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Communities, Museums, Repatriation...Oh my!

By: Liz Sullivan


Figure 1. Reproductions and original clan hats danced in a 2015 Tlingit event at the NMNH. Image: James DiLoreto/NMNH (source).

With development of agreements like NAGPRA and the NMAI act, repatriation has become a buzzword within the museum field. Unlike restitution (a legal concept that developed from discussions by UNESCO during the 1960s focused on the return of objects to owners based on property rights), repatriation gained popularity in North America and Australasia during the 1980s-1990s and focuses on returning human remains and objects to countries and communities.¹ Although there are legal processes involved, repatriation is usually applied to claims which are viewed as moral rather than legal in nature, which is why many Indigenous claims are considered acts of repatriation.² Although successful repatriation cases have increased in recent history, each case faces obstacles, particularly resistance on the side of holding institutions resulting in conflicts with claimant communities. Why does this conflict occur, and how can it be resolved?

Museums and Repatriation

Despite repatriation becoming more accepted within the museum field, many institutions (particularly universal museums) continue to resist it.³ Arguments given against repatriation include legal constraints, potential damage to objects, questions of claimant legitimacy, and concern of setting precedents for future claims. Museums fear that by continuing to repatriate objects, they will lose the majority of their collections and become empty. This reluctance results in long-winded processes favouring holding institutions and requiring excessive effort from claimants to prove ownership.

Although museums try to justify their resistance to repatriation, historically each successful case has occurred under unique circumstances, making it unlikely for precedents to be established. To date there have also been no instances of communities requiring the return of all their objects from institutions. For example, although Nigeria has been fighting for the return of the Benin Bronzes because of how they were taken, they have shown willingness to support extended loans of other Nigerian objects currently displayed in Western institutions.

Communities and Repatriation

While it is important to listen to museums regarding collection concerns, it is arguably more important to prioritise the other side of the debate: communities. To understand the importance and benefit of repatriation for communities, we must first establish the difference between tangible and intangible heritage. Tangible heritage prioritises the value (e.g., historical, scientific, ethnological) physical objects hold. Intangible heritage (or living heritage) is about what objects mean for cultural identity (e.g., oral history, sacred rituals, customs). By removing cultural objects from communities and displaying them in museums, their original meanings are diminished, and they become artefacts.¹⁰ Repatriating objects means communities are able to reclaim aspects of their cultural heritage that these items represent.

The question becomes museum professionals, we should support the conservation, preservation and education ideologies of museums; as human beings, we cannot ignore the needs and rights of individuals and communities that are impeded by the very institutions for which we are responsible. How can we prioritise repatriation of cultural heritage without dissolving museums as institutions? The case of Kéet S’aaxw may hold the answer.

Kéet S’aaxw, the Killer Whale Clan Crest Hat: A Case Study

Figure 2. Replica (left) and original (right) Killer Whale crest hats displayed at the 2012 clan conference in Sitka, Alaska. Image: NMNH (source).

Kéet S’aaxw (Killer Whale clan crest hat) of the Tlingit’s Dakl’aweidí clan was carved in 1900 for clan leader Gusht’eiheen. It is an at.óow, a sacred, communal object bearing the clan crest and holds cultural and religious significance within the community.¹¹ At.óow transform from personal property to sacred objects during a potlatch where the object(s) are presented as ‘crest objects’ and witnessed by representatives from opposite moiety within the Indigenous community.¹²

Kéet S’aaxw was illegally sold to John Swanton, a Smithsonian ethnologist in 1904 by one of Gusht’eiheen’s sons.¹³ It remained in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) until Dakl’aweidí leader Mark Jacobs Jr.’s son Harold discovered it in a 1908 Smithsonian publication while looking for other Tlingit objects housed in the collection, sometime after repatriation laws were established.¹⁴ Jacobs began working with NMNH to verify Kéet S’aaxw’s origins, and upon confirmation of its provenance the repatriation process began. During the final stages, Jacobs grew gravely ill. NMNH expedited the process and returned Kéet S’aaxw to the Dakl’aweidí where it was used in a Tlingit ceremony for the first time in a hundred years.¹⁵ Jacobs died 11 days later with the comfort of knowing another at.óow had come home.

