Monday, July 22, 2013

Restitution of Melanesian Carvings

Verity Algar ('When is restitution a bad thing? The case of Melanesian wood carvings', ARCA blog July 19, 2013) argues that "not all cultural groups want to re-possess their cultural heritage", or at least certain elements of it. She takes as her example Malanggan from Northern New Ireland, Papua New Guinea - wood carvings from Melanesia.
The people of New Ireland in Papua New Guinea [...] do not wish for the malanggan which they themselves created, to be returned to them, despite malanggan being essential to their culture [...] they are not made to be displayed, treasured and revered [...] Malanggan are displayed for a few hours during mortuary ceremonies, before being left to the elements to decompose [...] During the carving process, the sculpture is imbued with life force, which is “symbolically killed” when ownership of the malanggan is transferred from the deceased’s family to related kin in exchange for money [...] To restitute these objects to the people of New Ireland would be to rekindle a specific aspect of their cultural memory, thus interfering with the process of “deliberate forgetting”.[...] decisions about whether or not to restitute cultural objects need to be made on a culture-specific basis.
I find this a little odd. It is almost as though the author is suggesting that it is the collector who decides (should decide) for a native community. Surely "restitution"/"repatriation" should be a result of respecting a request of the people whose heritage it is, rather than something graciously offered or even insisted upon by the collectors who have it.

Vignette: Malanggan 

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