In the past, the term “primitive” has been used to describe the art of Native tribes and First Nations. This term is deeply problematic—and reveals the distorted lens of colonialism through which these groups have been seen and misunderstood. After contact, Europeans and Euro-Americans often conceived of the Amerindian peoples of North America as noble savages (a primitive, uncivilized, and romanticized “Other”). This legacy has affected the reception and appreciation of Native arts, which is why much of it was initially collected by anthropological (rather than art) museums. Many people viewed Native objects as curiosities or as specimens of “dying” cultures—which in part explains why many objects were stolen or otherwise acquired without approval of Native peoples. Many sacred objects, for example, were removed and put on display for non-Native audiences. While much has changed, this legacy lives on, and it is important to be aware of and overcome the many stereotypes and biases that persist from prior centuries.
The Yale case has also paved the way for Peru to reclaim objects from around the world, including a collection of Paracas textiles, which the city of Gothenburg, Sweden, is in talks to return. “Their concern is how are these pieces going to be taken care of” if they leave Sweden? Mr. Castillo said. “It’s a legitimate concern,” he added. “The point is that Peru is ready.”
One significant step that has been taken to correct some of this colonial legacy has been NAGPRA, or the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1992. This is a U.S. federal law that dictates that “human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony, referred to collectively in the statute as cultural items” be returned to tribes if they can demonstrate “lineal descent or cultural affiliation.” Many museums in the U.S. have been actively trying to repatriate items and human remains. For example, in 2011, a museum returned a wooden box drum, a hide robe, wooden masks, a headdress, a rattle, and a pipe to the Tlingít T’akdeintaan Clan of Hoonah, Alaska. These objects were purchased in 1924 for $500.
The 1978 UNESCO Convention strengthened existing provisions; the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of illicit Appropriation was established. It consists of 22 members elected by the General Conference of UNESCO to facilitate bilateral negotiations for the restitution of "any cultural property which has a fundamental significance from the point of view of the spiritual values and cultural heritage of the people of a Member State or Associate Member of UNESCO and which has been lost as a result of colonial or foreign occupation or as a result of illicit appropriation". It was also created to "encourage the necessary research and studies for the establishment of coherent programmes for the constitution of representative collections in countries whose cultural heritage has been dispersed".
The broader issue here regards cosmopolitanism, the philosophy that informs Cuno’s defense of the modern museum. As formulated by Jacques Derrida, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and others in conversation with a tradition stretching back thousands of years and through many intellectual traditions, cosmopolitanism asserts that our common humanity gives us grounds for mutual understanding. It requires us to try to comprehend alien points of view. If cosmopolitan values call attention to the importance of the museum—helping us to look beyond its sometimes exploitative past toward a future in which it deepens the cultural awareness of people across the world—then they also demand that we take a tolerant approach to its foes. We owe something to countries laying claim to artifacts, even if they are doing so in ways that appear “tribal,” selfish, or politically motivated. After all, the priorities of these nation-states may be just as important for them as sharing a common artistic patrimony is for “enlightened” members of the world community.
This is a worrying attitude. It indicates that Spain is willing to use direct rule for its own benefit, even if that means opposing the long-standing policies of the democratically elected government that has just been ousted and jailed under charges of tumultuous sedition. The case of the heritage of Sixena has a long history of legal disputes between the governments of Catalonia and Aragon.
The scale of plundering that took place under Napoleon's French Empire was unprecedented in modern history with the only comparable looting expeditions taking place in ancient Roman history. In fact, the French revolutionaries justified the large-scale and systematic looting of Italy in 1796 by viewing themselves as the political successors of Rome, in the same way that ancient Romans saw themselves as the heirs of Greek civilization. They also supported their actions with the opinion that their sophisticated artistic taste would allow them to appreciate the plundered art. Napoleon's soldiers crudely dismantled the art by tearing paintings out of their frames hung in churches and sometimes causing damage during the shipping process. Napoleon's soldiers appropriated private collections and even the papal collection. Of the most famous artworks plundered included the Bronze Horses of Saint Mark in Venice and the Laocoön and His Sons in Rome (both since returned), with the later being considered the most impressive sculpture from antiquity at the time.