the core topics of this regime involves claims for the international return, restitution, or repatriation of cultural material. These claims frequently appear in the news, whether related to confiscation of art during the Holocaust, looting of Native American burial sites, sticky-fingered snitching of rare coins, questionable acquisitions and imports of fine art by major museums, salvage of historic shipwrecks, or a myriad of other circumstances. The two books under review offer two ways of thinking about the restitution of cultural material, defining and analyzing the legal and moral issues from divergent perspectives. They both focus, however, on cultural material derived from the opportunistic environments of conquest and colonization.

The term "cultural heritage," as applied to tangible objects or material, is often used interchangeably with "cultural objects" or "cultural material" and with the older term "cultural property," which is becoming less prominent in legal instruments and discourse. In addition, the European Union and several of its members, in their joint project of economic integration, use the term "cultural goods." Although none of these terms is perfect, "cultural property" and "cultural goods" are especially problematic because of the tendency in their usage to commodify and commercialize the nature of cultural material, and thus restrict the scope of related inquiry and decision making to the elements of property law. Such connotations also temper legal discourse about the restitution of cultural objects.

By contrast, Ana Filipa Vrdoljak, of the University of Western Australia and the European University Institute, adopts a deeper, functional understanding of restitution as it applies specifically to the heritage of indigenous people. In her study, International Law, Museums and the Return of Cultural Objects, Vrdoljak effectively deploys the results of her extensive research and analysis to recontextualize the tangible legacy of indigenous peoples as something more profound than the objects of curiosity, admiration, and scientific commentary. Her ambitious purpose is to help reverse the "mechanisms of forgetfulness" (p. 259) imposed by imperial or other dominant political authorities, and hence to restore suppressed cultural identities. Her proposed framework delineates three rationales for the restitution of cultural objects: the principle of territoriality, which links such objects with peoples and land; the rectification of wrongs to indigenous peoples such as discrimination and genocidal practices, which deprived them of the objects; and the promotion of self-determination and reconciliation of indigenous peoples with the dominant authorities and cultures.

We learn that even before the era of cultural heritage law, restitution began to emerge as "an early marker of the transition within the international community from policies promoting cultural Darwinism to cultural pluralism" (p. 3). In support of this pluralism, Vrdoljak emphasizes the need for moral restitution, in the form of an honest acknowledgment by dominant populations of past injustice and a commitment to restore trust in their relationships with indigenous peoples by recognizing the cultural identities of those peoples. The core value of cultural identity, of course, is more generic in international legal discourse. For example, it helped validate special treatment of certain Canadian courier and other distribution services provided by the Canada Post, a Crown corporation, in an arbitration based on the North American Free Trade Agreement that had been initiated by the U.S.-based United Parcel Service. The arbitrators justified the special treatment under an exception to NAFTA for any measures adopted or maintained with respect to "cultural industries." (1)

In examining the emergence and development of the rationales for the restitution of cultural objects, Vrdoljak relies on three case studies of museum policies and practices, with primary focus on Asia-Pacific collections: London's South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum), from the early nineteenth century to the interwar period; New York's Museum of Modern Art, from the early twentieth century to the period of decolonization after World War II; and Sydney's Australian Museum, from decolonization to the present. These studies trace the changing role of museums in the rebirth of cultural identity and pluralism, beginning in the late nineteenth century when robust collecting of what was then described as "primitive" art had reached a point where museums possessed more examples of tribal artifacts than their communities of origin.

Against the background of this institutional chronology, Vrdoljak ably discusses how the major legal instruments, institutions, and landmark judicial decisions have responded to claims by indigenous peoples for the return of cultural material from the selected...

To continue reading