UCLA Waystation Initiative returns ’orphaned’ cultural objects to their rightful homes

Courtesy of Shandong University Two prehistoric ceramic tripod pitchers from arc
Courtesy of Shandong University Two prehistoric ceramic tripod pitchers from archaeological sites in Shandong province, China. The pitchers are similar to one the Waystation Initiative will soon be returning to China.
New effort trains students for careers in museums and cultural heritage management

Arts + Culture

New effort trains students for careers in museums and cultural heritage management

April 19, 2023

UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology has launched its Waystation Initiative, the first university-based effort in the U.S. that facilitates the ethical return of international cultural objects to their nations of origin or the communities from which they came.

The initiative, which will include a certificate program for graduate students, focuses on finding homes for "orphaned" objects — those that collectors want to donate but that museums refuse to accept due to concerns that the objects may have been obtained illegally or unethically.

Working collaboratively with ministries of culture, communities and other stakeholders around the world, students and scholars will train in and subsequently manage the return of heritage objects, contributing to the creation of new ethics and standards for the stewardship of the world’s cultural heritage. UCLA is the only American university to provide specialized training in these skills, which will benefit students planning to pursue careers in museums, conservation or cultural heritage management.

"The Waystation Initiative is about raising consciousness of the cultural value of objects, as opposed to anything monetary," said Willeke Wendrich, director of the Cotsen Institute. " Collaboratively, we will ethically navigate the return of these orphans to their cultural homes."

Over the past two decades, attitudes regarding the ownership of archaeological materials have changed drastically, and institutions and individuals have increasingly acknowledged the violent history of war and colonialism attached to the collecting of many objects.

Consequently, many museums have developed strict policies preventing them from accepting donated objects without proof of legal and ethical acquisition. Often, these objects languish unseen in private collections because of their current owners’ fear of public shame or legal consequences, or they are put back on the antiquities market where they continue to be bought and sold, drifting even further from their place of origin and gaining a false provenance through repeated sales records. UCLA faculty are increasingly contacted by members of the public seeking assistance about how and where to return these orphaned objects.

The Waystation Initiative will become a central resource for individuals and organizations aiming to ethically return cultural materials, for descendant communities demanding to be reunited with their ancestral objects and for a wide range of stakeholders who aspire to engage in forward-thinking dialogue about the stewardship of cultural heritage.

"We are focused on building mutual respect, appreciation and partnership among nations and peoples," Wendrich said.

The program, she emphasized, reflects the institute’s ongoing social justice engagement efforts, and it capitalizes on already existing collaborations between UCLA faculty and other countries.

UCLA archaeology professor Li Min has for decades collaborated with scholars at China’s Shandong University, which has active surveys and excavations at prehistoric sites in China’s eastern coastal region and a new state-of-the-art archaeological museum at its Qingdao campus, in Shandong province. This collaboration will benefit students who will research the provenance and cultural uses of a prehistoric ceramic pouring vessel whose return to China will take place through the new program, linking it to its lost archaeological context.

Li says the initiative is an important step in emphasizing good-faith caretaking of objects for the public good and the ethical preservation of cultural heritage.

"In the process of returning objects, the objects become cultural ambassadors. The process builds community pride and a sense of history in areas where it is lacking," Li said. "It expands international networks of scholars focused on restitution and cultural heritage and puts forward the ethos the we should let go of any sense of ownership over these objects. We are only temporary stewards."

The planned return of the ceramic pitcher, which dates to approximately 2000 BCE, has been endorsed by the China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage as well as the Shandong University Museum, which will be its new home. Similar vessels have been excavated by the Shandong University team from prehistoric sites in the region.

"Our work returning objects to their rightful homes in China is the pilot for the program and will lay the groundwork for expanding the initiative to work with objects and UCLA faculty with expertise across the globe," said Lyssa Stapleton, one of the architects of the Waystation Initiative and the program’s administrator.

Stapleton, a former curator whose research and work focus on the trade in illegal antiquities, has helped return hundreds of objects throughout her career.

"Many museums are desperate for help and are frequently having to say no to donations of these objects now that their policies have changed and they can no longer accept them," she said. "There is a real need for individuals trained in the analysis of the provenance of these objects and international collaboration to repatriate them. These skills will be invaluable to students’ future careers and to the world’s cultural heritage."

Funding for the Waystation Initiative — just under $700,000 — comes from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the UCLA Chancellor’s Art Initiative and the Cyrus Tang Foundation. The Tang Foundation helps support the development of projects with Chinese institutions and provides tuition support for Chinese students entering the certificate program.

While the framework of the Waystation Initiative was inspired by successful programs, like the one at UCLA, launched in response to the Native American and Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, it does not seek to address Native American objects. Rather, it coordinates with international stakeholders to focus on the challenge of restituting archaeological and ethnological material that entered the United States unethically or illegally.