How to preserve the future of museums

Whose Culture? - a collection of essays defending the vital importance of museums - is a welcome challenge to repatriation policies underpinned by identity politics.

Tiffany Jenkins

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There is a thirteenth century ivory casket on show at the Art Institute of Chicago. The box was made from an elephant’s tusk, probably found in southern Africa and then brought to Sicily, Italy, by Muslim traders from the Swahili coast. It was once used as a Christian reliquary and it bears an inscription in Arabic. Visitors to the Art Institute can also view the fourteenth-century German monstrance made of gilt silver around a translucent vessel. The holder for this relic was a perfume bottle made in Fatimid Egypt.

The ivory casket and the monstrance are just two of many works at the Art Institute which reflect connections between cultures. Artefacts are created through interactions between people, through exchanges of ideas and materials. Questions around who ‘owns’ such objects, where they should be and what meanings we draw from them are at the heart of a debate currently raging amongst archaeologists, museum professionals, nation states and various claimant groups. Now, the once beleaguered side of the debate is finally standing up, arguing loudly that museums are, in fact, good places to keep artefacts and art work and that sending objects back to their assumed countries of origin – which has been the dominant view until now – is not always a good idea.

James Cuno, president of the Art Institute of Chicago, has written and edited a series of books which boldly restate the purpose of museums. The aim of the book Whose Culture? The Promise Of Museums And The Debate Over Antiquities is, as Cuno explains, ‘to challenge the perception of museums as rapacious acquisitors of ill-gotten goods and to argue instead that our public museums build their antiquities collections responsibly and for the public’s benefit’.

The distinguished contributors to Whose Culture? include: British Museum director, Neil McGregor; recently retired Metropolitan Museum of Art director, Philippe de Montebello; philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah; classicist John Boardman; anthropologist Michael F Brown; Stanford professor of law, John H Merryman; and cuneiform scholar, David I Owen. Together, they forcefully challenge the popular, negative view of museums as looters of stuff that is not theirs.

Whose Culture? is a long-needed intervention in the debate about the role of museums. Cultural institutions have been on the defensive for decades, poorly firefighting accusations of didacticism, elitism, colonisation and looting, with ill-thought through mumbling and evasion. Now more than ever, museums need to stand up for themselves.

For instance, several North American museums were recently rocked by claims from countries including Italy that objects in their collections were acquired illicitly. In response they returned over 100 objects. A former curator of antiquities from the prestigious Getty Museum is currently on trial for conspiracy to traffic in illicit antiquities. The case has seriously damaged the reputation of this prestigious art institution. As Kwame Anthony Appiah writes in Whose Culture?, Walter Benjamin’s proclamation that ‘“there is no document of Civilization…that is not at the same time a document of barbarism” is now commonplace’.

Museums need to defend openly their use and purpose and make a strong case for the invaluable role they play in the preservation, presentation and study of artefacts. Cuno does just that. Whose Culture? focuses on the debate over antiquities: it looks at the looting of artefacts which fuels illicit trade, considers who should ‘own’ culture, challenges official policy on cultural property and explains how it is linked to the rise of identity politics, according to which particular artefacts can only be appreciated and understood by particular cultures who are therefore their rightful owners.

Overall, as is the nature of book collections, the volume is uneven. There is too much intricate discussion of law and archaeology for my liking – although these aspects are important to the larger debate. Some authors focus too much on nation states as posing the biggest challenge to museums that wish to keep collections intact. This obscures the disruptive effects of the more fragmentary identity politics taking place within states (more on this later). There is too little commentary on the value of museums, and when this is promoted it veers too close to a political case which sounds dangerously similar to the politicisation of museums that the contributors are critiquing. Still, overall, Whose Culture? is to be welcomed as a timely defence of museums.

Cuno’s main argument is that there are serious problems with what he describes as ‘nationalist retentionist’ policies. Today, laws and policies vest ownership of antiquities (defined as objects over 150 years old) in the state where they are discovered and limit their export. UNESCO, a primary target for Cuno’s criticism, has encouraged the development of policies and laws which state that artefacts excavated after 1970 belong to the nation states in which they were found. This means that, for example, Italy not only keeps what is found in Italy, but prevents export of artefacts and pushes for artefacts found in Italy but held abroad to be returned.

Last year, the directors of the major art museums of the United States agreed to limit their acquisitions of antiquities to works that have left their ‘country of probable modern discovery’ before 1970, or that were exported legally after that date. This decision is a major shift in policy which means it is unlikely that American museums will be able to collect ancient art available for sale. The contributors to Whose Culture? argue that these laws and policies do not prevent looting of archaeological sites, but that they do promote divisive identity politics and nationalism over a universalist appreciation of objects of art as part of world history.

