Symposium on Confronting Colonial Objects: On Gods and Things – Different Ontologies and the United National Declaration of Indigenous Peoples

Symposium on Confronting Colonial Objects: On Gods and Things – Different Ontologies and the United National Declaration of Indigenous Peoples

[Oscar Genaro Macias Betancourt is the Former Director of Restitutions at the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a Specialist in International Law on Cultural Property.]

Confronting Colonial Objects” is a timely contribution to the debate on restitution. It explores the multiple layers surrounding the issue of relocating cultural objects to their place or people of origin. The study by Carsten Stahn tackles restitution from a multidisciplinary perspective and advances the subject as a means to reconfigure relational ethics between countries and peoples.

Carsten begins with a useful, often overlooked, description of museums as tools for the colonial enterprise. The chapter devoted to “collecting mania” refers to “ethnographic” or “world” museums as sites of epistemic violence and the perpetuation of racial narratives, not only in the past, but as a contemporary concern. Consider the case of African art and statuary as an example. Despite embodying a concrete philosophy, metaphysics, and the embodiment of deities, African statuary is often regarded as a primitive form of art (Souleymane Bachir Diagne). In this racist framing, African statues are considered primitive forms of Western scuptures. This phenomenon is not limited to African creations, but most of the pieces within ethnographic or “world” museums are divorced from their original function or “ontology”.

This post builds on some aspects advanced in Carsten’s most recent book. The following words are devoted to different interpretations or different “ontologies” of cultural objects and the impact of those interpretations on the landscape of restitution. The questions I seek to answer include: what is heritage? What is the role of cultural objects or “things” in the heritage discourse? And ultimately, why must restitution be regarded as an urgent matter?

The post engages with Carsten’s ideas by suggesting a new approach to the longstanding debate on restitution. It makes reference to authors that have contributed, like Carsten, to the field of critical heritage studies. This modest publication concludes by offering a possible solution for the settlement of restitution claims based on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

1. Different Ontologies of the Things we call Heritage

Ontology is the field of philosophy that seeks to determine the essence or essential features of “something” in order for it to be considered “itself”. In this case, the question of what constitutes heritage represents an ontological inquiry that should be addressed by delving into the fundamental characteristics of “something” that define it as “heritage”. Put simply, why is something designated as heritage rather than as “waste” or “something else”?

I recall an exhibition featuring a skull erroneously linked to Emperor Moctezuma. Interestingly, it wasn’t solely the artifact itself that garnered attention, but rather the allure surrounding it that rendered it worthy of exhibition, preservation, and even consideration for restitution. What is the value of an object recognized as outright false? Is this piece considered heritage?

Another example is the case of the ruins of the herring rendering factories in Iceland, studied by Pétursdóttir. These facilities were the industrial backbone of the Icelandic economy during the first half of the twentieth century. However, due to various circumstances, the factories were abandoned and are now “caught up somewhere between disposal and history”. Despite their pivotal role in Icelandic history, they have been abandoned as heritage. This example raises questions around who decides what is considered heritage instead of disposal.

To answer the question of what is heritage, it is important to note that, from the second half of twentieth century onwards, UNESCO have dominated discussions around heritage and its management (Harvey; Brumann). UNESCO’s definition considers heritage as “our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations”. From its part, the World Heritage Convention of 1972 classifies heritage into cultural and natural. The former comprises monuments, groups of buildings, and sites, whereas the latter refers to natural features, geological formations, and natural sites.

In the field of movable cultural objects, the UNESCO 1970 Convention adopts a liberal, capitalist and individualistic perspective. It is well documented that, during the adoption of UNESCO 1970, commercial considerations were pivotal in limiting the scope and reach of the convention. Global North countries with a strong lobby from the art market advanced arguments defending the international trade of art and antiquities under the rubric of universal access to heritage and its rescue (SHC/MD/5 + ADD. 1 + ADD. 2). A noteworthy remark of Carsten’s book is the critique of those rubrics as justificatory discourses for colonial takings.

This mainstream understanding of heritage is anchored to the notions of property, inheritance and materiality. Thusly, heritage is comprised by a bundle of things that are meant to be passed to future generations. This focus on the materiality of heritage was criticized by the Global South propelling the expansion of the definitions of heritage seeking to counter the prominence of tangible and archeological conceptions of heritage (PétursdóttirBrumann). According to the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage intangible heritage comprises “…the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage”

While the Intangible Heritage Convention acknowledges the interconnectedness of materiality and intangibility—recognizing both the physical manifestation of heritage and the subjective significance attributed to it—this acknowledgment inadvertently reinforces the notion that these aspects can be considered independently. However, for many non-Western cosmologies, this artificial separation of material and intangible elements, alongside the dichotomy between natural and cultural heritage, proves unworkable. Beyond an objective classification, it rather reflects a colonial mindset.

