Gallery hosts debate on cultural property

New York Times contributor Hugh Eakin appeared Thursday at a Yale Art Gallery debate on cultural property rights.

The “Who Owns Culture?” debate, which was co-hosted by the Liberal Party of the Yale Political Union, focused on issues of provenance and repatriation of artifacts. The topic has been discussed heavily of late, in light of disputes between several museums and international governments. Yale’s Peabody Museum is embroiled in a dispute with the Peruvian government over artifacts excavated in the early twentieth century at Machu Picchu.

Some governments have claimed that artifacts were inappropriately taken from their countries by colonists and explorers. Repatriation is the process of returning artifacts to their country of origin.

Eakin, along with Gallery Director Jock Reynolds and Chief Curator Susan Matheson, presented an overview of the topic.

“It is very important to think about what lack of consistency in provenance means for our collection when debating the repatriation of artifacts,” Reynolds said about the impact of returning artifacts on museums’ valuable collections.

The Yale Art Gallery is currently investigating the origins of its European paintings and drawings as part of its research program on World War II era provenance. It also participates in the American Association of Museums’ Nazi-era Provenance Internet Portal, which aims to create a searchable registry of artifacts that changed hands during the Nazi era.

Students who opposed repatriation argued that certain countries have better resources for preserving artifacts. Having artifacts on display in museums outside their country of origin also enables the global community to experience cultures that they would not have access to otherwise.

But those in support of repatriation said countries have a right to their own artifacts as part of their cultural heritage, and objects often have greater meaning when they are on display at their original sites.

Sellers said she does not believe issues of repatriation cannot be easily resolved.

“Every situation mandates a different solution,” she said. “It really depends on what each of the countries is willing to do.”

Matheson also said legal restrictions, such as the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which allows countries to restrict import, export and transfer of artifacts, has produced difficulties in importing new artifacts and in making loans for temporary exhibitions.

Recent demands by the Italian government for restrictions on imports of Italian antiquities and China’s request for similar embargoes on Chinese cultural material from before 1911 may pose further problems for museums, Sellers said.

Catherine Sellers, an intern at the gallery’s Education Department, said she initiated the panel discussion and debate in an attempt to appeal to students’ interests in the gallery.

“The gallery has been really nice and done a lot of work for us, such as getting us amazing speakers,” said Robert Kerth, president of the Liberal Party.

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