From the Latin for “fatherland” ( patria ), repatriation literally means to return, voluntarily or involuntarily, to one’s homeland. The term now has two distinct meanings: either the return of people to their homeland, or the return of cultural objects to their place of origin. The repatriation of people, for example after a war, has a long history, whereas the repatriation of cultural objects, typically the cultural artifacts of aboriginal communities, is associated with postcolonialism, the social movements of native peoples, and the changing function of museums in modern societies.
The repatriation of peoples is closely associated with the growth of national citizenship, the involvement of civilians as victims of modern warfare, and the development of human rights legislation. After World War II (1939-1945), there were over one million displaced persons in Europe, and in 1950 the post of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established, a year before the 1951 Refugee Convention. In the first fifty years of its existence, the UNHCR gave assistance to at least fifty million people who have been displaced, both internally and externally, as a result of warfare and civil conflict. With the apparently unstoppable growth in the numbers of refugees in the second half of the twentieth century, the humanitarian protection of refugees led to greater concern by the UNHCR in a right to “return in safety and dignity,” as expressed in a 1989 policy document (Coles 1989). Safety refers to physical security and the entitlement to protection from a forced return. Dignity is to be measured by the quality of life in the location to which displaced persons return voluntarily. In practice, achieving a consensus over safety and dignity between states, refugees, and UN agencies is extremely difficult, often because there is little reliable information about the security of war zones that have been subject to a long period of conflict. The protracted arrangements between five separate organizations and a commission in the 1990s to return Guatemalans to Mexico or the case of 200,000 Tigrayans walking home to Ethiopia against the wishes of UNHCR and the government of Sudan are typical of such political uncertainty.
Any account of the repatriation of cultural artifacts needs to consider the historical development of museums as institutions for collecting the material cultures of aboriginal communities and the ancient world. The expansion of museums in the Victorian period was in part a function of the growth of European colonization and the colonial sense of superiority. Britain’s acquisition of the Elgin Marbles from classical Greece was a notorious illustration of the acquisitiveness of Western classicism and archaeology. Thomas Bruce (1766-1841), the seventh Earl of Elgin, obtained a firman (legal document) from the Ottoman sultan to remove sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens in 1801. Attempts by the Greek government with the support of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to repatriate the Elgin Marbles have so far been rejected by the British government.
In addition to plundering the classical world, museum curators were especially interested in the primitive and the exotic as collectable items. This was also the period in which the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere were at their lowest cultural ebb. War and disease had produced a demographic catastrophe, and the cultural heritage of native peoples was removed to museums in policies that amounted to deculturalization. In addition to cultural artifacts, human remains from battlefields entered the medical collections of the U.S. Army and physical anthropologists.
The federal Antiquities Act (1906) prevented the destruction of antiquities on public land in the United States, but allowed free import and export of Native American artifacts. It was not until the repatriation movement of the 1980s and 1990s that there was a fundamental change in the relationships between museums and Native American communities, resulting in the National Museum of the American Indian Act (1989) and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990). Although this legislation is significant, the demand for sacred and ceremonial materials on the international art market is such that looting from archaeological sites continues to be a serious problem.
SEE ALSO Burial Grounds, Native American; Migration
Coles, G. 1989. Solutions to the Problem of Refugees and the Protection of Refugees: A Background Paper. Geneva: International Institute of Humanitarian Law/UNHCR.
West, W. Richard, Jr. 1996. Repatriation. In Encyclopedia of North American Indians, ed. Frederick E. Hoxie, 543-546. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Bryan S. Turner