Stephanie Rogers, Yale Daily News
Monday, April 21, 2014
A recent campus debate about two carvings at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History has sparked a broader discussion about the role of museums to return culturally important objects.
At a panel discussion in the Yale Hall of Graduate Studies last Tuesday afternoon, panelist Ashley Dalton ’15 outlined the history of these objects and called upon museums like the Peabody to publicly address the historical trauma with which they are associated while still emphasizing native continuity and agency. Dalton and Peabody officials agree that the museum has no current legal obligation to return the objects. However, other speakers from University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Smithsonian who presented on other topics related to artifact repatriation — the act of returning a cultural object home — argued that the museum should still be even more proactive to obtain formal written requests to return objects that are sacred to native groups.
“Museums have a role to step up and create a cultural healing by recognizing our nation’s past and recognizing [a tribe’s] agency,” Dalton said.
The two carvings were taken from a Tlingit village on the coast of Alaska during the Harriman Expedition of 1899 led by railroad tycoon Edward Harriman. At the time, the carvings belonged to a clan who left the Tlingit village, and were seemingly abandoned after the clan fled a smallpox outbreak. Harriman and his crew removed the carvings along with other objects like totem poles, house posts, and ceremonial items and distributed the objects to museums across the country.