Who knows how certain artifacts, buried in the ground or a closet, emerge after years or even centuries? Most things are stumbled upon by accident. Someone is moving out of a family home, lived in for generations. A new highway is being built when excavators find relics and sometimes ancient settlements. The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947 when a young Beduin shepherd, throwing stones into a cave on the outskirts of Qumran, heard the sound of something shattering. He went to look and found large clay pots containing scrolls. He had no idea what they were. Eventually, he traded them to someone in the grey market antiquities business who sold them. It’s a fabulous story, filled with intrigue and hijinks.
Until recently, valuable objects, found by accident, or searched for by archeologists or treasure hunters, belonged to whoever found them – or paid for them. The notion that indigenous peoples were robbed of their sacred objects, family heirlooms, and cultural artifacts, was collateral damage. “To the victor goes the spoils.”
We have recently begun to reimagine to whom these items found in so many museums and private collections genuinely belong. It’s a tough, ongoing conversation, deeply emotional, and filled with issues related to race and culture and the very meaning of ownership.
Right now, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is hearing a case brought against Harvard. For over a decade, Tamara Lanier of Connecticut claimed that the university has photos of her distant relatives photographed while slaves, against their will. The pictures were being taken for a Harvard professor looking to “prove” the inferiority of Black folk. Lanier says the university has no right to keep these images, that they should go to her as a living descendant.
Harvard disagrees and claims that the images, despicable as they may be, will form part of the collection to illuminate how the university, like many in America in the 1850s, was racist and cruel. The lower court agreed with Harvard, saying, “the law, as it currently stands, does not confer a property interest to the subject of a photograph regardless of how objectionable the photograph’s origins may be.”
The MSJC ( MA Supreme Judicial Court) pulled the appeal to this case to the front of the line. They see it as a timely and vital conversation around history, property ownership, and justice. Some justices highlighted cases in which historical crimes have resulted in the eventual repatriation of remains or artifacts left in indigenous reservations, internment, and concentration camps.
This, of course, brings up all kinds of questions about the many Holocaust images taken by Nazi soldiers that we see in textbooks and museums. To whom do those photos belong? In Israel, there is an extensive conversation going on right now around Holocaust artifacts of significant historical meaning. Through an Israeli auctioneer, an anonymous person is attempting to sell eight fingernail-sized steel dies, each lined with pins to form numerals, that were pressed into prisoners’ flesh with ink to brand their serial numbers. Holocaust survivors sought an injunction against the sale, and the regional court in Tel Aviv subsequently put the transaction on hold.
Israel has no law to prevent the sale of Holocaust relics in private hands. But Yad Vashem says it’s utterly preposterous and shameful to allow such auctions. As Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and research center, officials say that such artifacts belong to them.
A spokesman from the Auschwitz Memorial in Poland said photographs of the dies appeared similar to those in its collection. “If they would be authentic, then the very fact that such unique historical items are put up for auction – and not given to an institution that commemorates the victims and educates about the tragedy of Auschwitz – deserves the words of protest and condemnation.”
History is generally not good to the victims and the vanquished. The arrow of time continues to slice through spacetime. The relics of the past, things so dear, symbols so potent, end up eroding under sand or burnt by an ignorant mob or displayed like trophies.
What about the souls of those African slaves? What about the Jews who died at Auschwitz? Where is the compassion and the dignity they deserve? What is to be done with the pieces of history that are left behind long after the innocent are gone?