Today, arguments around whether museums should keep or return artefacts are made through the prism of identity politics. For example, in the high-profile case of the Parthenon Marbles, it has been suggested that Greeks have a stronger connection to and claim over ancient artefacts found within the present borders of Greece than those of us living outside of Greece do. Yet the Parthenon was created 2,500 years ago in classical Athens and since then it has been ‘owned’ by the Ottoman Empire, the Christian church and an Islamic mosque. The use and significance of the marbles have changed over time; their meanings are complex and they cannot be reduced simply to ‘Greek objects’.

Cuno rightly questions whether any culture can claim that it has more rights to own objects than others. Firstly, no one culture has ever been autonomous. Ancient Romans embraced Greek culture and modelled their own society on it. The Greeks colonised southern Italy and Sicily and were influenced by them as well as by other cultures, including Egypt. Culture is dynamic and ever changing – something which cultural property law which rules historical objects should remain within the modern geographical borders where they were found completely ignores.

Kwame Anthony Appiah effectively takes apart concepts of cultural patrimony, where objects are understood to belong to a particular group, using the idea of Nigerian patrimony heritage as an example. ‘What does it mean, exactly’, he writes, ‘for something to belong to a people? Most of Nigeria’s cultural patrimony was produced before the modern Nigerian state existed. We don’t know whether the terra-cotta Nok sculptures, made sometime between 800 BC and AD 200, were commissioned by kings of commoners; we don’t know whether the people who made them and the people who paid for them thought of them as belonging to the kingdom, to a man, to a lineage, or to the gods. One thing we know for sure, however, is they didn’t make them for Nigeria.’

As Appiah concludes, Nigeria’s cultural property no more ‘belongs’ to the people of present-day Nigeria than to anyone else. We can all appreciate and enjoy these artefacts. The value of cultural property is to mankind, not to particular peoples. Whose Culture? questions the problematic link made by cultural property policy, and more broadly in contemporary culture, between identity and the meaning of objects. These are dubious, often racial, arguments that should be given short shrift. They tend to obscure the universal nature of art – the fact that we can abstract ourselves from our particular circumstances and appreciate the creation of human civilisation. Being white, middle-class and female in the twenty-first century, I have no lived experience of classical Athens, but I can still study the Parthenon Marbles and be transported to another time and place.

Antiquities precede the modern nation-state, and holding a particular cultural identity does not – as national cultural property laws suggest – equate with having knowledge or understanding of artefacts originating from that culture. Cuno’s critique is therefore an important and timely intervention. But there are also difficulties with what Cuno advocates which needs to be addressed.

Firstly, Cuno has suggested that countries should cede control of all cultural goods to some kind of ‘international trusteeship under the auspices of a nongovernmental agency’. What is not clear is who might sit on this suggested nongovernmental agency and what power they should have. Given the historical and present-day tendency for the West to trample over the sovereignty of other nations – often through nongovernmental agencies which bypass national officials and institutions – it is important that this is clarified. The artefact may not ‘belong’ to the state in which it was found, and it may be of value to the whole of humanity, but to remove objects automatically to a nongovernmental agency could override state sovereignty. Appiah is the only contributor who addresses this issue, recognising that the authority of sovereign states to govern rights and property must continue to be upheld.

Secondly, while Cuno rightly criticises the way nation states use antiquity to bolster their present-day legitimacy, the volume is thin on discussing claims that are made on the basis of identity within nation states. In North America, an extensive repatriation processes is ongoing between Native Americans and museums, primarily due to the Native American Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA). Repatriation of objects and human remains have also occurred in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and European countries have faced claims from indigenous groups, too. That Cuno’s books focus on nation states claiming from other nation states evades addressing this important trend of claims made within countries.

There is one exception, though: Michael F Brown’s chapter, which is one of the best in the volume. Brown, an anthropologist and author of the brilliant Who Owns Native Culture?, shifts the attention not only from nation states to indigenous groups within America, but also from objects to intangible expressions of heritage – language, music, information – which are the focus of emerging claims. As he points out: ‘Just as some nation states are drifting toward insistence that they are the only legitimate stewards of ancient artefacts found within their borders, so indigenous peoples maintain that they should be the sole arbitrators of their own cultural history.’

Brown is sympathetic to the plight of indigenous groups and writes that there have been positive outcomes to their involvement and consultation in cultural organisations. But he posits that there are problems that need to be addressed, which he demonstrates in his discussion of the attempt to control and appropriate intangible culture on the basis of identity.

