Museums are home to millions of artworks and cultural artifacts, some of which have made their way to these institutions through unjust means. Some argue that these objects should be repatriated (i.e., returned to their country, culture, or owner of origin). However, these arguments face a series of philosophical challenges. In particular, repatriation, even if justified, is often portrayed as contrary to the aims and values of museums. However, in this paper, I argue that some of the very considerations museums appeal to in order to oppose repatriation claims can be turned on their heads and marshaled in favor of the practice. In addition to defending against objections to repatriation, this argument yields the surprising conclusion that the redistribution of cultural goods should be much more radical than is typically supposed.
An interesting argument, and it sounds to me like he is making a case for cultural justice.
Sonia Katyal, Professor of Law at University of California Berkeley has authored a fascinating new article titled, Technoheritage in Volume 105 of the California Law Review. She engages with some of the interesting overlap between cultural property and intellectual property along with the physical and the digital.
Here’s the abstract:
This Article explores the legal revolution that is swiftly unfolding regarding the relationship between technology, user interactivity, and cultural institutions, both inside and outside of the law. At the same time that cultural properties are facing destruction from war and environmental change, we are also living in an age of unprecedented interactivity and reproduction—everywhere, museums are offering their collections for open access, 3-D printing, and new projects involving virtual and augmented reality. With the advent of other sophisticated forms of digital technology, the preservation and replication of antiquities have never been easier.
Today’s archaeological moment demonstrates both the possibilities and limitations behind “technoheritage”—the marriage of technology and cultural heritage. Toward that end, this Article argues that, in order to understand the relationship between technology and cultural heritage, it might be helpful to study the theoretical dimensions behind interactivity itself. Just as technology has the power to preserve and protect ancient artifacts, it also invites a dizzying array of legal conflicts over their digitization and replication, particularly with regards to the intersection of copyright law with cultural identity. Unpacking this further, this Article offers a tripartite taxonomy of interactivity: the first, described as extractive (drawing upon the accumulation and selection of data); the second, immersive (drawing upon new forms of user participation through virtual and augmented reality); and the third, derivative (drawing upon new possibilities of user creation). Normatively, I argue that these models of interactivity provide us with an important framework with which to examine the importance of copyright protection for cultural heritage. In the concluding section, I suggest a potential way of rethinking the museum by drawing on the logic and legal protection extended to databases and archives in an age of unprecedented user interactivity.
Sara Ross, a Ph.D. candidate at Osgoode Hall Law has published an article in the American Indian Law Journal titled: “Res Extra Commercium and the Barriers Faced When Seeking the Repatriation and Return of Potent Cultural Objects: A Transsystemic Critical Post-Colonial Approach”. From the abstract:
The repatriation and return of objects of cultural value are often linked to decolonization projects and efforts to repair past wrongs suffered as a result of colonialism. Yet significant barriers hinder these efforts. These barriers primarily take the shape of time limitations, diverging conceptions of property and ownership, the high costs involved, and the domestic export and cultural heritage laws of both the source country and the destination country. I argue that these barriers are relics of colonialism that replicate and perpetuate the continued imposition of Eurocentric and Western legal notions and values on subaltern source countries and source indigenous groups. In order to truly move beyond the remaining relics of colonialism into a context where the culture and values of all groups are accorded equal respect, it is important that these barriers be removed.
The Spring issue of the Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property has published an interesting student note by Jaya Bajaj titled “Art, Copyright, and Activism: Could the Intersection of Environmental Art and Copyright Law Provide a New Avenue for Activists to protest Various Forms of Exploitation?” The piece works best as a thought experiment, and may be an argument used by the many detractors of moral rights for artists to further restrict the expansion of the still-developing series of rights for artists. But I find the article, and the experimental protest to be thoughtful and well-reasoned. Here’s the abstract:
In 2015, a group of activists led by Aviva Rahmani began an artistic venture known as “Blued Trees.” They painted blue sine waves onto trees along a proposed pipeline pathway, and subsequently filed for federal copyright registration. They hoped to use copyright law and the Visual Artists Rights Act as a sword against fossil fuel companies. Although the piece was destroyed later that year as part of the pipeline construction, the “Blued Trees” movement continues. This note will discuss Rahmani’s legal theory and consider this theory’s strengths and weaknesses. This experimental protest brings forth a number of unanswered questions about the nature of copyright law. It is no secret that contemporary art forms, and the mediums involved, are becoming increasingly diverse. Therefore, this note also seeks to address the merits and limitations of current copyright law in terms of environmental and installation art.
