Switzerland returns three mummies to Bolivia as part of its ongoing decolonization

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Switzerland on Monday returned centuries-old mummified bodies to Bolivia, acknowledging that they had been acquired without the consent of their traditional owners.

The three mummies were officially restituted to Bolivian Minister of Culture and Decolonization Sabina Orellana Cruz during a ceremony at the Geneva Ethnographic Museum (MEG).

“What we are seeking here, beyond the restitution, is ethical reparations,” museum director Carine Ayele Durand told attendees.

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The ceremony came amid a growing movement of Western institutions returning artefacts looted or obtained under dubious circumstances in centuries past.

In a crouched position, the three mummified bodies -- two adults and a child -- and their shrouds made of braided vegetal fibre had been delicately placed inside wooden crates stamped with a diplomatic seal.

The mummies were not on display during Monday’s ceremony, for “ethical” reasons, the MEG said.

“Today, we are reunited with our roots,” Cruz told AFP after the ceremony.

“Restitution is synonymous with decolonisation,” she said, hailing the European countries now working to return looted objects and human remains.

‘Decolonize’ collections

The MEG says it had informed Bolivia of the existence of the three mummies and set up the protocols for their restitution as part of an ongoing strategy to “decolonize the collections”.

Unlike those who say artefacts already in museums should stay there, the MEG says it is intent on facilitating the return of all human remains, funeral relics and sacred objects.

And last year, it decided that it would no longer exhibit human remains without the explicit consent of the state or community concerned.

Durand decried that far too often, “human remains stored in museums are legally considered objects”, even as concerned communities demand that they be “re-humanised”.

Such a process, according to the MEG, requires a biographical study of the human remains, the retracing of their lineage, but also the opportunity to give them a burial in their community of origin.

But the museum has so far only received three restitution requests, and Monday’s ceremony marked only the second time it has returned human remains, following a similar return to the Maori people of New Zealand in 2014.

According to the MEG, the three mummified people originated from an area around the high-altitude mining town of Coro Coro, situated 4,020 metres (13,190 feet) above sea level, to the southwest of La Paz.

They had been mummified according to funeral traditions from the pre-Columbian era, meaning before explorer Christopher Columbus arrived in the late 15th century and ushered in the European colonisation of the continent.

The Bolivian minister said they were of Pacajes de origen Aymara origin, referring to a culture established in the region between 1100 and 1400.

The Aymara people built large chullpas, or funerary towers, to hold such mummified remains of noble people or families.

Those structures, which can be several metres high, attracted numerous tomb raiders and collectors.

Studies indicate that Gustave Ferriere, the German consul in La Paz, sent the mummified bodies and their shrouds to Geneva’s geographical society in 1893.

According to the MEG, they were exported from Bolivia and imported into Switzerland without the consent of their traditional owners, nor any formal authorisation.

Ferriere’s brother, Federic Ferriere, a vice-president of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross, had then given them to the city’s archeological museum in 1895, and six years later they were integrated into the collection of Geneva’s old ethnographic museum.

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