Accepted Paper:

The appropriation of Inuit heritage - past and present perspectives  


Mille Gabriel (The National Museum of Denmark)

Paper short abstract:

Through an analysis of three Danish repatriation cases, this paper explores how the Inuit of Greenland, Canada and Alaska feel connected to human remains and cultural heritage through identity, thereby challenging the self-proclaimed universalism inherent in international museum standards.

Paper long abstract:

Heritage ownership disputes are often characterised by colliding cultural perspectives on material culture: on the one hand a cosmopolitan position based on notions of universal moral values and on the other hand ethnic, national or otherwise communitarian perceptions of material culture as inextricably constitutive of cultural identity.

Through an analysis of three Danish repatriation cases, this paper will explore how Inuit in Greenland, Canada and Alaska are connected to material culture through identity, but in very diverse ways conditioned by differing colonial experiences. While the Greenlandic claims were aimed at the return of representative collections for museum purposes, Canadian and Alaskan Inuit were primarily concerned with human remains and the right to rebury the ancestors. While Greenland owing to the introduction of Home Rule are mimicking Western state formation processes appropriating symbols as 'national heritage' and 'national history', Canadian and Alaskan Inuit claims are embedded in post-colonial Indigeneity, including processes of cultural revitalisation and political empowerment.

In expressing reservations towards reburial and in the formulation of prerequisites to be fulfilled prior to repatriation, Danish cultural institutions were drawing on cosmopolitan notions on the universal value of cultural heritage preservation. I will argue that this self-proclaimed universalism, most clearly expressed in documents such as the 1972 World Heritage Convention and the 2002 Declaration on the Importance and value of Universal Museums, are imposing Western cultural heritage perspectives on non-Western peoples and thereby failing to recognise past as well as contemporary inequalities inherent in the colonial history of appropriation.

Panel P42
Cosmopolitanism and the appropriation of culture