JAIC 1992, Volume 31, Number 1, Article 4 (pp. 23 to 29)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1992, Volume 31, Number 1, Article 4 (pp. 23 to 29)



ABSTRACT—Collections management, exhibitions, and research are areas in which collaboration will help the museum as well as provide a role for Native American people in the preservation and interpretation of their cultural heritage. Using the repatriation work of the Museum of New Mexico as a case study, the author suggests that the repatriation process benefits a museum by resulting in better programming and preservation.

Repatriation is a vital issue for museums today because anthropology museums, as well as others that hold non-Western collections, have reached an end to their usefulness under their old operative definition: to save or preserve a record of cultures believed to be on the brink of extinction. When it is strictly defined as the return or restoration of cultural material to the country of origin, repatriation is often misunderstood and met with apprehension because it is viewed as a one-sided affair. It may also carry a negative connotation because of the confrontational tone of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, Public Law 101–601 (U. S. Congress 1990). Repatriation might better be perceived in the more enlightened context of a collaboration or cultural review process with Indian leaders and communities. As a result, a museum gains greater knowledge about its collections and enhances its interpretive powers, and Indian communities become active participants in the preservation and interpretation of their cultural heritage.

The return of objects is a radical and unusual step. Of the millions of objects held in museums, only a few thousand are truly under consideration for return. Repatriation is just one in a spectrum of solutions that includes consultation, collaboration, advisory panels and boards, and leadership roles for Indian people as staff and consultants. It is a partnership created through dialogue based upon cooperation and mutual trust between a museum and an Indian community. Ultimately, repatriation might better be understood as a collaborative process that gives Indian people authority over their own cultural heritage and removes the stigma of cultural paternalism that has hindered museums for decades in their attempts to interpret Indian peoples with respect and accuracy.

The Museum of New Mexico accepts a broader definition of repatriation that functions to establish a joint agreement between the museum and a community. For example, the result of negotiations may be repatriation but may also be the retention of objects with no restrictions on use, care, and/or exhibition; the retention of objects with restrictions on use, care, and/or exhibition; the lending of objects either permanently or temporarily for use to a community; and the holding in trust of culturally sensitive materials for a community.

The Museum of New Mexico Culturally Sensitive Materials Policy is inclusive of all people, not just Native Americans. This inclusiveness builds community support and involvement and results in better museum programming. The policy is intentionally vague and is not meant to be a procedure. It serves as a frame for action so that the museum can approach each case individually. Each negotiation is unique and must be handled within the confines of a culture's own character.


At the Museum of New Mexico we are taking a proactive stance in regard to cultural materials. One example is the compilation of inventories of sensitive objects. Museum policy requires these inventories to be completed and ready for distribution by 1995. These inventories will include religious objects, human remains, funerary objects, photographs and other depictions of sensitive materials, and documents about sensitive materials. We have completed the inventory of potentially sensitive ethnographic materials and are currently engaged in the inventory of human remains and funerary objects. These inventories represent the museum's best estimate of the sensitivity of objects and are used only as a guideline for beginning discussions with community-based groups. They demonstrate the museum's concern while providing some organization to the bewildering world of museum collections. Concerned parties can begin negotiation by responding directly to these lists, commenting specifically on them, and making additions and subtractions. Another result of our inventory procedure, based on the advice of Indian staff and advisory board members, is that access to these potentially sensitive collections is restricted to concerned parties and a few curators. This rather simple step is indicative of a respect for the culture and beliefs of our constituents.

Another example of the museum's proactive work involves storage. A National Endowment for the Humanities preservation grant will allow us to move sensitive materials from cabinets in thoroughfare storage rooms to restricted rooms away from daily museum collections work. Only sensitive materials will be stored in the small, isolated rooms which are designed to replicate the dark, isolated storage rooms found in Pueblo houses. The use of open shelving will allow the objects to “breathe” and assure that there are no barriers, such as cabinet doors, between visitors and their cultural materials. Objects will be laid flat, not stacked or nested. The Kachina doll collections will also be moved to a new location away from regular foot traffic and work areas. Although these carved wood and painted figures are not sensitive to Hopi and Zuni people—and certainly the Heard Museum in Phoenix exhibits Kachinas with the blessings of Hopi people—they are considered sacred or religious objects in the Rio Grande Pueblos. For example, when San Felipe Pueblo schoolchildren go on field trips they are accompanied by many chaperones. These adult supervisors are there not because the children may misbehave but rather to protect them from things in the outside world they should not see, such as Kachina dolls. By removing these collections from work rooms and thoroughfare areas, the museum staff will enable Indian staff members and researchers to be more comfortable in the storage rooms. Collection storage is thus driven by cultural as well as preservation concerns.

