Reckoning with History - Research Center for Material Culture

Beyond Legal Limits

Law, Ethics and Responsibilities

Reckoning with History | RCMC Annual Conference | 2017

Panel Description

Museum collections comprise a bewildering variety of objects acquired during the long period of European  ‘colonialism’:  those bought or gifted; looted; acquired legally but under conditions of coercion, duress or possible subterfuge; with unknowable provenance; on indefinite loan; donated by private collectors; and so on. Museums therefore require an equally complex framework for reckoning with the complexity of relations that effectively assembled these collections, as well as the radical contingency of colonial afterlives that persist in contemporary legal limitations and possibilities, and the desires and situations of contemporary stakeholders.

To better understand these collections and the historical relations out of which they emerged, several museums have started to develop rigorous and systematic provenance research programs and ethical guidelines for initiating dialogues for the return of certain objects. This work has also coincided with the publication of several new studies that call for a more bold address of the colonial past in the collecting practices of the museums.

While such programs mark out positive and productive new directions, they can only contend with a limited number of objects, namely those that can be assigned a firm provenance. But it is those objects that lack clear provenance that often present the biggest difficulties. How then do we develop an ethics that also encompasses those objects that exceed our current instruments (law) and categories (provenance)? What ethics can contend with objects that were legally acquired (at the time) but under morally dubious circumstances? Similarly, what historical conditions might demand an ethics of return or equivalent beyond the legal? Can we rethink certain categories themselves? For instance, how might we rethink provenance beyond the singular anchors of ownership and origin? How might we think ideas of sharing and responsibility with an explicit attention to both historical and current inequities in power and resources?

Abstracts & Participants

The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Revisiting International Law and Museum Collections (video)
Professor Ana Vrdoljak, University of Technology Sydney
Whenever discussion turns to the formation of the collections of the ‘universal’ museums established during the 19th and 20th century, there is the inevitable conclusion: ‘It was legal according to the law at the time’. According to whose law? That of the conqueror? The law of war was changing and looting was not sanctioned under these new rules. The law of the peoples from which it was taken? There was and remains little cognizance that these peoples always had their own laws and customs.This paper challenges this perennial conclusion concerning the legality around the acquisitions contained in museum collections. First, I will consider that a time when European museums are finally casting a critical eye on their colonial/imperial past and the circumstances which led to the formation of their vast collections, it is important to recall international law was complicity in these same processes. International lawyers and legal historians today are also seek to face this past and its implications for the discipline today. Second, drawing on the work of Avishai Margalit, I consider how these critical examinations of the past inform processes of recognition and reconciliation through the ideas a decent society and the ethics of memory. Finally, I examine the intervention of indigenous peoples in contemporary international law to explore how museums and the societies in which they are located may facilitate the efforts peoples whose cultures are represented in their collections to realise effectively human rights recognised as applicable to all.

Ana Filipa Vrdoljak is the author of International Law, Museums and the Return of Cultural Objects (Cambridge University Press, 2006 and 2008, Second edition forthcoming) and editor of Oxford Handbook on International Cultural Heritage Law with Francesco Francioni (forthcoming, Oxford University Press), The Cultural Dimension of Human Rights (Oxford University Press, 2013) and International Law for Common Goods: Normative Perspectives in Human Rights, Culture and Nature with Federico Lenzerini (Hart Publishing, 2014). Professor Vrdoljak is a General Editor, with Francesco Francioni, of the Oxford Commentaries on International Cultural Heritage Law (Oxford University Press) and book series entitled Cultural Heritage Law and Policy (Oxford University Press) and member of the Advisory Board, International Journal of Cultural Property (Cambridge University Press). She is Secretary of the International Cultural Property Society (U.S.). She has been Fernand Braudel Senior Fellow, Marie Curie Fellow and Jean Monnet Fellow, Law Department European University Institute, Florence, and visiting scholar at the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law, University of Cambridge and Global Law School, New York University. She holds a Doctor of Philosophy (in Law) from the University of Sydney.

