‘Who owns culture?’

“Scholarship cannot thrive if limits are placed on who can investigate the past, or if lines of investigation are shut down. The Western traditions for the production and disposition of knowledge…are the best way to research history and culture.” ERBLWhoOwnsCulture800x800“In America, Canada, Australasia and even parts of Europe, since the 1990s ‘indigenous’ people have been granted extensive control over art and artefacts in museums. Museum policies mandate the active involvement of ‘source communities’…in decisions about exhibitions, research and the care of objects.

“An unfortunate elision is made between someone’s ethnicity and their authority to speak definitively about cultural artefacts, which excludes those who do not share that ethnicity, despite their expertise.

“It has meant the disappearance from public display of important material. Artefacts are segregated and access to them limited if they are sacred or have ceremonial status. 

“In British Columbia, rattles and masks made by the Coast Salish peoples of the Pacific Northwest have been moved to restricted areas of museum storerooms.

“Female museum staff have been asked to stop handling certain medicinal objects originating among Northern Plains Indians, as they originally were for men.

“The ‘National Museum of Australia’ in Canberra keeps ‘secret sacred’ Aboriginal objects segregated from the rest of the collection; only certain tribal members may see them, via strictly controlled levels of security — even the director may not be permitted to know the contents of the storage.

“And in museums across Britain, you will rarely find on show ‘tjurunga’ from Australia, objects given to young men as they reach adulthood, because they are deemed sacred and are held instead in storage. Female researchers are discouraged from even examining them…

“Removing artefacts that were once on display is an increasingly common practice in museums with ‘indigenous’ collections, one celebrated by the anthropologist Ruth Phillips, as rendering objects “invisible” and as a

“grand refusal of key Western traditions for the production and disposition of knowledge.”

“But if museums no longer offer universal access to their collections, and if the right to interpret material culture is granted only to those with what is deemed the approved ethnicity, then the museum is no longer an institution in the service of open inquiry.

“Scholarship cannot thrive if limits are placed on who can investigate the past, or if lines of investigation are shut down. The Western traditions for the production and disposition of knowledge, so disparaged by Ms Phillips, are the best way to research history and culture.

“Indeed, surrendering the authority to curate an exhibition to communities on the basis of their identity hinders the understanding of the very people it claims to help, because the effect is to make it impossible to research historical—and current—‘indigenous’ life. And it is an approach that does nothing to address the political and economic problems faced by ‘indigenous’ populations.

“The encroachment of liberal guilt into curatorial decisions is undermining the traditional purpose of the museum; a secular institution in the service of historical inquiry. It risks transforming our great institutions into places where understanding the past is conditioned by present-day political and therapeutic criteria. And yet, it should be the role of a museum to open up the past to everyone.”

–‘Who owns culture?’
Tiffany Jenkins, Oxford University Press Blog, February 25th 2016


‘Ancient Indian Art’, by Norm Bosworth. CC0 Public domain via Pixabay
‘Ancient Indian Art’, by Norm Bosworth. CC0 Public domain via Pixabay

‘Obsessing about past ‘wrongs’ is to miss the power of culture’

“Activists demanding the return of artefacts legitimately bought by collectors, often during colonialism, choose to view past people as akin to children – unable to have offered consent.”
“Two bark etchings and an emu figure made in south-eastern Australia in the mid 19th century are the subject of a dispute between the British Museum and ‘indigenous’ activists. Only three bark drawings from this area, from this period, are known to survive. They are rare examples of ceremonial art that tell us about the lives of ‘indigenous’ people. Or they could do – if activists stopped using them as weapons in their broader, political battles, doing a disservice to history, past people and their own material culture in the process.

“The British Museum owns the barks and emu figure, which it acquired from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Since 2004, when they travelled to Australia for an exhibition, Gary Murray, a Dja Dja Wurrung’s Yung Balug clan elder, is claiming the artefacts as the tribe’s property and demanding their return.

“The institutions in the UK obtained these items … in very dubious circumstances”, he says. They were “taken, stolen – and we just want to right these wrongs”.

Gary Murray, a Dja Dja Wurrung’s Yung Balug clan elder. Photograph--Andrew Brownbill-AAP
Gary Murray, a Dja Dja Wurrung’s Yung Balug clan elder. Photograph–Andrew Brownbill-AAP

“Murray’s accusation is familiar, his claim for repatriation far from an isolated case. Similar demands have escalated since the late 1980s. From the Elgin marbles to the sculptures and porcelain torn from the Chinese Summer Palace, to the glorious feathered cape and helmet obtained by Captain Cook during his Pacific voyages, objects in western museums are commonly described as “loot”. This comes with an insistence on their removal from these storehouses of colonial plunder and their return to the ‘rightful’ owners.

“But this is to rewrite the past. What is often described as stolen, wasn’t. Lord Elgin acquired the marbles with permission from the Ottoman authorities; the cape and helmet were gifted to Cook. Even some of the most heinous acts were legal, as with Napoleon hauling ancient treasures back to Paris for the Louvre. These acts may not be pretty, looking back from apparently more enlightened times, but it is far better to try to understand the past than treat it as a morality play with wrongs to be righted.

