"Demuseumification" and the return of Cultural Objects
The process by which an object is "museumified," i.e. converted to a static museum piece under glass, has been considered throughout contemporary discourse. We hope to start a conversation about "demuseumification," whereby the accumulated set of preservation expectations from a piece that has been in a museum for a long time is challenged by alternative practices upon the return of this piece to its country of origin.
Contemporary returns of cultural objects are usually undertaken by state institutions, which must demonstrate that they take conservation seriously to be seen as credible interlocutors. Experts dominate the return process, with limited input from alternative voices, particularly Indigenous communities. Return often amounts to museum transfer. Returned objects remain "museumified": they are not restored to their original cultural use.
The assertion that lower income countries cannot protect a cultural object is a common argument for rejecting return. However, reproducing the museum practices of the countries where cultural objects are held may not meet the social, cultural, and political needs of the grieved communities, revealing a power imbalance that allows museums to dictate terms even after they have relinquished ownership.
Using the return of an ancient Bolivian statuette from Bern as a discussion point, we consider how “demuseification” can subvert the expectation that a returned object remains in the realm of museums to acquire new societal and cultural functions.