The Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail reports today that a 17th century heirloom bagpipe part, brought to Nova Scotia 205 years ago, is now being donated to National Museums Scotland. A “chanter,” it’s the flute-like wooden part with finger holes that allows the bagpiper to produce melody.
Many believe the object to be of great importance as a piece of Canadian & Nova Scotian heritage and history, while others of course argue that the private owners (inheritors) of the heirloom are free to do with it as they please. Many in Canada, and especially in Nova Scotia, do seem to feel strongly about the object being a powerful part of Canadian heritage, reflecting the strong Scottish ties of the original settlers of Nova Scotia (as is evident in the province’s name), pointing out that at the time of Confederation (when Canada ceased being British colonies and became its own country), Gaelic was the third most spoken language, after English and French.
This sort of situation, one can assume, is not entirely uncommon in the world, but is different in important ways from the stories we hear about more often, which seem to dominate the debate on the return of artifacts. Namely, this chanter was in no way stolen or pilfered, unlike is allegedly the case for many archaeological artifacts and Native remains and such. It is in the hands of the descendants of its original owner, composer Iain Dall MacKay (b. 1656, Scotland), and was brought to Canada legally.
So, here we have the debate over whether this is an object of great importance to Canadian heritage, or whether it is, as the BBC would have it, an object of great importance to Scottish and British heritage, being the oldest surviving Highlands chanter in existence, which just so happens to have spent the last 205 years in Canada, a mere footnote in the history of this profoundly important Scottish (British) object.
It may be a small object, but the situation alludes to the much broader question of how objects can belong to multiple contexts, multiple constituencies, and can develop importance in a new place, even if they originally belonged to a different place. Yes, this is the oldest extant Highland chanter in the world, and so it is of obvious significance to Scotland. But it is also an object which has been in Canada for 205 years, and is seen as being of obvious significance to Nova Scotia, to the history of the settlement and founding of Canada and its culture and heritage. …
Some may compare this to the cases of the Elgin Marbles and of the Rosetta Stone, and to my mind, there certainly is a case to be made for the long-standing association of both the Marbles and the Stone with London, that there is a real history to how these objects came to London, and that that story too is a genuine part of history, to be remembered and appreciated, and not simply erased or overlooked, as it might be were these objects to be returned to Greece & Egypt and displayed with only their original, ancient, context described.
But, a more appropriate comparison, I think, might be to Egyptian obelisks in Rome, Paris, London, and New York. Three obelisks in the latter three cities, each known as “Cleopatra’s Needle”, were taken from Egypt in the 19th century and re-erected, in Central Park, along the Thames, and in the Place de la Concorde. Each of these occupies an important place in the history of these cities, and would be quite prominent in, for example, a history of Central Park. They remain major tourist sites today. Meanwhile, Rome may have more obelisks than any other city in the world (including cities in Egypt). Some number of Egyptian obelisks were brought to Rome during the time of Rome’s control of Egypt, in the early centuries CE, and eight remain standing today. These have, obviously, become prominent elements of the cityscape in the 1700-2000 years since they were brought from Egypt, and I should hope that no one would demand their return as looted, stolen objects.
So, what is the statute of limitations on things being taken to another country? How are obelisks taken in the 3rd century CE different from marbles taken in the 19th? To what extent do we, as the international community of cultural professionals (or however you may wish to phrase it), recognize, acknowledge, and appreciate the new meanings and new importance objects acquire in new places, and to what extent do we ignore or disparage those meanings and demand the return of objects to their places of origin? A chanter, brought totally legally to Canada over two centuries ago, and still in the private ownership of the descendants of its original owner, is much smaller and less prominently visible than an obelisk, but the issues are essentially the same. … Is not nearly everything in Canada essentially an object of British or French heritage (with the exception of those things associated with the First Nations)? As a Nova Scotia bagpiping expert was quoted as saying, “Should we go up to Quebec and clear out all the silver made for New France? It doesn’t make much sense.” If this chanter should be acknowledged as an object of Scottish heritage, its significance to Nova Scotia and Canada not acknowledged, then what prevents a host of other objects from being claimed by Britain as well?
On a personal note, I much prefer this kind of debate, or issue, as both sides have compelling claims, both sides presumably quite respect one another’s claims, and there are no accusations of stealing, no undertones of imperalism/colonialism to deal with. From an outside objective view, we can see neither side as “the bad guy”, neither side as imperialists, looters, or the like, making it a much cleaner debate; we can discuss it and debate either side without feeling that we are siding with Western hegemony (how horrible) or with the angry Native and against our own country, our own identity and heritage. Makes for a more compelling debate, and one that’s much less personal – no one’s going to be accused of being a racist, a colonialist apologist, or anything of the sort here.
Meanwhile, the Bishop Museum database of Hawaiian archaeological sites I mentioned a few days ago will, in future, include images of artifacts and PDFs of research manuscripts, making it much more useful than just lists of registration numbers. They’re working on it. One step at a time.
Much thanks, as always, to the Archaeology.org news feed.