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The Magic of Bureaucracy

Repatriation as Ceremony

Laura Peers


As a curator who has been responsible for the return of Indigenous human remains from a UK museum, I take as a starting point for this article the dossier of paperwork and the administrative acts required to negotiate the decision about a claim and de-accession; to meet requirements for export, customs, and airline transport; and effect the return of human remains. The administrative actions involved in repatriation are forms of ritual, performances of corporate identity, and relations of power. Although museum staff and claimant groups have different agendas in this process, and the nature of their rituals is quite different, administrative and claimant rituals are interdependent across the repatriation process. These intersecting, powerful actions have the same overarching functions for each group: to articulate identities, core values, and structures of power; to open the possibility of new aspects of identity; and to articulate ongoing tensions between majority society and minority claimant groups.

Open access

"Ceremonies of Renewal"

Visits, Relationships, and Healing in the Museum Space

Laura Peers

Access to heritage objects in museum collections can play an important role in healing from colonial trauma for indigenous groups by facilitating strengthened connections to heritage, to ancestors, to kin and community members in the present, and to identity. This article analyzes how touch and other forms of sensory engagement with five historic Blackfoot shirts enabled Blackfoot people to address historical traumas and to engage in ‘ceremonies of renewal’, in which knowledge, relationships, and identity are strengthened and made the basis of well-being in the present. The project, which was a museum loan and exhibition with handling sessions before the shirts were placed on displays, implies the obligation of museums to provide culturally relevant forms of access to heritage objects for indigenous communities.

Free access


Repatriation and Ritual, Repatriation as Ritual

Laura Peers, Lotten Gustafsson Reinius, and Jennifer Shannon


This special section of Museum Worlds explores the entire process of repatriation as a set of rituals enacted by claimants and museum staff: a set of highlighted performances enacting multiple sets of cosmological beliefs, symbolic systems, and political structures. Some of the rituals of repatriation occur within the space of Indigenous ceremonies; others happen within the museum spaces of collections storage and the boardroom; others, such as handover ceremonies, are coproduced and culturally hybrid. From the often obsessive bureaucracy associated with repatriation claims to the affective moment of handover, repatriation articulates a moral landscape where memory, responsibility, guilt, identity, sanctity, place, and ownership are given a ritual form. Theory about ritual is used here to situate the articles in this section, which together form a cross-cultural examination of ritual meaning and form across repatriation processes.