“Those calling for the return of cultural property to ‘indigenous’ people – an especially heated issue – stress the unequal relations during this historical period, whether they are referring to the acquisition of Native American sacred objects, or masks of Coast Salish peoples, which have been sent back to communities as a result.

“According to academic Moira Simpson,

“The fact that material of origin was acquired legally is often used as a defence against possible repatriation. However, the debate cannot ignore the colonial ancestry of the collections or the insensitivity of the methods with which many items were acquired.”

“Yet in many cases, ‘indigenous’ people willingly negotiated and sold cultural objects to Europeans in exchange for money, or nails, an axe or a gun.BarkEtchings“The barks and emu sculpture were collected in 1854 by Scottish squatter John Hunter Kerr, after he emigrated to Australia. It is likely that he acquired the items in exchange for payment, with the active involvement of ‘indigenous’ people. Relations appear to have been cordial.

“Murray, Simpson, and others ignore the agency of past people, choosing instead to view them as akin to children, unable to consent or make their own decisions. Past people, who acted as equals and whose actions had an impact, are recast as passive and as simply having been on the receiving end of injustice.

“Despite concerns about the legacy of colonisation, the demands for repatriation to ‘indigenous’ groups – and current museum policy – echo and reinforce A RACIAL WAY OF THINKING ABOUT PEOPLE THAT SHOULD MAKE US UNCOMFORTABLE. Activists and sympathetic museum professionals consider Native Americans, Aboriginal people, ‘First Nations’, as the primary, if not sole, arbitrators and owners of their history and cultural artefacts. Lissant Bolton, a curator at the British Museum, puts the point like this:

“In the Australian context, this means that any ‘indigenous’ Australian is understood to have a greater right to speak about any Aboriginal object than any ‘non-indigenous’ Australian.”

“Here, an elision is made between someone’s identity and their authority to speak definitively about cultural artefacts, which excludes those who do not share that identity, despite their expertise. But who speaks for the relevant community, and on what basis? Who qualifies as ‘indigenous’, or part of which tribe, is a complicated question, as is the fact that “the indigenous”, like everyone else, rarely speak with one voice.

“Claims that it is “their culture” tend to vest authority in anointed chiefs and elders, without asking how many and which tribal members need to subscribe to the traditional view for it to remain authoritative. I am a white, middle-class woman who lives in Edinburgh, but that does not grant me the authority to speak on behalf of all white, middle-class women in the Scottish capital. Nor should it, for this practice shuts down the pursuit of knowledge, restricting it to people with the “correct” birth or belief system. It is said that returning artefacts will repair the past.

“Cultural property turns out to be a particularly appropriate medium for negotiating historical injustices”, argues scholar Elazar Barkan.

“But asking that museums atone burdens them with a task they cannot achieve. The movement of objects will neither change what happened, nor ameliorate social problems that are rooted in the present rather than in events from centuries ago. Indeed, the dramatic rise in repatriation claims stems from a regressive shift away from future-orientated demands for political equality and material improvements, towards more cultural and backward-looking concerns. {!}

“In becoming obsessed with past wrongs, campaigners lose sight of the original meanings and purposes of artefacts, viewing them only as objects of apology. That means forgoing an understanding of material culture and the people who made it. Kerr was the first southern collector to acquire Aboriginal artworks. He probably had a better understanding and respect for the ceremonial pieces and the people who made them than the activists today claiming them as their own.”

–‘Obsessing about past ‘wrongs’ is to miss the power of culture’,
Tiffany Jenkins, The Guardian, Apr. 3, 2016 {CAPS added}
(Tiffany Jenkins is author of “Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of Antiquity Ended Up in Museums – And Why They Should Stay There”.)

COMMENT: “I spent some time employed by the Canadian government in researching Indian land claims which involved me in reading the actual historical reports of early contact between the “indigenous” people of Canada and white explorers. Contrary to the incredibly patronizing view held by so many commentators of the ‘indigenous’ peoples as being primitive quiescent societies whose lives were lived in accordance with the whims of nature (the ‘romantic noble savage’ view), the reality was quite different.

“‘Indigenous’ people had sophisticated societies,governed by their own rules of law. They had frequent wars, were fierce, and to white explorers often terrifying, warriors. Many groups kept slaves, and tortured prisoners of war, including women and children.

“In reality, the sale and trading of artifacts took place on an equal to equal basis. I am sure that when some ‘indigenous’ group traded land for “a few buttons”, they did not realize they were trading away all of North America. I am equally sure that the white traders did not say to themselves “I’m trading for this land so I can create a hugely successful continent”. Both were equally capable of negotiation.

“Unless some argument, other than mythical white or English treachery, can be produced, the return of these artifacts should be a dead issue.”
IMAGE: http://firstpeoplesofcanada.com/fp_groups/fp_nwc2.html
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