What do mummies and Nazi plunder have in common? Both raise significant ethical concerns for the museums that own them. This is the topic of my podcast episode, which was the result of a seminar in Public History, dealing with the looting and repatriating of cultural heritage in Europe. The seminar resulted in a series of blog posts consisting of podcast episodes, of which this post is the last. My podcast episode "Mummies, Nazis and Museums" is part of the "Historians in Lederhosen“ podcast hosted by the Frankenmuth Historical Museum in Michigan. Frankenmuth is a former German settlement, and its museum focuses not only on local history, but also on the history of German immigration in the US. With two museum professionals, I discuss the ethical questions that arise when museums own sensitive objects, such as human remains or looted artefacts.
Many complex and controversial issues that museums deal with today stem from the history of museum practice. For example, many museums are deeply intertwined with the colonial past of their respective countries. Consequently, modern museums often have numerous problematic artefacts in their collections, such as looted artefacts. We discuss the standardisation of museum work in the 1970s and 1980s as organisations that provide oversight and ethical standards arose. We illustrate how problematic parts of collections are now being reevaluated. Egyptian Mummies are a particularly controversial example. Around the world, at least 350 institutions display mummies, which draw many visitors. But might publicly displaying a mummified corpse be disrespecting the dead?
Another example concerns art and other artefacts looted by the Nazis. They established a “system of theft, confiscation, coercive transfer, looting, pillage, and destruction of objects of art and other cultural property.” About 10.000–110.000 Nazi-looted artifacts remain in museums around the globe and have never been restituted. The original owners’ heirs face legal hurdles to claim a looted artefact, which is „perpetuating the long-term dispossession of Jewish owners wrought by the Nazis and their collaborators“. We discuss procedures and mechanisms to ensure no artefacts with a provenance of Nazi-looting enter collections and end by discussing whether museums should actively conduct more provenance research and proactively approach the descendants of former owners to live up to their social responsibility.
Listen in! (externer Link)
Written by Sonja Friese
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*Bild unter: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eisenhower,_Bradley_and_Patton_inspect_looted_art_HD-SN-99-02758.JPEG
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