In full movement in favor of the restitution of works or objects to their country of origin, Switzerland returned to Bolivia on Monday three pre-Columbian mummies preserved at the Geneva Museum of Ethnography (MEG). During a ceremony, the director of the museum, Carine Ayélé Durand, underlined that the city was making “a strong gesture in terms of ethics by returning human remains to their beneficiaries, as it had already done in 2014 in the request of the Maori people of Aotearoa", Maori name for New Zealand. “Geneva, city of peace and dialogue, seat of international organizations, must set an example,” added a city leader, Sami Kanaan, before returning the boxes containing the mummies to the Bolivian Minister of Cultures and Decolonization, Sabina Orellana Cruz. “And what is sought here beyond restitution is ethical reparation,” noted the museum director.
It is also in the name of “ethics” that the three mummies – two adults and a child – were not visible during the ceremony. The journalists were only able to see the large boxes inside which the three mummified human bodies in a squatting position, with their woven plant fiber sheaths, had been placed. These boxes were then inserted into large wooden crates, on which the Bolivian consul in Switzerland placed a seal so that they could travel by “diplomatic suitcase” on board a plane. “Today we are returning to our roots,” said the Bolivian minister. “For us, restitution is synonymous with decolonization. Finding our ancestors is very important because we are on the path to decolonization,” she insisted, welcoming the European countries which support the restitution of objects or human remains. If some voices believe, on the contrary, that everything that enters a museum must remain there, the MEG has committed in recent years to facilitating “the unconditional return” of human remains, funerary goods and sacred objects to their legitimate owners. It also decided in 2022 to no longer exhibit objects made of human remains, unless it has the consent of the State or the community concerned.
Too often, “human remains preserved in museums are legally assimilated to objects while communities demand that an active process of rehumanization be initiated,” lamented the museum director. But the MEG has so far received only three requests for restitution, she said, highlighting the complexity of the process. It was in December 2022 that the Bolivian authorities requested the return of the mummies after the museum had informed them of their presence in its collection, as part of a program aimed at “decolonizing the collections”. According to the museum, the three bodies bear the features of pre-Columbian funerary customs, i.e. before the arrival of the Spanish invaders, from the altiplano region near Lake Titicaca. The Bolivian minister specified that the mummies were Pacajes of Aymara origin, a civilization “which was established from the year 1100 to 1400”. The funerary structures, called “chullpas”, which guard this type of mummies, are tower-shaped structures and can reach several meters in height. These funerary towers attracted many grave robbers and collectors who extracted human remains for various purposes. The mummified bodies were sent in 1893 from La Paz by Gustave Ferrière (1846-1916), German consul in La Paz, to the Geographical Society of Geneva, a transfer carried out without the consent of the traditional owners or formal authorization, according to the museum. They were then donated in 1895 to the Archaeological Museum, before being integrated in 1901 into the old Geneva ethnographic museum.