In 1929, American writers Willie and Katie Seabrook took time off from palling around with Ernest Hemingway in France to visit West Africa, where they gathered material for his travel book and her children’s books.
While they were being escorted by officials from what was then colonial French West Africa, they met with groups of Yafouba people near the border of Liberia and the Ivory Coast and came away with an 8-pound brass ankle weight worn by the favored wife of the chief. As told in Willie Seabrook’s book “Jungle Ways,” the weight was seen as an honor because it gave the woman an excuse for not doing manual labor alongside the other wives, although how honored she felt by having to limp around with this burden is unclear.
Years later, Katie Seabrook married my mother’s uncle; I remember her as a wizened old lady who visited when I was too young to ask about her travels. After she passed away, the ankle weight was handed down to my folks, who sometimes used it as a conversation piece and sometimes as a doorstop.
Now it’s mine, and since my kids have expressed no interest in it, I’m trying to figure out the right thing to do.
Which, it turns out, puts me in the same boat as museums.
“It’s a challenge,” said Jonathan Olly, director of museum collections for the New Hampshire Historical Society.
How did they get that?
Museums got their start as offshoots of “cabinets of curiosity” displayed by rich collectors to show off their travels. Over time they were subsumed by studies of such topics as biology, anthropology and history, and as they flourished they became a part of global tourism and popular culture. That convoluted history has resulted in an uneasy mix of entertainment and academia, frivolity and seriousness, the dignity of respect and the ignominy of display.
In the past decade or so, that mix has become even more uneasy due to increasing questions about how various objects came to be in museums of natural history or anthropology, which are sometimes seen as trophy cases of power more than bastions of education and global culture.
Was an object’s route into the museum collection legal? Ethical? Moral? If not, should the item be returned? To whom? And who decides?
These questions, often spurred by complaints from outside the institution, have increased sharply. Many museums have created positions like director of provenance, the term that describes the history of an item’s ownership. They have begun to re-examine the material piled in their storerooms and out on display, trying to decide their legitimacy.
“There’s often no good answer, really. This is the problem that we find ourselves in for a lot of things. There’s a range of opinion: One is to give it back, but to whom? If there’s no claimant, no obvious person … what do you do?” said Alex Bortolot, deputy director of the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College.
Olly, at the New Hampshire Historical Society, agrees. “Our predecessors in the 19th century were not very focused on detailed record-keeping about what came from where by whom. We do have things in the collection — and this is universal across every museum — where it was just found there, in the collection. There’s no record of where it came from. You end up doing research to find out.
“For example, we have a birch bark canoe, from somewhere in the Northeast. … The farthest back we can document it in the collection is 1940 because it appeared in a journal article, which mentioned that it was stored in the attic at the time,” he said. “I’ve tried, and my predecessors have tried, to find the original record log, this was donated this year by so-and-so … but we haven’t found that information.”
The same goes for the dugout canoe prominently on display in the society’s museum. All that is known is that it was found in Lake Ossipee — dugout canoes were often stored by being sunk in water to keep them from drying out. How it came to be in the historical society’s collection is a mystery, so there’s no good way of determining whether any native group deserves it.
“That is common, unfortunately,” said Olly.
Worry about Nazi history
For the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, the big fear is learning that they possess a painting, sculpture or other work which was looted by the Nazis during their years of continent-wide pillaging.
“You don’t want to buy something that, two years later, you find out has been stolen,” said Kurt Sundstrom, curator at the Currier. “If there’s a big gap in the records any time from 1933 to ’45, that’s a red flag. … That is the big concern for museums. We protect ourselves by doing our own research.”
In New Hampshire, the biggest issues involve Native American artifacts that were bought, looted or collected (in the loosest sense of the word) either by the museum or by people who later sold or gave items to the museum.
The process of figuring this out is driven by the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, NAGPRA, passed in 1990. It requires the return of sacred objects, human remains and other objects of cultural patrimony to federally recognized tribes.
The N.H. Historical Society, like many institutions, sent out letters to registered tribes listing all the items that it holds, but no requests for repatriation have been received.
The Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum sidesteps the problem by concentrating on modern works — its goal is to tell the contemporary stories of Native cultures, not historical stories — but the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College has repatriated objects four times since NAGPRA passed, most recently returning a headdress from the late 19th century to a delegation from the Gitxaała Nation in western Canada.
