|The Weisman Art Museum holds a large collection of Mimbres painted pottery (1000 to 1150), resulting from an excavation in Southern New Mexico by university faculty and students from 1929 to 1931. Pottery, jewelry, ceramic miniatures, animal bone awls, and other tools were transferred from the Department of Anthropology in 1992.
Today, no one in anthropology studies this collection. And, in the decades since the excavation, both the science of archaeology and perceptions about Native Americans’ control of their cultural heritage have changed considerably. The archaeologists who excavated the graves in which these pots were found had no doubts about the validity of their actions. Today we are not so sure. Change has prompted questions including: should these pots have been unearthed at all; should they be reburied? The federal Native American Graves Protection Act (NAGPRA, 1990) requires museums to return grave goods or sacred objects to native peoples who claim them and can prove they are the legitimate descendants of the makers. These pots, and many other objects made by ancient people around the globe, have been enshrined in climate-controlled display cases, watched by guards and security cameras, allowing everyone to see them while protecting them from the ravages of nature and man. They are no longer where their makers intended, covered with earth and hidden from view, acted upon by time and the elements. University museums are often left with the result of past excavations that would be handled quite differently today. The question is not how to make these objects relevant to the public – they are greatly admired by our visitors – but how to fill our mission of education while respecting the original makers’ intentions and the desires of their descendants.|