Against this background, critical heritage studies have suggested alternative definitions of heritage. We owe to Smith the understanding of heritage “as a process of re/constructing and negotiating cultural and social values and meaning”. Instead of something that is “found” or “given”, heritage is rather constructed and negotiated as “a hegemonic discourse propagated by cultural elites and preservation professionals that privileges monumental architecture and shapes the way that people think talk and write about heritage”. For this interpretation, heritage objects constitute vehicles for class, race and gender identities (Hill). The question of what is heritage is therefore defined by groups of specialists or “heritage managers” which are “compromised by its contingent relationship to other areas: conservation, tourism and the leisure industries (Harrison; Smith).

Other authors underscore the value of things beyond a human centric perspective (Pétursdóttir). Things can be regarded as non-human agents placed in the same ontological plane as humans. For Latour, things can be described either as “matters of fact” or “matters of concern.” Under this classification, the skull falsely attributed to Emperor Moctezuma would fit in the description as a thing which is a matter of concern. Instead of mere tools or “fetishes”, things have an agency by themselves: “Things too act, they too do things, they too make you do things” (Latour).

For instance, the inhabitants of Aoriki or Santa Catalina Island regard skilled craftsmanship (fine carpentry, sculpture, incision techniques, basketry, tattooing, et al.) as a product of divine inspiration and the guidance from tutelary deities. Exceptional works are commissioned and utilized for particular events. After ceremonies, objects become records of the event and cannot be exchanged, sold or used in a feast again (Davenport). This case renders difficult to draw a clear distinction between the material and intangible components of heritage.

Another example can be found in the Techialoyan Codexes from central Mexico. Crafted by native communities to document their land rights before the colonial authority of the Spanish crown, these codexes illustrate the junction of natural resources, territorial boundaries, and the sense of identity of a community. Techialoyan Codexes can be seen as non-human agents in the bigger socio-political landscape of a territorial dispute derived from a colonial intervention.

The thesis of things as non-human actors can be applied to debates on restitution of cultural objects. As Sarr and Savoy explain, “the work of decoding the various forms of knowledge some objects conceal as well as the comprehension of the epistemes that have produced them still remains largely a work to be done.” In a similar way, Carsten invites to consider the ontology, societal or ritual functions of objects in its original context. In the next section I will argue that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples can be employed as a platform or avenue to identify the different ontologies of heritage things.


Central to “Confronting Colonial Objects” is the approach of restitution as an avenue to restore relational ethics between nations and peoples. In my view, despite international law’s colonial bias, the UNDRIP offers a key to unlock different ontologies of objects. More than a simple declaration, UNDRIP provides an institutional framework to redirect the attention to the subjects affected by the systemic erase of the original ontologies of objects. Despite the limitations of treaties devoted to restitution, human rights regime hold enormous potential for restitution.

According to a Special Rapporteur on cultural rights, UNDRIP represents an expression of cross-fertilization of ideas and standards among the various bodies of international human rights law. These precedents have gradually adopted a series of criteria recognizing the interdependence of territory and natural resources in securing indigenous rights. My view is that cultural objects should be considered as equally important in securing those rights.

For instance, in the case of Apirana Mahuika et al. v. New Zealand, the claimants submitted that “fishing is one of the main elements of their traditional culture, that they have present-day fishing interests and the strong desire to manifest their culture through fishing to the fullest extent of their traditional territories.” This case illustrates the interdependence of the environment, natural resources and social practices.

In a similar way, in the Jouni E. Länsman et al. v. Finland case, the Sami submitted that “any new measure causing adverse effects on reindeer herding in the Angeli area would amount to a denial of the local Samis’ right to enjoy their own culture.” The connection to the land produces and sustains Sáminess and through the connection a Sami today experiences an affinity with the Sami that preceded them millennia ago. In the case of the Sami, UNESCO’s distinctions of natural versus cultural, alongside material versus intangible runs short.

Another important precedent of the ductilbility of human rigths law is the interpretation of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the Awas case. Through the notion of evolutive interpretation, the Court decided to interpret the notion of property in a communitary dimension allowing to recognize the bond of indigenous communities to its territory and resources.

More recently, the Experts Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP) got involved in the restitution of Maaso Kova, a sacred deer head from the Yaqui. The restitution request activated the mandate of human rights international architecture. Put differently, the expertise of human rights advocacy can be applied to a restitution claim to underscore the junction between land, resources and the right to culture protected under article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the right to take part in cultural life in article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

3. Conclusion

The often obscured worth of cultural objects transcends their physical attributes or rarity. Their importance lies not entirely intrinsically within the objects themselves but emerges from the dialogue with subjectivities within reticular systems of values and traditions. Beyond mere tools, things serve as physical embodiments of transcendental entities or means to communicate with other actors inside cosmologies that defy contemporary paradigms of heritage. Acknowledging this relational value and the different ontologies of things is crucial while addressing restitution claims.

UNDRIP is certainly not a silver bullet (see Engle). Yet, it allows stakeholders to think heritage outside the box and to even recognize that some objects are not supposed to last forever, to be owned or to be passed onto future generations. Sacred deer heads, funerary masks, canoes and a multiplicity of objects were not conceived to be exhibited or preserved. They were rather created to fulfill a social and to undergo the passing of time. Their original ontology includes aging, deterioration and disappearance. If we are to believe that heritage is not found, but constructed, it becomes urgent to include different voices in the designation and management of the thing we call heritage.

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