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Who owns the past?

05 November 2023

Boxing glove, from The Arts Centre of Christchurch

Boxing glove
Found under the Arts Centre Gymnasium, formerly part of Christchurch Boys High School
The Arts Centre of Christchurch Collection

In the excitement of finding ancient archaeological sites, people used to dig up and take away historic artefacts, sometimes without recording where they were found, or without the agreement of the cultures or countries the objects came from. Over time, it became clear that if everyone did this, we might be left with nothing to show of the ancient civilisations that came before us. This is why there is now a range of international laws and treaties to protect archaeological sites and cultural heritage.

In New Zealand, the Protected Objects Act 1975 establishes the rules for what to do if you find an ancient artefact like this boxing glove, or if you want to export objects that are an important part of New Zealand’s history.

The Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014 makes it unlawful for any person to modify or destroy any part of an archaeological site without the permission of Heritage New Zealand.

An artist imagines the moment of opening of the tomb of Tutankhamen.

The Illustrated London News, February 23, 1923
London: The Illustrated London News & Sketch Ltd
Macmillan Brown Library Rare Books Collection, University of Canterbury
Bib# 11863

In the movie ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’, having just lost control of a precious object to a ruthless collector, the hero shouts “That belongs in a museum!”

Museums have made it possible for objects from our past to be cared for, studied, and enjoyed by lots of people. Without their intervention, many important artefacts might have been lost to war or natural disasters.

On the other hand, sometimes objects have been collected in such a way that archaeological sites were damaged and important information was lost. The desire to own precious things led some people to collect objects illegally, or in a ways that were disrespectful to the beliefs of other cultures.

The question of who owns the past, and what is the best way to care for it, is a complex one. Perhaps there is no single right answer. What do you think?

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