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Current Developments in Indigenous Rights and Museums

By Lynda Knowles

On March 4-5, 2020, the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples met with various stakeholders at the University of British Columbia to better understand the repatriation issues faced by Indigenous communities. I was fortunate enough to attend this meeting but before I begin a little background may help.

The Expert Mechanism is a group of seven independent experts on the rights of Indigenous peoples. They are appointed by the United Nation Human Rights Council (HRC) and assist the HRC with expertise and advice on the rights of Indigenous peoples as set out in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Expert Mechanism invited participants to the conference in Vancouver to provide input into the Expert Mechanism’s report, Repatriation of ceremonial objects and human remains under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This report will be presented in final form to the HRC this September. I was invited due to my legal background and work with the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and its international committee on Museums and Collections of Natural History (ICOM NATHIST). Although I am an attorney for the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and a member of ICOM NATHIST, the views I express here are my own.

It is very interesting to me that the Expert Mechanism’s report on repatriation as a human right is being drafted at the same time the international museum community is drafting a new definition of museum.

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) is an NGO created in 1946 and maintains formal consultative status with UNESCO. Museums belong individually but are represented by and through their national committees (of which there are 118, including ICOM-US). ICOM also boasts 21 international committees based on subject matter expertise. ICOM’s governing statute defines a museum as a nonprofit, “permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purpose of education, study and enjoyment.”

Recent revisions discussed at ICOM’s conference in Kyoto this past August inserted language that “museums are democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialog about the pasts and futures of humankind.” Museums of today need to acknowledge and address “the conflicts and challenges of the present” while holding artifacts and specimens in trust for “society” to safeguard “diverse memories” and guarantee “equal rights and access to heritage for all”. The goal, ultimately, is “contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.”

After hours of debate, the definition was tabled for more work. Its critics have argued that the proposed language is aspirational rather than a true definition. While some argued it went too far, just as many argued it did not go far enough, noting that the language addressed neither repatriation nor decolonialism.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the Expert Mechanism’s suggestions, and however the museum community ultimately defines itself, there is a growing consensus in international law that repatriation of appropriated human remains and cultural heritage must occur as a matter of human rights.

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