Researchers and Access to Religious Items

Pharyngula notes from Nature that the 9,000-year-old bones of Kennewick Man are finally coming under scientific scrutiny, despite religious objections from Native Americans and lengthy legal actions since the remains were found in Washington State in1996. The Tri-City Herald gives further details on its special website devoted to the topic

Still, spiritual leaders of Northwest tribes, who were on the other side of contentious court battles, say they hope the bones will be laid to rest back in the earth after the scientists finish.

…”Until the bones go back into the earth, their soul can not rest,” said Allen Slickpoo Jr., a Nez Perce elder and spiritual leader who lives in Kamiah, Idaho. “I hope they will let Kennewick Man rest.”…Slickpoo explained that the Northwest tribes consider themselves earth people and they believe a person must be returned whole to the soil.

“We are to go out the same way we come in,” he said.

…Further studies of Kennewick Man could be stopped if a bill proposed by U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., passes and a two-word amendment changes the wording of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. It would let federally recognized tribes demand the return of remains, even if they can’t prove a link to a modern tribe.

Such concerns are hardly unique – in Israel, Ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups have threatened archaeologists who disturb Jewish graves. I happen to live in the same city as the largest tomb in Japan, constructed more than 1,500 years ago and said to be the resting place of Emperor Nintoku – making it an imperial sacred space that can never be properly examined.

However, it is not only human remains that are a focus of debate. Tiffany Jenkins (who is affiliated with the Marxist-turned-libertarian Institute of Ideas and who blogs here) reports on an alarming trend in the latest New Statesman:

Objects of religious significance are being removed from museum cases across the United States and the United Kingdom. Artefacts are being hidden away – in effect placed in deep-freeze. Public access, research possibilities and academic freedom are being curtailed and closed down. In the US, at the new National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, material is removed and segregated if the objects are sacred or have ceremonial status. Some may be seen only by certain privileged individuals in a specific tribe. The public may thus view only some of the material held in what is supposed to be a national collection.

Jenkins gives a number of examples, including a case from the UK where women researchers are being discriminated against (links added):

Curators will not display part of the collection at the Hancock Museum in Newcastle. Behind closed doors, they have separated parts of this hidden trove into segregated boxes. Only men may look at the set of churinga totems, given to young men of the Arrernte tribe in Australia when they became adults. Any female researchers who make a special request to examine the material will be “actively discouraged”.

Jenkins traces these trends to official policies:

The American Association of Museums recently published the manual Stewards of the Sacred, which “spells out the benefits” of considering the sacred, because museums have “increasingly an obligation to consider spiritual needs and concerns”.

…Already, the code of ethics issued by the UK’s Museums Association argues that this practice should operate across the board. It commands professionals to “consider restricting access to certain specified items, particularly those of ceremonial or religious importance, where unrestricted access may cause offence or distress to actual or cultural descendants”.

Arguing against such restrictions, and a column defending them by Ratan Vaswani (who was also responsible for the UK Code), Jenkins writes:

It sends out the insidious message that human beings can understand cultures only if they were born or raised in them.

It would follow that a girl from Ipanema cannot appreciate the artefacts of the Chinese, nor could a Muslim be an expert in Catholic altarpieces from Italy. This is wrong. The very nature of understanding is that it is open to all, despite blood or upbringing. The quest for knowledge can be conducted with tact and sensitivity, but there should be no restrictions on the pursuit of intellectual inquiry.

Quite right – if museums feel unable to handle religious items in a way that makes them generally available, they may as well return them to the religious groups they originally belonged to. That would be a cruel blow to education and research, but a museum that uses religious or ethnic background to decide who gets to see what must surely be even worse than worthless.

(Story tipped from Christianity Today Weblog)