They have also become part of a widespread debate about human remains in anthropology collections. The Hood Museum and the Dartmouth Anthropology Department announced in March they have found skeletal remains of 15 Native Americans in collections that weren’t previously recorded. They’re setting up a task force “to address institution-wide issues beyond NAGPRA.”
“To the best of my knowledge, everything the Hood has is legal, but that’s not a strict enough criteria any longer. We want to make sure we’re ethical as well,” said John Stomberg, director of the museum.
An end to permanent ownership?
The Hood Museum also holds an example of one of the highest-profile cases of looted museum material globally, one of the Benin Bronzes.
The Bronzes, a collection of thousands of plaques and statues, were looted in 1897 by the British Army from the kingdom of Benin, in what is now Nigeria, during a punitive raid to exert colonial control. Many of them are in the British Museum, which has resisted efforts to return them partly because Nigeria didn’t exist when the items were stolen and it’s not clear who should get them now: the Nigerian government, the Oba chief who is a descendant of the chief at the time of the theft or some other institution.
The Hood Museum has one Benin bronze, a brass hip ornament representing a face. The website listing of the object notes its geography as “Site Looted: Kingdom of Benin, Nigeria,” and the museum has agreed to return it as soon as an agreement is reached about where it should reside.
The transparency of listing an item as “looted” is part of the modern change in attitude.
“As a museum, one thing that we do is make sure all information about each artwork and the documentation, photos, is publicly accessible. All information is online, whatever we know about its origins, so if there is somebody out there who wants to make a claim on something, they have the information … our response is to honor that claim, to take it seriously and engage with them,” said Bortolot.
The expectation is that such claims will continue to arrive.
“NAGPRA is a process — there’s no such thing as being completely done with NAGPRA for an institution as old as Dartmouth,” said Stomberg.
In fact, the growing debate over the propriety of collections is raising questions about whether museums of natural history and anthropology should exist at all, although not many people take that extreme position. If nothing else, the era of grabbing as much stuff as you can hold and keeping it forever seems to be ending.
The Association of Art Museum Directors, for example, has released guidance on art from colonized areas that emphasizes the importance of institutions weighing the ethical aspects of keeping an object, not just the legal ones.
“We’re moving very much to a stewardship model, where we see ourselves not as the perpetual owners of things but as caretakers. Some things will leave; other things will remain,” said Bortolot.
Another model is to reach an agreement with the originating people or country in which the museum keeps the piece in question until a suitable home is found or built in its home location but, in the meantime, pays a fee — rents it, if you will.
The change will be driven not only by outside forces but by the next generation of curators and museum staff, said Stomberg.
“The classes at Dartmouth that include provenance research, philosophical studies on ownership — they’re beginning to fill up. … This generation is really interested in this topic,” he said. “As a field, you’re seeing a different generation of scholars running the museums who are open to these ideas. They’re not emptying out museums but saying we can judiciously work with governments around the world … without ending these institutions.”
What about me?
That’s all well and good, but that doesn’t help me with the ankle weight on my desk.
I have an unusual provenance for it in the form of Seabrook’s book, which includes a photograph of a woman wearing two similar weights. It was probably a gift, meaning it’s OK for me to keep it, but how voluntary was such an act in the day when colonial administrators had literal life-and-death power over locals? I’m sure the French wanted Willie Seabrook, who was quite famous at the time, to have a good impression and wouldn’t have hesitated to pressure the chief to hand something over.
I also have no idea if the weight is rare or common, valuable or worthless, of historical interest or mostly irrelevant. Maybe somebody in West Africa would like it back, or maybe the place is littered with them, or they want to forget about that part of their past and don’t care what I do with it.
It’s not clear who can tell me, either. There’s no obvious representative of the Yafouba people online that I can find, and since it’s not even certain whether it came from Liberia or Ivory Coast, contacting an official is difficult.
The Hood Museum doesn’t want it — they aren’t actively adding to their African collection — and my efforts to other museums with historical African pieces hasn’t gone anywhere, although Bortolot gave me a few leads.
So I guess it will stay here until I find a better resting place. In the meantime, I promise not to use it as a doorstop.