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Talking about Repatriation and Restitution

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Our Leipzig site, the Grassi Museum für Völkerkunde, recently held a podium discussion in a new event series titled “Decolonize.” The evening’s theme was “Decolonize: Restitute and Repatriate”. Our curator for Australia and the Pacific and Chief of Provenance Research and Restitution, Birgit Scheps-Bretschneider, discussed the repatriations of human remains our institution, the State Ethnographic Collections Saxony (SES) organized since 2017. Our museums returned human remains to Hawai’i (2017) and to several Australian communities (2019). We currently are in negotiations about further repatriations to New Zealand, Namibia, and North America.

During the evening, Birgit Scheps-Bretschneider pointed out that repatriations require much, and often lengthy, preparations (negotiations with government institutions, provenance research, forensic studies, discussions with source communities). Ideally, the return is part of a collaboration between source communities and museums. In the case of our Australian repatriations, our colleagues have participated in language revitalization projects that evolved out of repatriation negotiations, and our institution will contribute to the construction of a final resting place and community memorial for the returned ancestors.

We also had the opportunity to discuss emerging projects, such as our involvement in the “Labrador Avertok Archaeology Project”: SES was approached by colleagues from Memorial University of Newfoundland who work with Inuit communities in Labrador, i.e., the autonomous region of Nunatsiavut. We hosted visitors last fall who documented objects from the region in our collection and took 3D scans of some objects. These scans will be fed into a database at Inuit community centers in Labrador. Young community members will build and maintain the database and teach community elders how to use the technology. In return, the elders will use the documented images from our collections to teach young people about old cultural techniques, such as stitching patterns, basketry, or ivory carving. Such efforts in “immaterial restitution” also contribute to decolonization work at museums.

The Covid crisis has put many scheduled projects on hold (visits by and at communities), but the work continues and we are preparing more visits and repatriations for a time when travel will be, once again, possible.


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