Repatriation, Material Agency, and the Future of Museum Curation

Brooke Morgan, Illinois State Museum
Tate 111

Repatriation, Material Agency, and the Future of Museum Curation

Abstract: One of the primary challenges facing museum curators is determining when it is appropriate to deaccession items in a collection. A number of factors influence this decision, including the institution’s mission, physical space constraints, item condition, and ability to care for items in perpetuity. Repatriation, or return of legal control, of cultural heritage to descendant communities or communities of origin is at the forefront of global conversations on museum best practices. Such discussions often center the objects in question within western ontologies of material culture by asking how well a (non-western) society can care for repatriated items. This approach fails to recognize the complex and dynamic lives of material objects both within and outside their communities of origin, and that the best place for items may not be in climate-controlled museum spaces. Examples of international repatriation by the Illinois State Museum offer perspective on how museums can expand the traditional definition of curation and re-envision curation in partnership with Indigenous communities.