‘In the 19th century there was a belief in cultural expertise and cultural authority, but also a belief in people, that they could uplift themselves from their day-to-day lives and be transformed by an understanding of other times and places.’ That, says author Tiffany Jenkins, is the foundation of the modern museum. And it is this enlightened spirit, this belief in the possibility of transcendence, that she feels is in peril today.
Her new book, Keeping Their Marbles, is an elegant and passionate study of the rise of the great museums, and their recent lapse into self-dismemberment. ‘I’ve always loved museums’, she tells me, ‘but recently I noticed they were doing some really odd things. They were sending back objects and human remains to communities. And they were intensely passionate about that.’ It is this unravelling of museums’ faith in themselves that spurred her to explore how artefacts from around the world came to find themselves in Western museums, and to explain why she feels these artefacts should stay put.
At the centre of her study is the Elgin Marbles – the Ancient Greek sculptures that were packed off to the British Museum in the early 19th century. Over the past 20 years, the clamour for repatriating the Marbles has been growing. The Greeks have no legal claim; the sculptures were taken before modern-day Greece existed. And the British could even be credited with saving them from neglect and destruction: Lord Elgin arrived in Athens during Ottoman occupation, when the Parthenon was being used as a quarry and the ‘old ruins’ were being ground down for mortar. But now, Jenkins notes, the arguments for returning the sculptures have become focused on national pride and self-esteem. As one Greek minister put it, the Marbles are ‘something unique, something matchless, something specific to our identity’.
Jenkins is having none of this. It reeks, she says, of a ‘hoarder mentality’ and a particularism that suggests culture can only be owned, and perhaps only appreciated, by the descendants of the people who made it. ‘Culture is never autonomous’, she tells me. ‘It may come from a particular place, or a particular person, at a particular time. And often you can see that in the object. But it is formed in a relationship with others.’ There is a dubious, racialised undertone, she suggests, to the insistence that a nation can somehow own its own culture.
‘Museums are obsessed with making themselves feel better about a past they had nothing to do with’
She advocates the status quo – the marbles split between the British Museum in London and the Acropolis Museum in Athens. ‘You can walk through the Acropolis Museum and see the marbles in their geographical and historical context; you can see why they’re such a breakthrough, so different. And in the British Museum, which is more encyclopaedic, you can see them in relationship to other cultures. You can see them in relation to Ancient Rome, which was hugely influenced by the Greeks but could never quite achieve their greatness. When they were acquired they also transformed our understanding of Ancient Greece, and I think the British Museum reflects that.’
The British Museum has long resisted the calls for repatriation. But Keeping Their Marbles is full of examples of museums that are all too happy to give repatriation claims a sympathetic hearing – some even seem to be inviting them. The Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg, Sweden, recently committed to handing back nearly a hundred artefacts to Peru from its seminal Paracas Collection. Discovered in the early 20th century in the Paracas peninsula, the objects, including burial shrouds and textiles, are over 2,000 years old. When they went on display in Gothenburg in 2008, it was under the title ‘The Paracas Collection: A Stolen World’, with the museum’s own website referring to the exhibition as the product of ‘tomb-raiding’. By December 2009, Peru’s foreign ministry had made a formal request for repatriation, citing the exhibition’s own guilt-ridden literature.
‘There is a self-loathing at the heart of it’, Jenkins tells me. ‘There’s a real lack of faith in both the meaning and power of cultural artefacts and their history. Because many museums are not interested in that anymore. They’re far more interested in making themselves feel better about a past they had nothing to do with.’ The clamour for repatriation, she goes on, is most often generated within institutions themselves. It is an expression of museum curators’ own crisis of purpose – that is, ‘the pursuit of truth and its dissemination’, as Jenkins puts it. ‘I also think there’s a real crisis of faith in human beings. [Some curators] have no sense that people can appreciate and enjoy those cultural artefacts and where they came from.’