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UVA Museum Returns Sacred Art

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Kluge-Ruhe Museum at UVA
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Charlottesville is home to this country’s only museum of art created by indigenous Australians.  The Kluge-Ruhe has more than 2,100 paintings, ornaments and tools, but some of those objects are going home after decades in America. 

Much of the work displayed at the Kluge-Ruhe museum was crafted by living artists who were proud to sell it to collectors.  Curator Henry Skerritt recalls what one of them said on the subject.

“He said that the art works were like smoke that traveled all around the world, but the fire stayed in his country, but there are some things, there are some parts of that culture that are not made to be shared. “

Like religious or ceremonial objects acquired by Edward Ruhe, a college professor visiting Australia in the 60’s.  He bought some of them from art dealers, and the Australian government now wants them back. After hearing from them, the museum went through its collection and sent photos of 50 objects that might have been acquired through questionable channels. Those pictures were then shown to residents of remote aboriginal communities.

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Credit Kluge Ruhe
Australian artist Gabriel Maralngurra at the University of Virginia's Kluge Ruhe museum in 2020.

“Seventeen of these objects could be immediately recognized by their traditional custodians," Skerritt says. "People could recognize the designs.  Some of the old people remembered seeing these objects used in ceremony 40 or 50 years ago.”

Returning them, he adds,  was a pricy proposition.

“These works are being crated in exactly the same way that you would crate a Faberge egg, and they’re being sent using the same art shippers that you would use to transport a Picasso, so it is very expensive, and Australia is not very close.  The communities that we’re returning objects to – they’re not Sydney and Melbourne.  They’re communities that are located several hours drive along a dirt road from Alice Springs.”

But when the call came to consider returning these sacred objects, Skerritt and his team at Kluge-Ruhe didn’t hesitate.

“We spend a lot of time thinking about museums as these treasure chests, as these places that hoard all of the wonders of the world, but these objects, these things are expressions of our shared humanity," Skerritt says. "Returning  people’s sacred objects is about recognizing their humanity,  recognizing their rights to share the world, their rights to practice their traditions, culture and religions, but it’s also part of us recognizing that if our collection is going to have any worth it has to be based on the relationships that it can engender between indigenous Australians and Americans.”

In fact, since 1990 U.S. museums have been required by federal law to return Native American remains and sacred objects, but Skerritt says returning Australia’s aboriginal art is also essential for a museum owned by the University of Virginia and committed to education.  For that to happen, he says, Kluge-Ruhe must have a trusting relationship with native artists.

“If you can have that relationship based on trust then those artists and communities are much more willing  to come and share -- answer questions from American students and museum visitors.”

And, he adds, repatriating art sets an important example for students who will be citizens of the world.  

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.