Home Artifacts Why local engagement is essential in the repatriation of cultural artefacts

Why local engagement is essential in the repatriation of cultural artefacts


The Smithsonian Museum of African Art recently announced its intention to repatriate the bronzes from Benin to Nigeria. Similar reports of the return of “stolen” or “removed” items of historical and cultural value are increasingly common.

Stories covering the repatriation of property by colonial institutions to their home communities tend to run both ways. They contemplate the opinions that surround and the legal frameworks involved in the return of these goods. Or they challenge our perceptions of colonial institutions like museums.

People who write stories like these often invoke Erik Killmonger’s powerful remarks about the artifacts stolen from Black Panther: “How do you think your ancestors got them? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it, like they took everything else? More commonly, they refer to the now famous Indiana Jones statement, “This belongs in a museum!” “

As archaeologists and heritage specialists in Canada and Belize, we offer an alternative commentary. We focus on the communities of origin as agents of change both globally and locally.


Nations and peoples participate more and more in the daily actions of decolonization and reconciliation, of which repatriation is only one element.

But what is more important are acts of local engagement and community initiatives in the field of culture and heritage. These help pivot our understanding of the material past into the living present and work to break down power structures that infringe on peoples’ rights and pathways to self-determination.

Local engagement and community initiatives negotiate relationships that seek to reinvent colonial political systems and foster empowerment for local benefit. They also aim to avoid recreating past power imbalances and to amplify the diverse voices in the storytelling.

The co-authors are consulting with representatives of government, school boards and cultural centers regarding the production of future educational initiatives featuring local archaeological research engaged in the community.
(Shawn Morton), Author provided


Belize is a former British colony, now a multicultural and independent country, and has pursued relatively low-profile repatriation acts for decades. The country has also engaged in high-profile restitution demands.

Community members are working alongside local Belizean and foreign archaeologists to ensure that what led to the initial suppression of material culture never happens again.

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A first Belizean initiative involved the establishment of temporary and longer-term loan programs with foreign institutions. One of the first involved the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and the country’s archaeological collection from the ancient Mayan city of Altun Ha, which has since been largely repatriated. Other artifacts remain on loan and form the centerpiece of the ROM’s Mayan collection and associated exhibits.

The Belize government established the National Museum of Belize in 2002 following these early repatriations. Museum representatives and officials from the Institute of Archeology organize regular tours throughout the country, as not all citizens can easily access the museum.

They do this because access to tangible heritage – including artifacts that have been repatriated – helps connect people to the past and to their identity. This is essential for rebuilding and reimagining post-colonial Belize.

Belizean organizers and foreign collaborating archaeologists often associate these tours with locally planned cultural activities, such as the Succotz Archeology and Culture Fair, which allows residents of small communities in Belize to engage with the properties. and the history of their people, which makes it a part of their daily life.

Woman wears gloves as she carefully organizes a small artifact
Co-author Sylvia Batty carefully installing antiques from Belize in an American museum in 2016.
(Rebecca Newberry), Author provided

Establishing small community museums and cultural centers across the country is important because it allows communities to bring to light the stories of their particular places.

These organizations also participate in community research on heritage and associated culture, with, by and for indigenous, descendant and local communities. The Crooked Tree Museum and Cultural Heritage Center is a prime example of a community-led educational initiative and research program that does just that.

Crooked Tree explores the deep and changing history of the Lower Belize River Watershed, from the first local people over 10,000 years ago to the Creole community today.


Professionally trained Belizeans now accompany heritage and cultural objects when they leave the country to go to museums abroad. These people actively participate in the story of the life of artefacts. They also ensure that the items are properly maintained and respected physically and culturally.

In Maya’s recent traveling exhibit: Hidden Worlds Revealed, Belizeans acted as messengers and primary decision-makers. Along the way, they received additional hands-on training in various exhibition and conservation practices.

To read: NGA repatriates 14 objects to India, worth more than $ 3 million

While these daily initiatives are aimed at breaking down colonial power structures both at home and abroad, they are far from perfect. Questions of heritage and culture collide with complex struggles for power and identity.

They can simultaneously trigger legal battles while inspiring new collaborations. This happened recently in the ancient Mayan city of Uxbenka.

Conversations about repatriation often take a back seat when it comes time to return. Repatriation attempts to signal that the wrongs have been repaired and attention shifts to the next artefact held captive. Local initiatives that create open access to archeology, artefacts and museums are the first step towards decolonizing institutions that have distanced decision-making from communities.

Even before an artefact is returned, heritage managers must strive to repair centuries of divisive action by building trust through collaborative projects.

The work of decolonization and reconciliation is slow because it represents the dismantling of centuries of colonialism and its legacies. What is happening in Belize is a work in progress. Its citizens pursue various self-determined actions as well as repatriation as steps towards generational healing and reparation.The conversation

Meaghan Peuramaki-Brown, Associate Professor, Archeology / Anthropology, Athabasca University and Sylvia Batty, Adjunct Lecturer, Archaeologist, Co-Director of the Heritage Education Network Belize, Galen University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.