U.S. museums, universities face questions about, requests for return of remains, art and antiquities

By Kevin Mayhood

Jim Strider, director of collections for the Ohio Historical Society, says the society in the 1990s returned materials to the Hopi tribe, and it has consulted recently with the Miami tribe in Oklahoma as archaeologists prepare for a dig near Piqua. The tribe previously lived in that area.

At the same time that Ohio State University is preparing to send the remains of American Indians back to West Virginia, the school is returning tissue and blood samples from Yanomamo tribes, at the request of the Brazilian government.
In northeastern Ohio, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History has received a letter from Odawa Indians requesting the return of two wooden ceremonial bowls. The Cleveland Museum of Art is talking with Italian authorities who want several antiquities returned.

Similar requests for human remains, artifacts and art are on the rise nationwide, museum officials say.

“I think there will be an increase in claims over time,” said Helen Robbins, repatriation director at the Field Museum in Chicago. “Laws and policies are changing.”

Researchers, historians and others at museums and universities used to scour the globe for antiquities, artwork and other artifacts.

Digs in such places as Egypt and Greece yielded finds that were shipped to London, New York, Cleveland, Chicago and Paris, where they were displayed for crowds eager to see ancient wonders and art.

But in recent years, a growing number of governments and cultures have asked — and in some cases, demanded — that these finds be returned.

“All institutions are concerned,” Robbins said. “But I don’t think there’s any anxiety. If we have title to a collection and if permits were properly obtained and things were done openly, there’s no problem.”

Working with Indian tribes and other countries has cost museums some works but also has opened the door to new cooperation and loans, said Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums.

“Museums are our guardians of our heritage, and we feel a huge responsibility. At the same time, we don’t want to do anything offensive to other cultures.”

The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act says that if an institution has remains from a federally recognized tribe and the tribe asks for them back, the two sides must go through a process to determine whether they will be returned.

But what happens when remains belong to a people who predate any known tribe?

That’s the case with Ohio State’s remains, as well as most of the nearly 7,000 at the Ohio Historical Society and others across the state.

Ohio State’s plan to return the remains to Putnam County, W.Va., commissioners for reburial must be approved by a federal committee and the interior secretary.

The plan is one of 11 the committee will consider at its May meeting. In the past 13 years, there had been 48 such requests.

Seventeen years after the graves law was passed, specific regulations on how to handle remains of early cultures were proposed. Some museum representatives say the regulations proposed last year don’t ensure that the remains go to those most closely tied to the ancient Indians.

Indian tribes generally support the proposal because it creates a system that eventually will allow them to bury remains of people they consider their predecessors.

Hundreds of comments are being reviewed by the National Park Service, which administers the 1990 law.

The Ohio Historical Society and others have been awaiting regulations before deciding what to do with remains and artifacts found in Hopewell and Adena burial mounds and from other prehistoric cultures.

Without clear guidance, “The act has had an unintentional consequence of keeping things in museums,” said Robert Genheimer, an archaeology curator at the Cincinnati Museum Center.

In the 1990s, the Ohio Historical Society returned Hopi materials, said Jim Strider, director of collections, and it recently has been consulting with the Miami tribe in Oklahoma as archaeologists prepare for a dig near Piqua.

The tribe lived in southwestern Ohio before being moved to a reservation.

Eric Hemenway, research repatriation assistant with the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, said that, for the most part, communication between tribes and institutions has improved.

“Twenty years ago, nothing was coming back. Now … it might take a year for an item or a year for remains to come back, but they are coming back,” Hemenway said.

The tribe has received remains from a Michigan college and is working with three museums in that state for more.

It’s negotiating with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History over the two ceremonial bowls.

“When (the act) was approved, I think museums thought tribes would come through with a box and take collections,” Hemenway said.

“Museums have moccasins, knives, hammers — utility items. We’d rather they’re not on display, but we really don’t want those.”

He said the law allows the tribe to recover remains, items that had been buried with them and culturally important items.

Clark Larsen, chairman of Ohio State’s anthropology department, said talking about the issue is important. “In archaeology, there’s a whole discussion on who owns the past — artifacts and other remains beyond skeletons.”

Larsen said Ohio State is working with the Brazilian government to return Yanomamo tissue and blood samples used in a lineage study.

Returning remains, tissue and blood to rightful owners, he said, is rarely controversial.

There is, however, no international law on repatriation. In the 1990s, researchers from 20 countries, including the United States, signed a nonbinding agreement that human remains should stay in their country of origin except for scientific reasons.

A 1970 accord brokered at the United Nations essentially says that antiquities taken to museums and other institutions under suspicious circumstances must be returned to their place of origin.

Egypt, for example, is seeking ancient treasures from museums around the globe.

The Ohio Historical Society and the Toledo Museum of Art have Egyptian mummies and simple carved coffins that were donated by wealthy collectors a century ago, but neither has been contacted by the Egyptian government.

Bigger institutions, however, with flashier collections are not immune. For example, Greece and Italy persuaded the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to return art after showing that the pieces had been looted.

The Cleveland Museum of Art and the Italian Ministry of Culture met last spring and are discussing returning “a number of items,” said James Kopniske, a museum spokesman.

Kopniske said the details are confidential, but the museum is “reviewing the history and doing our research.”

Then there is the lost collection at Myers University in Cleveland.

The cash-strapped school recently discovered it owns a collection of 4,000-year-old Sumerian artifacts that were donated in the 1930s.

“Not many people knew about the collection,” said Richard Brhel, the school’s library director.

He said the university has received no requests to return the pieces, mostly tablets, to the Iraqi government.

“The important thing is the safekeeping of the items, to preserve them for future generations,” Brhel said.