Saturday, August 15, 2009

Japanese Bones

The San Francisco Chronicle reports on a brewing controversy at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology. Reportedly, the remains of Japanese soldiers -- taken in 1945 as "war booty" after the Battle of Saipan -- are in the museum's collections. The eminent anthropologist, and University of California at Berkeley professor, Nancy Scheper-Hughes is quoted extensively, encouraging repatriation. "It's common decency. You don't hang on to historical remains of enemy combatants in a decent museum. It's not Ripley's Believe It or Not. It's not a freak show," she said.

Underlying this case are deeper questions about the museological desire to possess the bodies of deceased people. We must ask ourselves: into the 21st century, why do museums continue to curate human remains? What motivates our impulse to collect and hold onto them? When should they be returned? What is the boundary between the ethics and laws of repatriation?

Museums in North America, and elsewhere, have struggled with these questions when it comes to Native American remains, but less often for remains that come from other ethnic communities. What, after all, is the difference between curating the earthly remains of Japanese soldiers and Native Americans taken from battlefields and graves?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The remains in questions are most certainly NOT "war booty"!
Though not a common practice anymore, anthropology departments and medical centers around the world used to exchange specimen for their comparative collections. Legally. These collections are still highly valuable from a research perspective. Training forensic archaeologist for working in mass grave sites is one use. Museums curate human remains because they were once placed in their custody. What should they do now that the public seems eager to "return" them. To who? I suspect that the Japanese gov will be much less than thrilled to be involved but I may be wrong. And what if they doubt those remains are, in fact, theirs? What should a museum do then?