University of Tartu Egyptian mummies to stay where they are

Ancient Egyptian funerary items from the Tartu University Art Museum exhibition, ‘Iidamast-aadamast. Heaks eluks vajalikud asjad’.
Ancient Egyptian funerary items from the Tartu University Art Museum exhibition, ‘Iidamast-aadamast. Heaks eluks vajalikud asjad’. Source: University of Tartu Museum.

A trend for European former colonial nations such as France and Germany returning archaeological and culture items of interest to their original homelands in Africa and other parts of the world, while it concerns Estonia too, is not likely to lead to the University of Tartu Museum returning its own artifacts.

Late last month, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock announced the return of the Benin bronzes to Nigeria, where they had originated. The bronze masks were plundered in the 19th century and sold on the European market, eventually reaching Germany.

Jaanika Anderson, acting director and research director at the Tartu University museum, told ERR that: "This process is known as the decolonization of museums."

"Museums are full of objects relating to different peoples and cultures, whose paths of arrival or acquisition, as it were, are equally different. The focus of the current decolonization process is first of all the return of assets from the colonial countries, and/or the re-wording of texts and introductory labels in the museums which exhibit them," Anderson continued.

"It is often the case museums that attention is drawn to things like the racism and labeling contained in the museums earlier explanations," she went on.

"The labeling or denigration of different peoples, and the subsequent alteration of these texts also falls under the process of decolonization, in a sense. The white European is re-examining his or her rights as to what he or she can say about others."

As for Estonia, through its history overwhelmingly more colonized than colonizer, Anderson said: "Estonia didn't have these colonies, that is a fact. However, there are certainly various objects of interest in the country and in the collections at museums which had originated in other countries."

Returning cultural values ​​is not an easy process, however, she went on. "It's not simply that we have these artifacts, we know their origin is in a certain country and so we return them there. Sometimes it can be the case that the country of origin does not want them back and are perfectly content with the objects being preserved in the museums where they are currently hosted, while at the same time there are no obstacles to the relocation of these objects to exhibitions in the home country."

One example of this is the collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts at the university's art museum. No requests have to date been made for their return, Anderson said.

"However, as a thought exercise, we could of course talk about this. When we set up a new exhibition, in 2017, which would ensure a dignified display of the mummies and artifacts, we also considered what might transpire if someone wanted them back."

These ethical questions also stretched to the dignified display of human remains, however old.

"In the case of human remains, there are also some very different views on how that should be done, or whether it should be done at all," said Anderson.

The origin of the Tartu University mummies, two properly mummified boys, is also unclear.

The university has two fully embalmed and mummified young males, whose origin is unclear, Anderson said.

"In fact, we don't know for sure where these mummies came from. We know that they are from Egypt, since [traveler and orientalist] Otto Friedrich von Richter had traveled there and he acquired them in his own way," Anderson said.

Von Richter was a member of the Baltic-German aristocracy, predominant in Estonia until the foundation of the First Republic, after World War One.

Anderson also said she could not say what kind of intrinsic artistic value ​​found in artifact sin Estonian collections might prompt another country to ask for their return.

"Without a doubt, there is no way to say that the topic of returning valuable artifacts ​​does not concern Estonia, but each case needs to be handled individually. For instance, how can we ensure that the artifacts will be relocated to the right place, and are awaited there."

In cases with other northern European nations, Anderson said: "It was very much the right thing to do, when Germany returned the Benin bronzes, because these masks belong to that specific culture; the case was the same when the Finnish national museum returned collections to the Sami (Lapp-ed.) museum. These are on view there, exhibited, connected to the local culture and the identity of those people. These are really very good examples, but it's a bit tricky to highlight in the same way individual items from Estonian collections at the moment."

The reverse is also the case, she added – in other words Estonia is awaiting the return of art assets taken from Tartu University and now in Russia.

This includes art items now housed in Voronezh, which, Anderson said, must be repatriated to Estonia as the property of the University of Tartu.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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