Indeterminacy in the cultural property restitution debate

A new open-access publication has recently been released in the International Journal of Cultural Policy, written by University of Helsinki doctoral candidate Pauno Soirila. Titled “Indeterminacy in the Cultural Property Restitution Debate”, the abstract reads as follows:

The debate over the restitution of cultural property is usually framed as the dispute between what John Henry Merryman defined as ‘cultural nationalism’ and ‘cultural internationalism’: the opposite viewpoints that argue whether cultural heritage objects should be returned to their countries of origin or spread around the world as determined by other principles. I argue, however, that the concepts are problematic both in their definition and their perception as two dialectically opposed sides of a dispute. This article analyses the restitution debate by examining some of the most important arguments and counterarguments used in the debate and by comparing them to the international law ‘New Stream’ theory. It is revealed that a similar indeterminacy which defines international law in the theory also defines the restitution debate, and that cultural nationalism and internationalism do not in fact provide answers to the debate but only function as two entry points that echo each other without a way to end the debate. Therefore, it is necessary to see beyond the two concepts in order to find solutions to the disputes.

The article argues that to frame the restitution debate as a contest between these two concepts is counterproductive, not only because they are too narrow to encompass the true scope of debate but because in reality both sides use arguments from both cultural nationalism and cultural internationalism to create a convincing case, eventually mirroring each other’s arguments. Therefore, it is impossible to resolve any restitution case through reference to these types of arguments alone.

Instead, if we examine recent museum practice, we can see that a new surge of restitution cases has come through a fundamental inclusion of human rights thinking into museum work which has highlighted the unequal power relations especially between indigenous peoples and Western countries. While such power dynamics may not have as strong a pull in many state-to-state claims, using museum practice as an example, future resolution should instead seek other such external principles to find resolutions which can satisfy both sides of the debate.

The article is available online, though yet to be assigned into an issue. (Current) full reference information:

Pauno Soirila (2021) Indeterminacy in the cultural property restitution debate, International Journal of Cultural Policy, DOI: 10.1080/10286632.2021.1908275