Cultural objects that cross borders
One of the hot topics at the Congress of the History of Art last week in Melbourne was the repatriation of cultural objects to their original owners. Should stolen items, gifts, found items, purchased items, be given back? For example in Museum Victoria there are collections of South Pacific sculptures, and also items from the indigenous people of North America such as the Mi'kmaq garments.
Should they be given back to the descendants of the people who made these items?
Regarding the South Pacific, over the past two centuries, many Fijian clubs, lengths of masi, carved bowls, have found their way to museums and private collections in Europe, America, Australia. I know one time, we were given some objects. held by the Uniting Church in Melbourne. to give back to the Methodist Church in Suva. Maybe they were historical items but there was no documentation with them to know if they were of significance. Is there mana in such objects that they should go back 'home'?
If such cultural items are repatriated, then the rest of the world is poorer in knowledge too. Maybe it is desirable to have a variety of cultural objects from different countries in art galleries and museums as 'cultural ambassadors'. A speaker at the Congress (I didn't go because it was too costly but it was reported in the Age newspaper), Michael Brand who works at the Getty, argued that cross-cultural exchanges are important.
So, should France give back the Mona Lisa to Italy?
Museum Victoria in Melbourne has a large collection of cultural items from the South Pacific. Some are listed here and Rod Ewens writes about the topic as it relates to Fijian objects in an article here.