The question “who owns the past”? has been asked about antiquities being contested by museums and source nations (Kate Fitz Gibbons, James Cuno), about Indigenous narratives and anthropologists (IPinCH), and about the place of intellectual property in our cultural commons (Lewis Hyde).
At the California missions the question of “who owns the past?” is a multi-layered one. The majority of the historic sites are owned by the Catholic Church in some manner (Diocesan properties, a Catholic University, etc.), while two are owned and managed by the California State Parks. In cases such as Mission San Juan Capistrano and Mission San Jose, the sites are managed in partnership with not-for-profits. These administrative structures are formative in the framing of the interpretation of the past at the missions. Another layer is the question of the tangled narrative of church and state. What is Catholic history? What is California history? And how do those two relate? The most pointed questions about who owns the past at the missions surround the place the Native American past in the narrative (Deana Dartt, Phoebe Kropp).
Along with these deeply ideological aspects of the question “who owns the past?” are the quite pragmatic issues of control of access to images in archival collections. Historic photographs and other visual culture related to the missions are in collections of museums, archives, historical societies, and the missions themselves. Much has been done to making these materials accessible to general audiences. Most of the larger institutions have digitized their collections. The Online Archive of California is a rich and remarkable resource that provides the public access to the collections of more than 200 repositories through a simple search interface. But anyone wanting to do more than view images, such as including them in publications or digital scholarship, must navigate the labyrinth of permissions and fees that many institutions require. There is a move toward more open access to digital collections. The Huntington Library, for example, delegates seeking copyright permission to users.
Yale’s Beinecke Library provides downloadable high resolution copies for free, noting that they are “committed to providing broad access to its collections for teaching, learning, and research in accordance with Yale University Policy. The Beinecke’s Website, catalog records, finding aids, and digital images enhance scholarship and promote use of both the digital and the original object.”
The vast majority of repositories, however, still charge fees. For some, these permission and reproduction fees are seen as vital revenue. Particularly troubling , however, is the practice of subcontracting out reproduction to for-profit such as the University of Southern California Digital Library which contracted the reproduction of some digital collections to Corbis (recently acquired by Getty Images).
The question of “who owns the past?” is a vital one at multiple levels, but for those trying to expand the voices telling that story, the sale of images to generate income or make a profit are barriers that limit the democratizing of knowledge and the broader engagement of public in curating their own history.