The Ritual Labor of Reconciliation

An Autoethnography of a Return of Human Remains

in Museum Worlds
Restricted access

Having a dual perspective as researcher of expressive culture and museum curator, I engage in the ceremonial aspects of repatriation through a practice-based “museology from within.” Focusing on a handover of human remains by the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm to indigenous claimants from Australia (2004), I combine material from my own participant observation with sources such as interviews and written and photographic documentation. The aim is to bring an autoethnographic perspective to a discussion on the ritual dynamics of repatriation. The transfer of custody and right of interpretation was accomplished with a ceremonial process, cocreated by museum staff and indigenous claimants. Drawing on differing cultural scripts as well as on improvised interplay, participants engaged in turn taking and intercultural translation of symbolic communication. Certain themes were ritualized redundantly, such as mutual exchange and reconciliation, but there also existed the more paradoxical copresence of seclusion and openness, closure and continuation.