Contested Collections. Diverging Claims of Property in Debates and Negotiations 40 Years After the Adoption of the UNESCO Convention on Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property

Project Director: Prof. Dr. Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin (Social and Cultural Anthropology), Prof. Dr. Peter Tobias Stoll (International Law)
Researcher: Dr. Keiko Miura, Anne Splettstößer, M.A., Alper Tasdelen

Project Abstract

In their attempts to protect and certify “cultural property” or “cultural heritage”, that is mainly monuments and intangible heritage/traditional knowledge, UNESCO and the WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) are concerned mostly with cultural expressions which are in their countries of origin. Such efforts, the debates and practices leading to nominations/certifications and their impact have been studied during the first period. However, these important and influential international platforms constituted by member states do not deal with those mobile cultural goods, namely ethnographic and archaeological collections, which were assembled during colonial times and afterwards. The way some of these collections were acquired and exported to museums and private collections in Europe and the United States was, seen from today’s perspective, often dubious. Since the adoption of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, unlawful transactions are called “illicit trafficking in cultural property”. Claims of restitution and return of such collections have, therefore, increased over the past few decades. This increase is a consequence of decolonization and international movements for the empowerment of “indigenous groups”. The project planned aims at investigating how curators in Ethnographic Museums handle this new condition and its implications (Germany ratified the 1970 Convention only in 2007) with regard to their collections and exhibitions. On the other hand, the research project plans to study the aftermath the large-scale removal of such artefacts had for the local population, their religious life and the construction of their identity.