Reclaiming Lost History

Daily news stories report on the research that museums are doing to identify objects that entered their collections illegally and the processes of repatriating objects to their countries of origin. Less has been written about the intangibles that have been lost along with the objects. Recently two unrelated efforts on different continents are attempting to recover lost histories.

In reviewing a new book, The Art Newspaper characterized the problem this way:

Not only has Africa been despoiled of many riches but its scholarship has also often been stolen, with the contributions of African researchers — mostly women — erased by more famous European names.

The book being introduced, The Oxford Encyclopedia of African Archeology, edited by the Zimbabwean archaeologist Shadreck Chirikure, chronicles archaeological scholarship on three million years of African life. An accompanying online resource allows scholars to add to the work, making it a living document. But the process of compiling the encyclopedia also pointed to some of the problems inherent in recovering history, including the small number of scholars working in Africa, language limitations and geographic areas rendered inaccessible by conflict.

On the other side of the globe, an exhibition in Amsterdam, entitled “Manahahtáanung or New Amsterdam? The Indigenous Story Behind New York,” explores the settlement of New York from the point of view of the indigenous Americans who populated the region. According to a spokesperson for the Lenape people at the press opening:

We have already set precedents with an apology for the African and Caribbean slave trade. In an ideal world, an apology is to all the Lenape across Turtle Island [America] and reparation from Dutch government — because we’ve lost a lot. We’ve lost culture, we’ve lost language, we’ve lost connection to our homelands … We were massacred all the way up to Ontario.

According to the exhibition, some members of the Lenape people are questioning the validity of the treaty by which the Dutch purchased the island — which the indigenous population called Manahahtáanung or “place of the hickories” — for 60 guilders.

These are not the only initiatives to recover lost culture and history, but they are two remarkable current examples that join the “Free the Flag” movement by indigenous Australians and efforts to protect the traditional Uyghur meshrap, although the latter are riddled with controversy.