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The repatriation debate and the discourse of the commons

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What can the concept of ‘the commons’ lend to cultural property and heritage analysis? How can it be applied to these areas, if one looks beyond the protection of solely ‘natural’ resources such as land (although ‘land’, as a highly regulated substrate bearing a plethora of significations and values may itself no longer be considered a ‘natural’ resource)? The debates around property and culture are more usually understood by reference to ‘cultural nationalism,’ ‘cultural internationalism’ and the web of disciplines and resources that grow between these two traditional approaches, and yet, these resources leave many problems and issues in this field unresolved. The discourses that make up commons scholarship might serve to expand the tool box of cultural property discourse, in particular where the issues span the most personal and the most communal problems of all: human skeletons and repatriation claims. This essay argues that the very discourse of the commons itself is a strategy, a means of establishing and policing thresholds that in turn move according to strategies and desires of acquisition. In short, designating an object as located within ‘the commons’ is another way of justifying the appropriation of contested cultural property.

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