Saturday, April 1, 2017

--- What to do with other peoples' history? ---

In the year 828, a team of Venetian merchants stole the supposed body of St. Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria, Egypt and carried it to Venice to be interred in the new St. Mark's church. In the Middle Ages, relics of a saint conferred considerable prestige on a city and St. Mark is one thing that made Venice, Italy the great business center that it was. (Peter Ackroyd (2009) Venice: Pure City, Anchor. NY , Edward Hollis (2009) The Secret Lives of Buildings, Metropolitan Books. NY) Mark was not the only saint that was stolen. St. Nicholas (Aye, that would be Santa Claus) also rests in Bari, Italy. To be accurate, the sailors from Italy only got part of Nicholas' skeleton. The rest remained in Myra, Turkey until sailors from Venice collected the rest. Turkey wants the saint back and began plans to request the return in 2009 (see the Wikipedia article here for a brief overview of the travels of St. Nicholas' bones:

March 23, Coyote, Coryn, and I went to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to hear their senior curator of anthropology, Dr. Chip Colwell, talk about repatriation. An activist working for the return of cultural objects to their places of origin, Dr. Colwell is the author of Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America's Culture  and editor-in-cheif of the online anthropology magazine, Sapiens.

Until recently, museums have taken the position that, as bulwarks of science, they have the right to artifacts wherever (or however) they can acquire them. That position is now being questioned. Regardless of the side you may be on in the debate, it is not black-and-white. There are reasonable arguments on both sides. Do indiginous peoples have a right to their culture over and above the right of humanity to know the inner workings of their cultures?

Well, I won't make the argument here for one side or the other. I want to avoid the appearence of telling you what to think. I'll reserve comments for that, but I must warn you, in the comments, I may just play the devil's advocate. But I will recommend the book. It follows the story of four such items and the controversy surrounding them.

I wondered if repatriation had been an issue in the past and how far in the past, and then I remembered the story of the return of the Hebrews to Israel after the fall of Babylon to the Persians. That was recorded in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. And I have heard that it was a policy of the Persians to return stolen items to the lands from which they were stolen by the earlier conquerors. So, it's not a new issue by any means.

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