As part of the Museum of New Mexico's process for identifying potentially sensitive materials, conservation treatment of sensitive objects without consultation is not permitted. Our policy specifies that “Conservation treatment shall not be performed on identified culturally sensitive materials without consulting concerned parties.” Conservation practices may be contrary to the original intended use of an object if that object was meant to deteriorate. Further, proper maintenance and repair may only be allowable if performed by initiated religious society members. Thus, it may be both insensitive and presumptuous to have a noninitiated (and therefore non-“knowing”) person work on an object; moreover, our intervention may be insensitive and potentially harmful to the object and the personnel. Obviously, at times this view can be difficult to reconcile with conservation obligations. Current sensibilities, however, place decision making power over treatment of these objects with Indian people and, in turn, place the curator and conservator in an ever-shifting role. Clearly, museum preservation concerns and goals must be articulated or possibly altered to reflect a more collaborative approach. P.L. 101–601 assumes ownership of culturally sensitive materials lies with Indian people. Therefore, although it may seem harsh, preservation (or interpretation) without consultation is cultural appropriation.

The museum is using consultation and ethical consideration to guide whether conservation of human remains, funerary objects, or sacred materials may include the application of substances. Consultants have told us that application of conservation materials such as consolidants may be considered a further desecration of human burials. We are also learning to consider other cultural viewpoints. For example, we have found that Indian people are shocked and upset that we have separated funerary objects from burials. Common museum practices have dictated that like materials are stored together, but now we need to reassess this approach.


A culture has an ethical right to participate in a museum's interpretation of its community for museum visitors. Because living Indian people have generally not been considered a resource for anthropology collections, museums might continue to hold objects with little, or no, or incorrect catalog information, and perhaps against the wishes of a community. For decades, museums have paid non-Indian consultants to tell us more about collections, yet we have rarely afforded Native Americans this same opportunity.

When consultation takes place, good things happen. Museum of New Mexico policy requires archaeological collaboration by having Native observers arranging consultations with Indian communities, prohibiting removal of human remains and associated funerary objects, and requiring prior approval for destructive analysis. While excavating a highway right-of-way project in 1990, museum archaeologists found a wall mural dating from 1250–1325 A. D. The mural posed a potentially sensitive issue for living Pueblo peoples because of their current use of murals in a religious context. Our contact with the All-Indian Pueblo Council was positive and they approved our conservation plans and offered to place the mural on display at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. In a recent collaboration with Taos Pueblo, museum archaeologists were allowed to study and photograph burials and funerary objects. Through extensive documentation and correspondence, they shared findings with Taos that are not usually found in published or unpublished reports. In today's climate, human remains are sometimes immediately reinterred, without providing archaeologists the opportunity to study them.

An example of the museum's proactive work is our inquiries over the past two years to tribal governments asking them to decide on the disposition of human remains from their lands held in our collections. In 1966 tribal members worked with the museum on a highway right-of-way excavation, but it wasn't until 1991, as part of our repatriation and cultural review process, that these people were afforded the opportunity to decide what to do with the two human skeletons and funerary objects removed 25 years before. Tribal policy clearly tells us that the museum has interrupted the dead's journey. These remains, which were removed from tribal lands, are the tribe's property and are to be returned. This particular pueblo's decision stands in contrast to those of five others that wish us to retain the human remains in the museum's collections. These and other southwestern tribes often wish to avoid the possibility of “bringing a misfortune” to their communities through the return of desecrated remains and objects. This misfortune could possibly occur because the dead have already been properly sent on to another world and there may be no cultural mechanism for their return to the community after the fact, or because there is no way of knowing whether the bones being offered for reburial are the remains of a good or a bad person (e.g., a witch). Ultimately repatriation can be difficult for the tribes, too.