The new issue of the International Journal of Cultural Property is available now, with contributions discussing deaccession, the status of fauna as cultural property, the role Sotheby’s has played in the collection of Maya antiquities, the fascinating case of the Buddhist Mummy, and other contributions. Here is the table of contents with abstracts:
Mann, D. (2017). To Have and To Hold … Or Not? Deaccessioning Policies, Practices, and the Question of the Public’s Interest. International Journal of Cultural Property,24(2), 113-159. doi:10.1017/S0940739117000091
Shockwaves echoed through the media and the arts community when the Delaware Art Museum chose to deaccession pieces from its collection and when the public learned that the Detroit Institute of Arts might be forced to do the same. Further concern arose when financial troubles compelled the Corcoran Gallery of Art to merge with the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University. An examination of the climate and legal battles surrounding these events shows how these institutions chose to cope with the financial adversity that put their collections at risk and illustrates the precarious position of works in a museum’s collection when that museum experiences financial distress. This article explores the ethical, judicial, and legislative frameworks currently governing deaccessioning and ultimately advocates for new legislative solutions to guide the deaccession process in order to provide the opportunity to maintain these works in the public sphere.
Cathay Smith (Asst. Prof. at Montana School of Law) has published an article in the St. John’s Law Review, Community Rights to Public Art. The article surely would have generated the attention of the student editors of the St. John’s Law Review, as the 5 Pointz building, until it was demolished in 2014, was located just a few miles away from the St. John’s campus. From the abstract:
In 1932, the Rockefeller family commissioned Diego Rivera to paint an enormous mural as the centerpiece of the RCA Building lobby in Rockefeller Center in New York City. The colorful mural that Rivera painted, titled Man at the Crossroads, included images of social, political, industrial, and scientific visions of contemporary society. One night in February of 1934, the Rockefellers hired workers to chisel the mural off the wall without any warning or notice. The mural was broken into pieces before being carted away and dumped. The destruction of his mural shocked Rivera. More importantly, however, the destruction of Rivera’s mural permanently deprived the public of a significant work of public art and heritage. The public was stunned at the destruction of the mural; protesters called the Rockefellers’ act “art murder” and “cultural vandalism.” Nevertheless, the mural was the Rockefeller’s property and, despite public support for the mural, they had the legal right to destroy it. More than eight decades later, communities still face this type of loss of heritage through the destruction of public art. For instance, public outrage followed the 2014 demolition of 5 Pointz in New York, when the owner of 5 Pointz whitewashed and destroyed the 20-plus-year-old “graffiti Mecca” to make way for two new $400 million luxury high-rise apartment towers. On the opposite coast, just last year, Piedmont Avenue neighbors in Oakland were shocked when the owner of Kronnerburger Restaurant demolished a beloved community mural in connection with its construction of a new trendy burger restaurant.
Property owners generally have the right to destroy their own property. This Article argues, however, that certain property is so connected to a community’s identity that the community’s right to preserve its heritage may trump a property owner’s right to destroy. This Article explores existing, yet underutilized, legal solutions a community may use or adapt to preserve public art when that art has become a part of its cultural heritage. Finally, recognizing that preservation has its limits, and that without destruction there will be no space for creation, this Article ultimately sets forth questions communities will need to grapple with as they weigh whether and how to protect works of public art as cultural heritage.
Prof. Jennifer Anglim Kreder has published an article examining the concept of the “Public Trust” in the Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law. The doctrine has been used in environmental and museum law, but has a richer history:
It seems as if no one really knows the meaning of the term “public Trust” used in the Religious Test Clause of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution. This Article is the first scholarly attempt to define the term by exploring historical evidence pre-dating the nation’s founding through the Constitution’s adoption, including British and colonial trust law that influenced the Founders’ conception of the term. Today, one can find the term used only in the cases and scholarship concerning environmental law, tax law and museum law. After a thorough analysis of the old and new sources, this Article proposes the following original definition of term “public Trust”: “Any entity given special privilege by the government, beyond the simple grant of a state corporate charter often coupled with state or federal tax waivers, so long as that entity is legally obligated to engage in conduct that could traditionally have been performed by the government itself for the public’s benefit.”
Kreder, Jennifer Anglim, The ‘Public Trust’ (January 21, 2016). 18 University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law 1425 (2016).