Review of the Archaeology Society 2012 Summer Conference:
‘Whose Past? An Interdisciplinary debate on the repatriation of artefacts and reburial of human remains’
After victory in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 the Duke of Wellington and the French government had a number of decisions to make, one of which was the matter of the contents of the Louvre and other artwork in Paris. Following looting across Europe, the collections contained items from the Papal collection, Spain and the Netherlands among others. Ignoring the notion of, ‘to the victor the spoils,’ they set about repatriating all the pieces to their original holders even paying the shipping for the return of the Papal collection. However, the emotional response of the French people was also remarkable; crowds gathered to attempt to prevent the Horses of St. Mark being removed and ladies wept in front of the Louvre as the pieces were packed by British soldiers. Ideas of repatriation are far from new, and controversy has always surrounded them.
The aim of the Durham University Archaeology Society Conference was to generate a stimulating debate about the ownership and ethical questions associated with these types of archaeological material, incorporating experts in numerous fields in an effort to promote an interdisciplinary approach.
Twelve speakers from a wide range of disciplines, with a wide range of specialities, dissected a topical and somewhat controversial subject matter, leading to a day of informative and engaging debate and discussion.
The morning session, chaired by Professor Robin Coningham, debated the proposal that ‘Western museums should take a sympathetic view to requests for the repatriation of cultural artefacts,’ proposed by Professor Piotr Bienkowski and opposed by Dr. Tiffany Jenkins. The proposition focused on a well observed critique of the current adversarial approach adopted by museums towards requests for repatriation and the miring of any discourse in questions of legal ownership and legitimacy. It was proposed that museums should welcome requests for repatriation as a chance to engage in debate about the meaning of objects and pointed out examples of museums who, lending a sympathetic ear to claims for repatriation, built successful relationships with claimant communities which went on to benefit both parties. The opposition, however, suggested that, in fact, the process of repatriation is based on troubling assumptions made of identity, politics and culture which require challenging rather than reinforcing. She proposed the exorcising of politics from decision making, and argued that artefacts ‘belong’ nowhere and should remain where they are most accessible and best preserved. The ensuing debate included discussions of the legality of repatriation, through the example of the Bruno Schulz murals, and an in depth examination of ‘Digital Heritage’ concerning the Elgin Marbles. The growing importance of collection mobility was also raised as were a number of valuable and intriguing anthropological case studies.
The afternoon session, chaired by Professor Geoffrey Scarre, debated the motion that, ‘The recent legislative changes relating to human remains are a threat to academic research.' The proposition, Dr Duncan Sayer, passionately outlined his belief that new legislation, that demands the reburial of skeletal remains within 2 years and the requirement that excavations be screened from the public gaze, was detrimental to both the pursuit of science and the government’s own outreach policy. He regards the former as placing human remains in danger of destruction and the latter as a hindrance to education and openness and denies people the chance to see archaeology in action. He went on to argue that from his experience as a professional archaeologist these laws and an ‘anti research stance,’ are based on outdated Victorian/Christian ideas that are not relevant to pre-historic communities or the practise of modern archaeology and could have a damaging effect on the public view and support for archaeology. The opposition, from a paper written by Emma Restall Orr and presented by Lauren Moreau, presented the case from an animist perspective. They argued that the new legislation should not be a barrier to academic research provided that requests for extensions are used properly and that no particular viewpoint should take precedence in discussions and all should be considered with sensitivity and given due consideration. The debate that followed was wide ranging, and included a revealing look at the state of human remains collections in museums, as well as an evaluation of their importance as a source of scientific data, culminating in a debate on the moral and ethical aspects of investigating human remains.
After the conclusions of the final debate Archaeology Society Vice President and chief organiser of the conference Jamie Davies closed the conference by thanking the speakers and attendees for lending their enthusiasm and knowledge to the project as well as the volunteers for making the event possible. He went on to say that he believed the conference would prove an important step towards an inter-disciplinary approach to issues in both repatriation and in a wider academic context. He hoped the spirit of co-operation and healthy, constructive debate had engaged the attendees and would inspire a continuation of these academic principles to help achieve a true inter-disciplinary approach.
View photographs from the Durham University Archaeology Society Conference 2012 in our Gallery