In recent negotiations with the Pueblo of Zuni, a review of more than 400 objects resulted in the return of 10 items of Zuni manufacture and 16 replicas made for museum exhibits. These objects were not on exhibit nor were they accessible to researchers due to current sensibilities; therefore the museum “lost” nothing by their return, but gained a fuller understanding of our Zuni holdings. Several other types of objects that had also been classified as “sensitive” for more than 60 years were shown to Zuni religious leaders, and their unanimous consensus was that neither the so-called “sacred” pots nor the fetish collections should have any restrictions on use. They encouraged us to allow researchers to have access to these objects. As it turned out, their comments concerning the pots helped piece together the true story of our museum's collection of fake “sacred” pots.

The Pueblo of Zuni has also adjusted its thinking. Only a few years ago photographs of the Ahayu:da (War God) were not appreciated in newspapers and other publicity. But about a year ago a photo was published and a private collector saw it. He hadn't realized what he had in his possession and contacted the Pueblo of Zuni to repatriate the War God. Subsequently, the Pueblo of Zuni is now widely publicizing each War God return through press releases, newspapers, and by asking museums to speak openly about their involvement.


As an ethnographer, I cannot emphasize enough what I have learned from these negotiations. As a result of the contributions of knowledgeable Indian people, a curator's understanding of a museum's collection is enhanced. In one situation, I learned more in a few hours than in 10 years of formal and informal fieldwork. For example, I understood there to be some factionalism present in a certain pueblo, but not until their representatives walked into the room and I witnessed their varied reactions to the sensitive materials for review on the table did I begin to understand how factionalism is used daily to negotiate the governance of this pueblo. Through increased understanding of museum collections and the cultures they represent, exhibitions and publications are empowered and therefore potentially better. The Museum of New Mexico's current exhibition “Steady Hands, White Metal” was jointly curated by two Native jewelers and myself. The interpretive power of the exhibit increased exponentially by this collaboration, resulting in a well-received, popular exhibition. These jewelers also helped us determine to what extent conservators should clean the silver by considering how Native people wear silver work rather than by relying on the often fallacious method of leaving patination to make the silver look older as is commonly practiced in the Southwest by art dealers and private collectors.

While we physically preserve a sacred object in a museum, are we at the same time causing harm to the culture and the people it represents by holding an object out of context and away from the community responsible for its care and for the maintenance of the traditions it may represent? A museum's and an Indian community's senses of preservation may be in conflict. Some sacred objects are made to be used and then allowed to return to the elements. Whose definition of “sacred” should museums use, and how can museums cope with a changing definition? Are our preservation policies actually destructive to communities, and do they serve to desecrate objects? What about the “power” in sacred objects? Are we putting ourselves in danger? As a pueblo colleague has told me, “Pueblo culture values newness and renewal; they aren't interested in museums and old things.”

Given the attention our collections now elicit, I would suggest that the idea of how power is transmitted may be changing and that Indian people are becoming collectors and venerators of the past. Power is now thought to be invested permanently in objects by practitioners rather than resting there temporarily. This view places legitimately collected objects in a changed realm of potential sensitivity and repatriation. In the sense that curators wish to be considered as more enlightened and open than were our ancestors, we must also accept that Indian peoples' traditions change to remain vital. Four years ago two sacred objects, religious society—owned corn mother fetishes, were given to the museum with the specific intent that they would be repatriated to what we believed to be their pueblo of origin. The identification was based on information from the donor, curatorial knowledge, and consultant opinions. The pueblo's head priest arrived at the museum with two assistants and the lieutenant governor. Only the head priest approached the end of the room where the fetishes were; clearly, he was the only one initiated. He suggested that these fetishes were not from his pueblo but from another which we then contacted. Representatives of this pueblo came in, but they also did not claim the objects. The native people involved were concerned the pieces would be returned to the proper group. Sacred objects are living, and by a museum's possession of them, we can and often do become obligated parties. In this particular situation, I believe the museum has ended up in a “holding-trust” situation. The first man probably recognized the fetishes as belonging to a particular individual who had left the religious society and was therefore no longer considered living; consequently, the fetishes were not to be associated with because “dead” or polluted objects could not be brought back into the village. This case also illustrates that there is often neither the cultural mechanism for the return of objects nor the will to have them returned.

Traditions change to survive. In some cases of individually owned sacred objects, power resided within the individual who would then invest his or her power in that object. When the object became worn or used it was then removed from use and the practitioner made a new object. More and more often, however, the objects themselves hold power and are considered sacred in themselves. For example, Navajo medicine bundles are today increasingly thought to be inherently powerful and “tribally owned,” whereas in the not-too-distant past bundles were personal property that were handed down to apprentices. This changing circumstance represents a significant shift in the way power is held and perceived.