Brown recognises that museum exhibitions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were often based on problematic assumptions of cultural superiority, and it is right and good that this has changed. Indeed, only Brown, and to a limited extent Appiah, addresses the popular argument that museums should return objects and consult with communities, as a form of reparations for colonialism. Whilst I do not support this argument it is frequently made and widely held and therefore cannot just be ignored. This volume somewhat evades this discussion by focusing on nation states such as Greece, Turkey and China.

Nonetheless, Brown critiques the popular concept of cultural patrimony which states that culture – in all tangible and intangible heritage forms – is something that cannot be borrowed, imitated, or discussed without consulting the affiliated group. In the US, policy increasingly accepts that indigenous communities should decide what happens to objects and knowledge. But for Brown there are major problems with limiting who can access knowledge. For a start, it makes it difficult to pursue knowledge about past or current indigenous life – which doesn’t help anyone. As Brown points out: ‘The proprietary impulse that now defines attitudes toward traditional knowledge makes it difficult to represent indigenous heritage in anything other than the blandest, most stereotyped terms. Basic descriptive facts, especially about religion, are deemed “culturally sensitive” and unsuitable for public discussion, leaving accounts of Native religion with little to report but generic spirituality.’

It is the role of museums, Brown rightly ventures, to create more knowledge about the past and let all of us access it. ‘Don’t institutions have a right, perhaps even a duty, to draw on their inherent strengths in the interest of promoting the widest possible public discussion on important social issues?’ asks Brown.

Thirdly, while it is needed, unfortunately the case put for the promise of museums by Cuno and the other contributors, has limitations. Cuno argues for what he calls the ‘cosmopolitan aspirations’ of encyclopaedic museums. By this he means not only collecting and showing work from different human civilisations, but also the use of collections for ‘tactical and political purposes’. Cuno declares that museums can encourage a broad understanding and appreciation of the interrelatedness of the world’s cultures and thus promote ‘tolerance’.

James Cuno and Neil McGregor argue that, in the context of a world that is experiencing a dramatic resurgence in nationalism and sectarian violence, encyclopaedic museums can play a positive role in encouraging understanding and tolerance between cultures. In one of the book’s weakest chapters, McGregor breathlessly exclaims that the British Museum can be a space which promotes the ‘oneness of the world’, and can subvert ‘the habits of thought that keep us form seeing other cultures except in categories of superiority and difference’. Indeed, in his aim to show that the museum can create harmony in the world today he charts a one-sided history of the British Museum which neglects its historical association with the state and in particular the British Empire.

The idea that museums can create tolerance in a world of conflict is problematic. For a start, it is a contradictory position, for the writers criticise those nation states that use antiquity for legitimacy and political gain. As Cuno rightly points out in his introduction, when addressing the use of culture by nation states, ‘culture is poorly served by politics’. Why should museum directors use their institutions for political purposes, if they are unhappy when nation states do so?

We will not find the solution to present-day conflicts in museums. Museums are about the past. Looking to old objects in creating messages of tolerance for today avoids dealing with the current international situations and it obscures the contemporary reasons behind conflicts. Wars today do not take place because we don’t understand that different cultures in the past ‘got on’. The conflict in Darfur, for instance, cannot be solved or understood through a display of historical artefacts at the British Museum. This position is, at best, politically naive.

It is highly unfortunate that the contributors to Whose Culture? try to re-legitimise museums by arguing for their relevance in foreign affairs. This agenda burdens institutions with instrumental, if fluffy-sounding, outcomes and particular narratives. Certain objects from history are the product of war, or were created for violence, so would a museum promoting tolerance simply cut out that part of history, or will they get around the dilemma by posting an inane apologetic message by the display? The museum professionals writing in Whose Culture? are good people to run cultural organisations; they care about the artefacts, want to know their histories and give us access to them. But they have not been elected to bring about world peace and this is one area where I would not invite them to play a role.

In his essay, Philippe de Montebello outlines the role of museums in a far more convincing manner than Cuno or McGregor. In Montebellos’ view, the institutions’ responsibility is to the collection and to the public: ‘A museum’s mission is to acquire, conserve, display, and public its collections. And with these goals is the museum’s obligation to provide the broadest possible access to the works of art in its care.’ That’s it and that’s enough. We should look towards the collections themselves, not the world stage, to justify the future of the museum.

Tiffany Jenkins is a sociologist and cultural commentator. Visit her website here.

Whose Culture?: The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities edited by James Cuno is published by Princeton University Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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