by Sam Levin
In our 2010 cover story, "The Case of the Missing Eagle Feathers," we chronicled a dispute between the Saint Louis Science Center and a man named Kevin Airis, who said that the museum stole dozens of Native American artifacts that once belonged to his grandfather. Years later and after several court decisions in the science center's favor, Airis has returned to the museum, will soon be going on a second tour of the Native American collection -- and says he is confident he is finally going to reclaim his family's belongings.
"This means the world to me," Airis tells Daily RFT, explaining that, based on his latest communications with the center, he believes he is going to have a chance to retrieve the missing property he has fought for years to recover.
Officials with the museum acknowledge that Airis did recently visit and will be returning for a second tour -- but they maintain that that the science center does not possess the items in question.
First, a short recap of this long dispute: The Airis family says that the last time they saw the missing artifacts was in 1974 when Kevin's mother Jewel delivered 47 items to the St. Louis Museum of Science and Natural History (which eventually became the science center). These items -- which included headdresses, a papoose carrier, three beaded vests, moccasins, a peace pipe, and more -- were to be maintained by the museum for safekeeping.
When the family asked for the items back in 2006, the science center returned eleven of them and claimed that Thomas Airis, Kevin's grandfather, had reclaimed the other 36 back in 1975. Former curator James Houser had issued a receipt signed by Thomas Airis, which the family now argues was forged. The museum continues to deny this claim.
Kevin Airis took the science center to court and in 2011, an appellate court upheld an earlier ruling in the museum's favor that said he had waited too long to request the missing items. The Missouri Supreme Court later agreed and Houser's family has since made efforts to clear his name, arguing to Daily RFT that he did not steal or misplace these artifacts.
Fast-forward to May of this year, Airis got an opportunity to visit the science center and tour some of its collection and will be returning for a second trip in the near future to look more closely at the Native American items -- with the intention of actually retrieving his family's possessions.
"Unless I personally go in there and look at the Native American items, how would they know?" Airis says.
He explains that State Senator Brian Nieves, with a proposed senate bill this past session, has put pressure on the science center to return the items. The bill -- that Airis says he helped craft -- would allow individuals like him to better hold museums accountable for possessions they lend, through audits, stricter record-keeping, opportunities for civil action for damages to property and more. The legislation did not advance but, Airis says, could come up again next session -- especially if the science center does not return the items.
Airis says that Bert Vescolani, the new director of the science center, has been sympathetic toward Airis' case and has made efforts to help him look through the collection, find his items and reclaim them.
"'We want to make things right,'" Vescolani told Airis, according to Airis.
Continue for the St. Louis Science Center's response to Airis' claims and for his full request.
In May, Airis did visit and says he looked through some collections, but did not get an opportunity to look through the pertinent Native American collections. He has since made a specific request of what he would like to look at in a list which the science center is now reviewing in anticipation of another visit.
Airis says it is clear to him that the museum is concerned about pressure from legislators and recognizes that his missing items may actually be in the center's possession. "Why would they be allowing me back?"
He also claims that Vescolani admitted that he believes the receipt of returned items could have been forged.
Russ Hitzemann, senior director of marketing and communications of the science center, tells Daily RFT that Vescolani never made that statement regarding forgery.
He adds, "The issue has been resolved in the courts and subsequently Kevin requested the tour, which was provided and now there's been another request for another tour."
That date has not been scheduled, he says.
Additionally, he says that Airis did review Native American items on his recent visit.
In a written statement, Hitzemann reiterates: "The Saint Louis Science Center has returned all the belongings in question." He adds:
The Saint Louis Science Center has documentation that indicates all loaned and donated items have been returned. A comprehensive search of the Native American collection was performed and the items in question are not in our collection.
Kevin was recently given access to the collections and has requested a substantially more in depth visit. He identified 225 artifacts he would like to review. We are currently gathering the relevant artifacts and information in order to give Kevin an opportunity to review the information.
Airis says that it was his mother's dying wish that the family reclaim these items and hopes that he will honor this wish on his next tour of the science center. "She died with a broken heart."
Here is a copy of Airis' latest written request to the museum (which doesn't include the full list of items).