The Seattle Art Museum's repatriation of an Aboriginal art object is a reasoned move by a museum open to discovering cultures through art but also respecting important boundaries.

Share story

AN Aboriginal artifact headed to the National Museum of Australia is an illustration of the Seattle Art Museum’s willingness to be honest and fair about its acquisitions.

Experts in Australian art were visiting Pamela McCluskey, SAM’s curator of Africa and Oceania art, when they noticed a ceremonial stone, known to indigenous Australians as a tjuringa.

The stone had been in the Seattle museum’s collections since 1971, but it had never been publicly exhibited. McCluskey launched her investigation into the object’s history in 2006 and recently announced it would be returned to Australia.

A simple move, but one steeped in respect for another culture’s point of view.

It was the first time an American-collecting institution has willingly returned a sacred object to Australia.

Many museums respond only reluctantly in cases like this, underscoring the significance of McCluskey’s decision. Cases of plundered artworks often are resolved in court. But when a cultural group, say a Native American tribe, feels strongly about the use of a sacred object, it must rely on the honesty and openness of art collectors.

The tensions are part of a debate about the role of museums: Should they use art to showcase the fullest picture of the world; or should they respect cultural beliefs that some things were not meant to be seen by outsiders?

SAM offers an example of how to do both.

The museum currently has on view a good-sized collection of contemporary Aboriginal paintings. What this means is that SAM maintains its principles of respect when dealing with items of historical, traditional and cultural significance and the public still gets a window into the world of other cultures.