Unit 3 – Museums


Museums are dynamic spaces undergoing major shifts in policy and ethics, since, historically, they have been sites of contention for many reasons. In this unit, students will gain insight into changes in museum policies on housing controversial art and culturally significant items.

SAPIENS Articles:


Professor Talking Points:

  • Museums are important spaces for learning and appreciating material culture over the course of humanity’s existence.
  • Many museums have come under scrutiny for the ways in which they acquire and retain items that may have been obtained through theft or by means now deemed unethical.
  • Curators, Indigenous communities, and nations as a whole are defining the meaning of cultural property and patrimony, debating repatriation, and contemplating how to appropriately portray clothing, art, sacred objects, etc., in museums.

Academic Articles:

  • Lowry, G.D. 1998. “Cultural Property: A Museum Director’s Perspective.” International Journal of Cultural Property 7 (2): 438–445.
  • White, Shelby. 1998. “A Collector’s Odyssey.” International Journal of Cultural Property 7 (1): 170–176.

Student Discussion Questions:

  1. What is cultural property, and why is it a salient topic in museum studies?
  2. What is the significance of repatriation for the communities and nations who demand it? Why do some museums oppose it?
  3. What ethical decisions should curators consider when deciding whether or not to display sacred items? Use examples from the readings.
  4. What does the 2017 SAPIENS article by columnist Steve Nash tell us about the kinds of relationships that are possible between marginalized communities and museums?


  • Have students watch the TED-Ed presentation by J.V. Maranto “Why Do We Have Museums?” Then have them write a one-page perspective essay on whether they believe museums bring value to society and, if in the affirmative, what they feel that value is.
  • Visit a local museum and write a paper critically analyzing the museum’s exhibits.

Additional Resources:


Unit by Eshe Lewis (2020)