There is no universal heritage, but there is a shared heritage
by carlos matías
James Clifford, Professor Emeritus of the Department of History of Consciousness University of California, Santa Cruz, talks to Sol de Medianoche about the tasks of recovering Alaska Native heritage, scattered in institutions and private collections in other countries, far from the people who created them and their territories, especially scattered throughout Europe. Professor Clifford is author of the book “Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the 21st Century.”
Professor James Clifford, from California, begins by talking with us about the open cooperative work between a small French museum and the Alutiiq community in Alaska. We make him see how interesting this collaboration is, which seems to us to be along the lines that there is no “exclusive heritage” of a community, but that today, in this globalized world, heritage is in a certain way “universal,” a little bit of everyone. And here arises the first discrepancy of the present interview.
James Clifford is clear and categorical on this first point: “I do not agree with the idea of a “universal” heritage, mentioned above. The “shared heritage” presupposes specific partners, alliances and negotiated reciprocities.”
- What is this French museum? It is the Chateau Musée in Boulogne sur Mer, France. The Alutiiq materials found there are “The Pinart Collection.”
- Do you know if there are any other indigenous works from other Alaskan peoples in other museums in Europe? There are many Alaskan cultural and artistic objects and artifacts in European collections. Usually, these are “Northwest Coast” or Yup’ik art. These are much better known than Alutiiq productions, which are rare.
- In your opinion, how should Alaska’s indigenous cultural heritage be treated? Should it all come back to Alaska or is it good to have exhibits in other countries, so that citizens of those countries outside of Alaska can learn about it and be interested in it? This isn’t an either/or proposition. There is so much material in European and North American collections, there is much that could be shared. “Repatriation” is a very general term that includes objects returned, physically, to “homelands.” Usually to a museum or an indigenous cultural center, or to a “national museum in Africa.” Then we have the circulation and long-term loan of collections; or the granting of special access and authority to “communities of origin” for collections remaining in Europe and North America.
We have “digital repatriation,” which makes collections accessible remotely. Similarly, there are the partnerships negotiated between indigenous and metropolitan institutions to circulate and exchange heritage, including old and new “art” and ceremonial objects.Which of these options, or a combination of them, is chosen depends on many factors, local, political, historical, financial? There is no “one size fits all” repatriation.
The opinion of the “indigenous” varies. In some cases, it is better to leave the heritage in a place where it can be properly stored, with special access and authority over interpretation, in other cases, some objects (especially “sacred” ones) should be physically returned. Human remains should always be returned for reburial. Many consider that it is good to have high quality examples of their heritage in faraway places: “ambassadors” of their culture. But the current situation, where funding is heavily weighted towards former imperial nations, is not acceptable.
There must be some kind of rebalancing, redistribution and sharing of this diverse and rich heritage. Personally, I think it would be tragic if there were not rich collections of African, Arctic, Pacific Native, and so on, art and artifacts in places like Europe and North America.
These arts are crucial inspirations for future creativity, and records of “human art history.” But, as I have said, there is more than enough to be widely shared, when the practical details of provenance and local control can be worked out.
- Since you don’t believe in a “universal heritage,” who has intellectual property over an ethnic heritage? The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) published a study by Molly Torsen and Jane Anderson in which they comment that “the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak has sound recordings of the Alutiiq language, interviews with elders, recordings of events, etcetera, the rights to which belong to the institution and not to the Alutiiq natives. Do you agree? The individuals are often deceased. Their communities should have access to the recorded materials if they wish. The institutions that made the recording should retain the rights but respect the protocols of secrecy and authority expressed by qualified representatives of the communities of origin.
Common ground must be found for negotiation in particular cases and situations of colonial, neocolonial and postcolonial history.
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