The definition of “sacred” is problematic. What is and is not sacred is subject to change. Individual as opposed to community ownership can also be troublesome for a museum. The Museum of New Mexico Policy on Culturally Sensitive Materials dictates that appropriate curators approach concerned parties. This is not an extraordinary procedure given the fact that curators are expected to know their collections and thus through the process of locating the proper parties will have the opportunity to learn more about the collections for which they are responsible.

What museums retain may become models for future pieces of regalia. In 1978, Ian Brown, a Maidu man living in the Sierra Nevada of California, gave me a rationale for why the “old people” sold or gave their power objects and dance regalia to museums in the 1900–20 period. Museums were perceived to be banks, and those old Indian doctors thought it was safer to put some objects in a “trust account” for future generations rather than leave them where they might be misused by a generation that they felt was not well versed or particularly pleased with being Indians. Those were especially harsh years of government programs to assimilate Indian people by, for example, forcibly taking children away from their families and sending them to boarding schools. These power objects and dance regalia have been “withdrawn” in the past two decades and have served as models for dance regalia for such dance groups as the Maidu Dancers and Traditionalists and Bill Franklin's Miwok Dancers. Museums house “living” objects, and ultimately the care provided through past, present, and future use of climate control, fumigants, consolidants, and handling regulations all may have an impact on the availability of objects as cultural patrimony and souces of pride. Certainly, we must continue to care for and preserve collections when possible, and it has been my experience that most if not all Indian peoples understand and appreciate the role museums have played in the preservation of cultural materials. Collaboration may teach new and better methods of preservation by sharing knowledge of native use, care, repair, and construction. Obviously, it can still be difficult to reconcile collection preservation obligations and ethics.


It is always surprising to me to meet people who don't realize that Native cultures are living and ongoing. I know curators who are uncomfortable speaking directly to Indian people or perhaps, more critically, unwilling to talk to them because, as they suggest, “they have lost their culture.” A tribal member recognizing one object and not recognizing another tribal object is information. Certainly cultures are not the same as they were when the objects in museums were collected. Regardless of what is known of these past traditions today, museum collections represent cultural heritage. There are Indian communities and people throughout North America in all states of being, and in those cases in which Indian people are struggling to retain their identity or are attempting to reidentify their roots it particularly behooves museums to work for them. Museums are entering a new era for which we are just beginning to write the rule books. Anyone who believes repatriation will simply “go away” is wrong, because it is but the first pitch of this new ballgame. We cannot sit and wait to be approached by Indian communities; we must seek them out. Otherwise we are re-creating the circumstances that have led us to the current repatriation climate. Museum curators are supposed to know their collections; paradoxically, this is an excellent opportunity to learn more about the objects our museums house; and, most important, their cultural context.

We should welcome the opportunity to consider more voices in our preservation and interpretive programs. We may in this manner be able to broaden our appeal and our audiences while bettering our work. It is our responsibility as museum professionals to invite Indian people as collaborators in everything we do, creating partnerships and opening every possible door for them, including training, employment opportunities, and advisory panels. We can also encourage Indian visitation through networking with our colleagues. The best approach to repatriation is one which acknowledges that museums gain both the respect of Indian communities and increased knowledge about their collections when curators actively solicit consultation and consensus. It is time to open ourselves and our institutions, to listen, and to let the information flow both ways.


U. S. Congress. 1990. Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, Public Law 101–601. United States Code Congressional and Administrative News, 101st Congress Second Session. St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing.


BRUCE BERNSTEIN is chief curator and assistant director of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture/Laboratory of Anthropology, Santa Fe, New Mexico, a part of the Museum of New Mexico. His previous experience includes the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, Maxwell Museum of Anthrolopogy, and California Department of Parks and Recreation. He has published widely and has curated exhibitions on American Indian arts, aesthetics, and the history of anthropology. He is cochair of the Museum of New Mexico's Committee on Culturally Sensitive Materials. Bernstein holds a B.A. in American studies from the University of California, and an M.A. in anthropology at the University of New Mexico, where he is currently completing his dissertation in anthropology. He completed an internship at the Smithsonian's Anthropology Conservation Laboratory in 1975. Address: Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, P.O. Box 2087, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87504–2087.

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Copyright � 1992 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works