Decolonization, Decentering, and Disalienation: Strategies of Redressing Structural Injustice (video)
Professor Catherine Lu, McGill University

This talk is based on considerations raised in my book, Justice and Reconciliation in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), about how to redress and halt the reproduction of colonial structural injustice in contemporary social structures. I develop three broad strategies of transformation: (1) Decolonization involves creating international political conditions that support structural dignity and nonalienated agency for those who continue to be vulnerable due to contemporary structural injustices derived from historical colonialism. (2) Decentering involves repudiating the marginalization of non-European modes of knowledge, discourse and political practice, as well as assessing social institutions, such as museums, from several vantage points, opening space for critical examination of disjunctures between international, domestic, and local receptions of dominant practices. (3) Disalienation is a strategy for the oppressed and marginalized to build up capacities for nonalienated agency, a necessary condition for their effective and meaningful participation in struggles for justice.

Catherine Lu is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at McGill University, Montréal. Her research intersects political theory and international relations, focusing on critical and normative studies of humanitarianism and intervention in world politics; justice, reconciliation, and colonialism; and cosmopolitanism, global justice, and the world state. She is the author of Justice and Reconciliation in World Politics (2017), and Just and Unjust Interventions in World Politics: Public and Private (2006), and has held research fellowships from the School of Philosophy at the Australian National University, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, Massachusetts. 

Moving beyond legal limits. A reflection on law’s absence in current debates on the future of colonial cultural objects (video)
Professor Wouter Veraart, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Current demands for the return of colonial cultural objects are generally held to be extra-legal or beyond the reach of the law. This paper interrogates this situation. Why is it, that the law does not seem to be applicable to cases of colonial injustice? This contribution aims to move beyond the usual discussion of statutes of limitation and the passage of time. Interrogating notions of captivity and dignity with regard to the Benin bronzes, it connects the absence of applicable law in the present to law’s complicity in violent takings of colonial cultural objects in the past. The legal invisibility of the colonized peoples at the time of colonialism, repeats itself in the present time, in which claimants are, again, confronted with the inapplicability of law. However, when debating reparations, the colonial legal structure which enabled the current predicament of the Benin bronzes and other cultural objects cannot be left untouched.

Wouter Veraart is Professor of Legal Philosophy and Head of Department of Legal Theory and Legal History at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Veraart studied Law and Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. In Rotterdam, in 2005, he obtained his PhD degree (cum laude) on 'The Deprivation and Restitution of Property Rights during the Years of Occupation and Reconstruction in the Netherlands and in France'. For this book and related publications he received the Dirk Jacob Veegens Award in 2006. In his inaugural lecture 'The Passion for a Mundane Legal Order', in 2009, he paid attention to the legal consequences of forgetting and remembering as collective answers to injustices of the past. In 2017, Veraart was Chair of the Committee Constitutionality in Election Programmes 2017, established by the Dutch Bar Association, in the context of the Dutch parliamentary elections earlier this year.

Heritage justice: confronting the present in the past (video)
Dr. Charlotte Joy, Goldsmiths University of London

This paper will explore the relevance of recent work at the International Criminal Court and at UNESCO to illuminate the debate around museums and restitution. The conflation of the destruction of people and the destruction of things by the ICC and UNESCO poses a difficult ethical dilemma for museums. Whilst the ICC, UNESCO and museums can all be seen as part of an inter-connected cosmopolitan elitist project, the ‘heritage logic’ animating the ICC and UNESCO shares many common features with demands for restitution. By pinpointing how the relationship between dignity and material culture is legally determined in the present, we can discern why applying this present standard to the past creates so many challenges for museums.

Dr. Charlotte Joy did her PhD at University College London and her postdoctoral research at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge. Her fieldwork in Djenné, Mali and at UNESCO in Paris was published as ‘The Politics of Heritage Management in Mali: from UNESCO to Djenné’ (Routledge). The book argues for a critical re-examination of the uses of the material past in the present. It examines the distance between heritage policy and everyday lives, the creation of ‘heritage elites’ and the unintended consequences of heritage logics. Her on-going research is concerned with destruction and displacement of cultural heritage and the responses of bodies such as UNESCO, museums and the International Criminal Court.