This essay is one of a series of “Participant Observations” on the removal of the Samuel Morton Cranial Collection from public display and legacies of scientific racism in museums. Read more reflections from this series here.

In 2015, as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, my class had the opportunity to speak with Richard Lariviere, the then-director of the Field Museum, about museum ethics and repatriation. I had just been working on repatriation projects at Colorado State University, and had asked him whether it was difficult for museum staff to value Indigenous stakes in the objects/entities as much as their own stakes. His response was familiar to many situated within the museum and repatriation landscape: 

“The Field Museum is compliant with both the letter and the spirit of the law.”

But what does it mean to be compliant with the “spirit” of the law (in this case, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA)? In this instance, Dr. Lariviere continued to talk about the mutual benefits of connection and collaboration fostered by the requirements of the law. The Field Museum had just completed a collaboration with Pawnee and Yakama visual artist Bunky Echo-Hawk that produced a beautiful and engaging exhibit. The Field Museum has increasingly engaged Indigenous artists, leaders, and religious officials in recent history to productive and innovative effects.

At the same time, the Field Museum had an entire permanent gallery devoted to objects of Indigenous Peoples of the Pacific that conceptually met the criteria to qualify for repatriation under NAGPRA, had they been created by Native Americans. “Pacific Spirits: Life, Death, and the Supernatural” was devoted to explaining—and showing the objects of—the sacred worlds of the Oceanians. Under NAGPRA, “sacred objects” must be repatriated to tribes that need those objects for contemporary religious practices. Moreover, many sacred objects doubly qualify for repatriation as “cultural patrimony,” meaning no one person ever had the right to alienate the object/entity from its community. If the letter and spirit of the law were followed in this gallery, it would be almost entirely empty. However, because these objects were created by communities in Oceania, which falls outside the remit of NAGPRA, the Field Museum felt justified in displaying them anyway.

This incommensurability between NAGPRA and non-NAGPRA restitution continued to stand out to me when I began a research project analyzing the restitution policies at the Art Institute of Chicago. Besides NAGPRA-applicable objects/entities, the Art Institute also contends with Nazi-looted artworks, violently taken from their original Jewish and other oppressed minority owners within the reach of the Nazi regime. This violence is so widespread, and the value of the art is often so great, that many institutions have developed policies for this kind of restitution. 

In the case of Nazi-looted art, the Art Institute of Chicago had restored works to the descendants of original owners and had teams of people devoted to investigating provenance before purchases to ensure objects had never been stolen in this context. Their policy regarding restitution of Nazi-appropriated objects was clear: they would work with the descendants to discern the history of ownership of the objects and they would return any that were improperly taken.

However, the NAGPRA policy did not parallel the Nazi-looted art policy. In fact, their lack of commensurability was perhaps a primary reason why, shortly after I began this project, the Art Institute’s lawyers revoked their permission for me to use their policies in my research, claiming they would be “updated” that year and that they didn’t want me to publish their old, “outdated” policies in 2016. Instead, they referred me to the policies of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), which they had used as a template for their own.

The differences between the NAGPRA and Nazi-appropriated restitution policies of the AAMD are staggering. The AAMD policy on Nazi-appropriated art can be found in two documents, a report from a task force on the topic from 1998 and a policy document from 2007. They require that member institutions do everything possible to determine the ownership history of artworks during the 1933-1945 time period. If there are any indications that the ownership history is suspect, museums are meant to “resolve the matter in an equitable, appropriate, and mutually agreeable manner”.[1] The aim of the document is to ensure restitution to previous owners of these appropriated works. The term restitution is defined in these documents as “works of art returned to prior owners, or to circumstances where the prior owner agreed to resolve the matter in some other manner”.[2][3]

This contrasts against AAMD policy on the Stewardship of Sacred Objects—there is no explicit NAGPRA-related policy—that requires “special consideration” of sacred objects. In reality, this policy reads as a justification for keeping “sacred objects,” since supposedly moral museums will be ideal “stewards” of these things, despite the fact that a “sacred object” is the very definition NAGPRA uses for an object that a museum must return. However, the AAMD policy never mentions repatriation or restitution as a possibility for sacred objects. In fact, the policy on sacred objects never even mentions the word “repatriation” except in spelling out the “R” of the acronym NAGPRA.

This kind of institutional incommensurability between similar violences against oppressed communities is what immediately stood out about the Morton Collection when I arrived as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania in 2016. Arguments regarding the “letter and spirit of the law” were propagated here too. While some human beings that were stolen were repatriated because the law forced Penn to do so, the rest were left to continue to be displayed and studied in the basement of the Penn Museum in perpetuity. Apparently, whereas the violence that Native Americans suffered requires reparation, the violence that oppressed peoples from other minority communities or Mexico or Africa suffered does not.

The inability of people to see others as commensurably, fully human as themselves underlies nearly all of humanity’s greatest problems. To see and know that others—who might not look or talk like us—are the same as us, with the same needs and the same rights to dignity and respect, should be the primary mission of museums, if museums can be redeemed at all. Following the letter and spirit of NAGPRA requires a full recognition of acts of violence perpetrated, both historically and in the present, against all communities represented in the Morton Collection, and all museum collections throughout the world. Repairing that violence cannot and should not be exceptional to some groups over others, it should be extended to all those who have suffered it.


[1] See Section II-Part D of Association of Art Museum Directors, Report of the AAMD Task Force on the Spoliation of Art during the Nazi/World War II Era (1933-1945) (New York, 1998).

[2] AAMD, Spoliation of Art, 2.

[3] On the consideration of NAGPRA-related repatriation and Holocaust-related repatriation together, see Aaron Glass, “Return to Sender: On the Politics of Cultural Property and the Proper Address of Art.” Journal of Material Culture 9, no. 2 (July 2004): 115–39.