In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Repatriation

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Edited Collections
  • Reference Works: Guides, Reports, and Declarations
  • Journals
  • Visual, Knowledge, and Virtual Repatriation
  • The Special Status of Human Remains
  • Property and Exchange
  • Internationalism and Nationalism, Universalism and Relativism
  • NAGPRA and Repatriation in the United States
  • Repatriation as a Site of Ethnographic Research
  • Repatriation as Redress and Healing
  • Parallel Disciplinary Perspectives
  • Films

Anthropology Repatriation
Cara Krmpotich
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0234


Repatriation is the return of persons, material heritage, and/or associated knowledge to its place of origins. Within anthropology, this frequently refers to the return of items collected and held within museums or other institutional collections to originating communities. Origins and originating communities are variously identified as nation-states, Indigenous or ethnic groups, kin groups, cities or villages, or sites of removal. It is repatriation from cultural institutions, as opposed to battlefield repatriation or repatriation of displaced persons, that the bibliography focuses on. Anthropology is well into its second generation of focused repatriation scholarship, whereas the material culture and human remains at the heart of repatriation requests have frequently had a much longer place in anthropological research. Many items now returning through repatriation processes were originally collected and made objects of study by anthropologists and archaeologists. During the formation of anthropology and archaeology as disciplines, museums, material culture (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article Material Culture), and physical anthropology were central. Collecting, documenting, and measuring the physical bodies and material heritage of cultural groups were understood by anthropologists to generate data, while museums were sites where comparative analysis could occur, training of students happened, and emerging theories could be presented to scholars and the public alike. Given this history, it is unsurprising that anthropologists have been actively engaged in scholarly debate about the repatriation of materials (whether ethnographic or otherwise), as well as participants in the development of institutional policies, national legislation, and public understanding. In the contemporary moment, anthropologists frequently find themselves working with Indigenous peoples who are vying to hold colonial and settler nations to account for injustice, and who are asserting the viability and legitimacy of their cultural practices into the future. Repatriating ancestral remains and material heritage is one form of redress and expression of sovereignty for many nations and cultural groups. Thus, repatriation is increasingly understood as an expression of contemporary Indigeneities and nationalisms, pushing anthropologists to ask what roles repatriation—and museums more broadly—play in processes of decolonization, reconciliation, indigenization, and nation-building.

General Overviews and Edited Collections

Repatriation is frequently discussed in edited collections, where chapters present distinct case studies from a range of locations, and with different kinds of items being the subject of the repatriation. Barkan and Bush 2002 and Fforde, et al. 2002 contain chapters considering human remains and sacred or ceremonial items. Greenfield 2013 and Nafziger and Nicgorski 2009 provide an overview focused on antiquities and cultural patrimony. Tythacott and Arvanitis 2010 considers both human remains and artifacts, though its authors all speak from a museum perspective. While edited volumes can have particular disciplinary leanings, most include some form of interdisciplinarity. A distinction within anthropological volumes, such as Fforde, et al. 2002 and Turnbull and Pickering 2010, is often the inclusion of Indigenous authors who have been active in shaping practices and thinking about repatriation and may or may not be university-based scholars and/or employees in museums or tribal repatriation offices. Earlier edited volumes, like Merryman 2006, tend to contain both chapters in favor of, and chapters against, repatriation as initial repatriation scholarship focused on the question of whether or not institutions should repatriate human remains and/or cultural property. The second phase of scholarship on repatriation, however, tends to focus more on how repatriation occurs, its meanings, and its impact (Turnbull and Pickering 2010). Whether repatriation should happen is no longer the dominant question in anthropology; instead, it is treated as something that is happening and thus as a set of contemporary cultural practices and corresponding values worth investigating and understanding (see also Repatriation as a Site of Ethnographic Research).

  • Barkan, Elazar, and Ronald Bush, eds. 2002. Claiming the stones/naming the bones: Cultural property and the negotiation of national and ethnic identity. Los Angeles: Getty.

    An open-access volume that covers multiple themes central to repatriation including property and commodification, nationalism and universalism, identity and belonging.

  • Fforde, Cressida, Jane Hubert, and Paul Turnbull, eds. 2002. The dead and their possessions: Repatriation in principle, policy and practice. London and New York: Routledge.

    Highlights the motivations and processes undertaken by people around the globe to repatriate their ancestors’ remains and associated items. Authors include Indigenous repatriation officers, museum staff, anthropologists, and archaeologists seeking to build understanding of why repatriation matters locally and globally.

  • Greenfield, Jeanette. 2013. The return of cultural treasures. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    In its third edition, and an early foundational text. Contains multiple cases, including significant representation of intra-European returns, with later chapters examining related issues such as looting, the black market, and international efforts to control cultural property.

  • Merryman, John Henry, ed. 2006. Imperialism, art and restitution. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Interdisciplinary collection of papers juxtaposing contrasting perspectives on the repatriation of the bust of Nefertiti and the Parthenon Marbles, while other contributions question historic and contemporary roles for museums in society. Contains the text of the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums (cited under Reference Works: Guides, Reports, and Declarations).

  • Nafziger, James A. R., and Ann M. Nicgorski, eds. 2009. Cultural heritage issues: The legacy of conquest, colonization and commerce. Leiden, The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff.

    Three chapters directly address repatriation in North American and African contexts within the larger volume examining the complex and multiple contexts in which antiquities and cultural heritage circulate.

  • Turnbull, Paul, and Michael Pickering, eds. 2010. The long way home: The meaning and values of repatriation. New York: Berghahn.

    Legal, ethical, historical, and representational questions are pursued through case studies and analyses, largely in the context of Australia and the British Commonwealth.

  • Tythacott, Louise, and Kostas Arvanitis, eds. 2010. Museums and restitution: New practices, new approaches. London and New York: Routledge.

    Situated in cultural heritage and museum studies, discusses repatriation from perspectives internal to museums. Chapters revisit well-known topics (the Parthenon Marbles, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act [NAGPRA]) and introduce lesser-known cases (the artist Kazimir Malevich, Urker human remains).

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