While Kéet S’aaxw is no longer publicly available, this does not mean it cannot teach visitors about the Tlingit. From 2010-2012, Jacobs’ successor Edwell John Jr. worked with Adam Metallo from the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office to create a 3D model of Kéet S’aaxw. This model presents many opportunities. The Dakl’aweidí now have a detailed record should anything happen to the original, and the Smithsonian used the model to create a facsimile for display and education.¹⁶ The Dakl’aweidí were thrilled by the replica, and although it is not a true at.óow because it will not be used in the necessary ceremony, it is still seen as representing the Tlingit, occasionally being signed out by the Dakl’aweidí and used in public performances for education and entertainment.¹⁷

Figure 3. Edwell John Jr. (left) and Adam Metallo (right) examining scans of the Killer Whale Hat. Image: NMNH (source).


Cultural objects hold important meanings within communities. There is a difference between objects which have become significant to a community through ceremony, religious significance, or daily use, compared to objects that have become important due to extended exhibition. While it is understandable that objects housed by museums for decades have become entwined within the holding community’s cultural heritage, it is unreasonable to use that as argument against returning items to their origin communities. Cases like Kéet S’aaxw represent opportunities to create a new age of museums. Partnerships with communities, digitisation of materials, and collaborative reproductions open doors to a new age of meaning making, and present possible avenues for developing more inclusive museum practices.

If you would like to learn more about community collaboration, intangible/ tangible heritage or repatriation, check out these helpful resources:

❖ “World Heritage and Cultural Economics” by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

❖ “Transforming Theory into Practice” by Bryony Onciul

❖ “Intangible Heritage - Why Should We Care?” by Prof. Máiréad Nic Craith


1 Piotr Bienkowski, “A Critique of Museum Restitution and Repatriation Practices,” in The International Handbooks of Museum Studies: Museum Practice, ed. Conal McCarthy (John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2015). 432.

2 Ibid.

3 Bienkowski, 434

4 Ibid.; Pauno Soirila, “Indeterminacy in the Cultural Property Restitution Debate,” International Journal of Cultural Policy 28, no. 1 (April 1, 2021): 1–16, 8.

5 Pierre Losson, “Opening Pandora’s Box: Will the Return of Cultural Heritage Objects to Their Country of Origin Empty Western Museums?,” The Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society 51, no. 6 (July 1, 2021): 379–92, 380

6 Bienkowski, 431

7 Losson, 382

8 Ibid. 383.

9 Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “World Heritage and Cultural Economics,” in Museum Frictions : Public Cultures/Global Transformations, ed. Ivan Karp et al. (Duke University Press, 2006). 164-165.

10 Soirila, 8.

11 Meilan Solly, “This Replica of a Tlingit Killer Whale Hat Is Spurring Dialogue about Digitization,” Smithsonian Magazine, September 11, 2017. hat-spurring-dialogue-about-digitization-180964483/.; Eric Hollinger et al., “Tlingit-12 Smithsonian Collaborations with 3D Digitization of Cultural Objects,” Museum Anthropology Review 7, no. 1-2 (2013): 202

12 Hollinger et al., 202.

13 Ibid. 203.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid. 207.

17 Solly; Hollinger et al., 211.


Bienkowski, Piotr. “A Critique of Museum Restitution and Repatriation Practices.” In The

International Handbooks of Museum Studies: Museum Practice, edited by Conal

McCarthy. John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2015.

Hollinger, Eric, Edwell John Jr, Harold Jacobs, Lora Moran-Collins, Carolyn Thorne,

Jonathan Zastrow, Adam Metallo, Günter Waibel, and Vince Rossi. “Tlingit-

Smithsonian Collaborations with 3D Digitization of Cultural Objects.” Museum

Anthropology Review 7, no. 1-2 (2013): 201–53.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. “World Heritage and Cultural Economics.” In Museum

Frictions : Public Cultures/Global Transformations, edited by Ivan Karp, Corinne A

Kratz, Lynn Szwaja, and Tomas Ybarra-Frausto, 161–202. Duke University Press,


Losson, Pierre. “Opening Pandora’s Box: Will the Return of Cultural Heritage Objects to

Their Country of Origin Empty Western Museums?” The Journal of Arts

Management, Law, and Society 51, no. 6 (July 1, 2021): 379–92.

Soirila, Pauno. “Indeterminacy in the Cultural Property Restitution Debate.” International

Journal of Cultural Policy 28, no. 1 (April 1, 2021): 1–16.

Solly, Meilan. “This Replica of a Tlingit Killer Whale Hat Is Spurring Dialogue about

Digitization.” Smithsonian Magazine, September 11, 2017.


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