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Repatriation of Inuit Cultural Heritage

- An analysis of Danish and international repatriation practices

By Mille Gabriel

For the last couples of decades disputes about ownership of cultural heritage have increasingly resulted in claims for repatriation. What causes the disputes is the fact that ethnographic, archaeological or physical anthropological collections may be of importance to several parties simultaneously – both to the state, museum or private institution, which currently holds the material, and the opposing party who usually claims it, by virtue of having a position as the culture of origin. Since most of the disputes relate to material appropriated within a colonial or otherwise occupational context, repatriation isn’t restricted to having museological implications, but touches upon a wide variety of political, legal, ethical and cultural issues.

The primary purpose of this PhD project is, through an analysis of selected Danish and international repatriation cases concerning Inuit, to crystallize some central patterns in the argumentation used by the different parties in their claims for cultural heritage. With a critical museological and post-colonial perspective on the way museums have been displaying foreign cultures as 'other' and thereby indirectly legitimizing the colonial expansion, this PhD project seeks to investigate what national and imperial importance the west ascribes to the possession of colonial cultural heritage today, and how the exact same objects are being staged by indigenous peoples and newly independent states as a means of power in the process of identity formation and cultural revitalization. It will additionally be discussed how museological policies seek to formulate universal museum standards involving especially preservation, and how these standards are being challenged, when objects are not requested for museum purposes, but to be used in a living tradition, for instance the reuse of religious paraphernalia or the reburial of human remains.