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Rightful owners

Research into anthropological artefacts must acknowledge claims of prior ownership.

Those seeking to study archaeological specimens increasingly find the objects of their interest tied up in complex arguments over who owns them. But if museums engage openly and honestly with nations that claim ownership, they can reach compromises that will balance the potentially conflicting desires for reliable stewardship, fairness and access for both the public and researchers.

The latest episode to bring these issues to the fore concerns the stewardship of a large collection of Oceanic artefacts held by the de Young Museum in San Francisco. The collection, which includes masks, skulls and exotic carvings, could provide anthropologists with new insights into primitive peoples.

As we report on page 722, at least nine of the 400 artefacts initially donated seem to be the national cultural property of Papua New Guinea. The items — and others among the 6,000 pieces lined up as future exhibits — came from the worldwide trade in archaeological specimens that are increasingly valued as works of art.

Research should proceed on the basis of a firm and fair understanding between the museum and officials from the country of origin.

The de Young Museum — rebuilt at great expense after earthquake damage — started the Oceanic exhibition last October to herald its reopening. Unfortunately, given the history of dealing in such objects, no one at the museum seems to have asked questions about the provenance of the specimens when they first entered its gorgeous, copper-sheathed walls.

Yet to the museum's credit, its officials are now pledging to address the issue. A Papua New Guinea museum official has, for example, been invited to San Francisco next week to examine the artefacts. The museum's desire to work with the government of the objects' country of origin contrasts with the more haughty, colonial attitude that has sometimes characterized curators' approaches to this issue in the recent past.

The world of archaeology has been transfixed in recent months, for example, by a criminal trial in Italy of dealers and museum officials over looted artefacts that were sold on to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

The artefacts now housed in the de Young Museum are of considerable scientific interest. They offer anthropologists a window to cultures of an earlier time — possibly even to the era of the miniature hominids who lived to the west on the island of Flores a few thousand years earlier.

But such research should proceed on the basis of a firm and fair understanding between the museum that has physical custody of the objects and officials from their country of origin. All parties should work together to ensure that such an understanding is reached.

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Rightful owners. Nature 440, 716 (2006).

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