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Book review of Tiffany Jenkins, Keeping their Marbles. How the treasures of the past ended up in museums … and why they should stay there.



This is an opportunistic and dangerous book riding on the back of advocacy by First Nations Peoples (and other Nations) for the return of stolen cultural property and human remains. Jenkin’s defends a very old fashioned and conservative view—the idea of a universal “rationality” where all humanity is shared, where “treasures” ended up in the Europe due to a “global trade” fuelled by mutual cultural curiosity and, for the most part, property acquisitions were carried out in accordance with civilised property laws. The claim is that cultural identity and, even more disturbingly, that humanity is acquired through warehousing objects for the benefit of “us”: the researchers and members of the public who are interested in museum collections. At a time when, in Australia, there are calls for appropriate monuments to recognise Aboriginal peoples claimed by the Frontier wars and killed in other human rights atrocities committed in the name of the British Crown, and when the language of discovery is widely discredited in Australian schools and universities, Jenkin’s is seriously misrepresenting the history of her own nation.
In recent literature on the restitution of Nazi-looted art, reference can be found to notions of morality as impetus for the return of cultural property to claimants who, although they may be able to evidence their ownership to an object, are stymied by onerous legal frameworks. With such claims, it is often the recognition of a moral entitlement or obligation that leads to a resolution regarding restitution. This conflation of morality with justice seems to have taken hold, in particular, with the articulation of the Washington Principles in 1998, which call on nation-states to create alternative dispute resolution processes for the fair and just resolution of Nazi-looted art claims. In determining what is fair and just in the resolution of these looted art claims, regard is often made to the strength of a party’s moral claim to the property. The exercise of notions of morality is often seen as resulting in a fair and just outcome, linking morality with the fair and just solution of such cultural property claims. But, it is justice on what ground? Is morality the proper yardstick by which to determine whether outcomes of restitution claims are just and fair? This article explores the use of morality and offers an argument that it should not be the basis on which entitlement should be determined, primarily due to its amorphous nature and undefined relationship to justice. This is further supported by a claimant narrative suggesting that concepts of reconciliation and procedural fairness are of concern to claimants rather than recognition of moral entitlement. Having regard to these concerns, the article recognizes a need for a new conceptual framework from which to assess the delivery of the just and fair solution and that reflects these concerns.
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