WIPO Visits the Ethnographic Museum of Geneva

July 2, 2021

Following a request by the Ethnographic Museum of Geneva (MEG) for a capacity-building workshop on intellectual property (IP) management by museums, WIPO’s Traditional Knowledge Division organized a Virtual Workshop on IP and Traditional Cultural Expressions for the Musée d'Ethnographie de Genève. Over three weeks, the interactive workshop focused on the management of IP rights, specifically, as they relate to collections that encompass the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples and local communities.

(Photo: WIPO/Berrod)

Around the world, cultural institutions, such as museums, libraries and archives, have a crucial role in the preservation, promotion and safeguarding of the world’s vast cultural heritage. Recorded and embodied in objects, paintings, photographs, sound recordings, films and manuscripts, their collections include both tangible and intangible forms of traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions of indigenous peoples and local communities.

In recent years, if not decades, indigenous peoples [and local communities] have become more aware of issues around ownership and control of and access to their cultural expressions as contained in museums, libraries and archives. These include intellectual property issues. Often these issues arise from complex historical, cultural, political and legal contexts and conditions.

Wend Wendland, Director, Traditional Knowledge Division, WIPO

As part of the virtual workshop, presentations on the various types of IP rights and the linkages between IP, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions were held. Other topics focused on IP management by museums, including in the context of preservation, access and commercial activities related to ethnographic collections. IP issues related to restitution were also discussed.

(Photo: WIPO/Berrod)

Recognizing these issues, many of these cultural institutions like the MEG are responding with new policy frameworks and practical tools for better understanding and management of the legal, cultural and ethical implications of caring for the materials which form part of the cultures of indigenous peoples and local communities. These have often included frameworks for dealing with issues related to IP and the management of IP rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, establishing respectful partnerships led by important initiatives around the “decolonization” of the museums.

Today we want to acknowledge intellectual property, cultural property, cultural rights. What is the claims that some people, families, clans, groups, indigenous peoples may have with regard to some collections of objects or collections that they may or may not want us to use, to touch, to exhibit, to show, to share, sometimes even might want to have repatriated or returned. So, this is another aspect of decolonization, and it is today something that is really inscribed in our mission, in our strategic plan for the next year, that we really want to advance our reflection and our engagement in this field.

Boris Wastiau, Director, MEG
(Photo: WIPO/Berrod)

A specific example of the MEG’s close working relationship with members of indigenous peoples and local communities is a collaboration the museum has had with George Nuku, a leading contemporary Māori artist born and raised in Aotearoa, New Zealand.

In the museum is a set of 59 photographs, which were most likely collected in Geneva in the 1950s. Although the photographs portray a Māori tribe, the museum did not know anything about the identity of the individuals. The museum only knew the location where the photographs were taken, so Nuku took copies of the pictures to the community, and after a few weeks, the community was able to identify every single person in the photographs. This is the kind of relationships the MEG is working to establish with other indigenous peoples and local communities in order to give the museum’s collections deeper meaning.

Over the past 30 years, things have changed drastically in the sense that now museums are considering more and more the fact that they are stewards of these collections and not only owners. So, we try very much to get away from this idea of appropriation, the proprietiveness of collections. One way of doing it is building this trust. And in a way, to build this trust, we need to make sure that we change our way of working practices from ownership to stewardship.

Carine Ayélé Durand, Head Curator, MEG

Links to further information on the topics covered by the Virtual Workshop