Ethnography and the repatriation of artistic heritage 
Ben Burt (British Museum)
British Museum - Sackler A
Sunday 3 June, 15:30-17:00 (UTC+0)

Short Abstract:

How can those engaged in research with cultural minorities contribute to their cultural development by repatriating knowledge of their disappearing artistic traditions?

Long Abstract

The material culture of the world's cultural minorities is changing so fast that those who document it inevitably find themselves contributing to an archive of artistic knowledge, images and artefacts that have been lost to their source communities. Insofar as such communities retain or regain an interest in this artistic heritage, it may be desirable to repatriate it, but this raises questions about how to do so, for what purpose and in what form. Do communities want to revive artistic practices, to reinterpret them, teach about them or simply own a record of them? How preferable and practicable is it to return knowledge, for instance, through publications or archives, as hard copy or digital resources, through community outreach or education programmes, or by opening museum collections and archives to indigenous resarchers? How do such projects affect contentious claims for the return of artefacts? This panel invites examples of artistic repatriation that have contributed to the cultural development of changing source commuities to discuss their aims, methods, achievements and experiences.

Accepted papers:


Irene Karongo Hundleby (University of Otago)

Paper short abstract:

In North Malaita, Solomon Islands, each weave, vocal line, form or design tells its own compelling story - fashioned to evoke emotion, to teach our histories and to instil spiritual understanding. Hence, for our people, continuation of the arts protects who we were, who we are and who we will be.

Paper long abstract:

My doctoral thesis Kwaimani Ana Liohaua Gia (The Heart of Us) reflects on indigenous knowledge, relationships and the importance of expression within North Malaitan music, arts and culture. In Malaita, Solomon Islands, traditional arts are holistically understood; oral histories, art traditions, songs and music are intrinsically connected. These treasures have archived cultural knowledge and spiritual beliefs for generations.

In the face of increased globalisation in the twenty-first century, our elders have voiced their concerns for the continuation of both tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Changes in communication have coincided with a break in customary knowledge transmission processes and North Malaitan understandings of what kastoms are, how they are performed, and why they are adhered to. Relatively few North Malaitans have access to digital archives and the traditional histories and treasures housed in international museums and archives. Faced with the realisation that our arts and our traditions are endangered, community leaders and culture-bearers are working together to explain and teach the creative arts to younger generations. The collective efforts of performance groups in the Lau-Mbaelelea area have inspired a resurgence in the arts and helped to regenerate cultural pride. Empowered groups have reimagined traditional art-making, and hybridity exposes the ongoing strength of customary ideas in a modern Malaitan world.

This paper explores how North Malaitan communities are working to preserve the arts and culture through collaborative action, and offers indigenous ideas for future cultural heritage repatriation that supports local conservation efforts.


Ben Burt (British Museum)

Paper short abstract:

This paper discusses the issues around the repatriation of ethnographic research to source communities through the case of a ceremonial canoe from Solomon Islands, documented in the 1960s and about to be published as a bilingual book written in partnership between academic and local authors.

Paper long abstract:

The people of Malaita in Solomon Islands have long been sensitive to the colonial appropriation of their cultural heritage but appreciative of its preservation and return by ethnographic publication. This paper discusses some issues raised by repatriating documentation by the late Pierre Maranda of the last ceremonial canoe built in Lau lagoon in the 1960s. Plans to publish his data as a heavily illustrated bilingual La-English book seem appropriate and acceptable, following precedents set by my own publications on Malaitan culture. However, Maranda's research, while supported by community leaders, also raised accusations of theft and its publication fifty years later has been complicated by disagreements over inherited rights in ancestral knowledge. Resolving such issues has required active collaboration between academic and local authors and advisors. Making such books available to their source communities is another problem for academic anthropology to address.


Cory Willmott (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville)
Neil Oppendike
Siobhan Marks (Indian Community School)

Paper short abstract:

This paper presents a collaborative project between a museum anthropologist and Anishinaabe community artists who aim to revive the artistic and cultural traditions of the Anishinaabe strap dress after a one hundred year hiatus.

Paper long abstract:

The strap dress was an indigenous Anishinaabe dress form prior to European contact, but Anishinaabe women ceased to wear it early in the twentieth century. Now it is virtually a foreign sight at cultural and ceremonial events, where Anishinaabe women wear a variety of regalia styles associated with powwow dances. This paper presents a collaborative project between a museum anthropologist and Anishinaabe community artists who share the common goal of reviving the historic Anishinaabe strap dress to once again become a living art and dress practice. When revitalization is the goal, the stakes are higher for rigorous museum, art historic, ethnohistoric and ethnographic research. However, it has been challenging to find reliable evidence for the pattern pieces and decorative treatments used through various stages of Anishinaabe colonial history. Another difficulty has been to find historically accurate materials to recreate styles today that would have met ancestors' standards of excellence. Both natural and manufactured goods used in these dresses are not attainable on commercial markets. Finally, due to its hiatus of several generations, it has been difficult to convince some Anishinaabe community members that the strap dress is part of their forgotten heritage. Despite these obstacles, strap dress sewing workshops have met with success by engaging Anishinaabe women in learning the clothing traditions of their ancestors and bringing them forward into the present day with creativity and pride.