ArtString: Display It Like You Stole It

Today’s highlighted string, Display it like you stole it, takes its name from the badges sold by the art historian and tour guide Alice Procter, to whom I owe a considerable debt of gratitude for really bringing to the forefront the kind of stories that can be told about provenance and colonialism in modern museum collections.

The primary focus of this string is on the British Museum, because of the three institutions whose API is available to ArtString currently, this is the museum with both the largest overall collection of artifacts from overseas and largest selection of contended items.

It’s also by far the oldest, the first public museum in the British Isles, founded by Hans Sloane. Sloane’s career as a botanist can be charted at the Chelsea Physic Garden, with particular emphasis on his introduction of chocolate wholesale to the British public–of interest to anyone who, like me, has an odd and nerdy interest on the relationship between British politics and drinking chocolate (to really get into the nitty-gritty on the nascent Tory party and chocolate, speak to Dr Matthew Green). He was an enormously wealthy man who, in the apparent interest of improving the cultural education of a nation, gifted that nation with its first museum.

Like many, many wealthy white men in the 18th century, he benefited from the trade in human misery. Working as a plantation doctor in Jamaica, his role was to keep enslaved people physically fit enough to continue providing unrecompensed labour for people who had purchased them like livestock. More than this, Hans Sloane’s early collections included (and still include) items taken from slaves themselves, and displayed as curiosities, rather than emblems of the moral outrage occurring on the far side of the Atlantic (although it should be observed that not every member of Sloane’s society was so uncritical of the activities in the Caribbean, despite some gruelling use of archaic and offensive language).

With this beginning it’s perhaps not really a surprise that the British Museum–and British museums in general, to lesser or greater degrees–struggled and continue to struggle with letting go of the cultural power granted to them by imperialism.

The most infamous and public debate about artifacts held at the British Museum is of course over the Parthenon Marbles, known popularly in the UK as the “Elgin” Marbles after the British ambassador Lord Elgin, who was attached to the Ottoman Empire during a period when the empire included Greece. His removal of this colossal number of priceless antiquities–Room 18 in the British Museum is dedicated solely to displaying them as if they were still in-situ–has been a source of contention ever since. Greece argues that no one has any business removing their priceless national artifacts, and certainly not in justifying their removal by a price paid for them–after all, the Ottomans were not the holders of Greek culture, either.

Others, primarily of a right-wing political alignment, argue that the marbles should remain in their current location, citing their safety and well-being, and remarking that the statues were saved from destruction or looting by the Reich during the 1930s and 1940s by being in Britain, and are currently on display for all to see (providing those all can make it to London, of course). The subject of “protecting artifacts from instability” will come up again later.

But the marbles are far from the only valuable artifacts whose presence in the British Museum is a source of considerable contention. Once again attached to an Elgin is the shameful destruction and looting of the Summer Palace in Beijing, during the Opium Wars of the mid 19th Century.  Many of the artifacts that were not destroyed during what even those involved at the time came to condemn as an act of cultural brutality have since ended up in museums around the world–anywhere but China. While some parties raise questions about the validity of numbers of artifacts given by Beijing and point to the iconoclasm of Mao’s young Red Army against the old order in the early 20th Century as more destructive (and therefore once again champion the “responsible” removal of treasures to a less “unstable” area), it is hard to deny that the prosperous, educated China of the 21st Century has a right to fill its many museums with the artifacts of over two millennia of concerted craftsmanship and culture.

What is especially vexatious about the treasures of the Summer Palace is that enormous numbers of Chinese artifacts owned by the British Museum are simply not on display. Unlike the Parthenon Marbles, no case can be made for these treasures being kept for the benefit of all mankind (and the parts of mankind whose tourism to London brings in significant financial advantage to the city) if all mankind can’t see them. I’ve been unable to include these items in the string in part because of this, and in part because it appears some effort has gone into refusing to publicly identify which works derive from the Summer Palace. You can understand why: it’s really bad PR.

Even when contended items are on display, such as the exquisite Amaravati marbles in Room 33a, many of them aren’t available on the publicly-accessible museum catalogue, because of an arrangement with Google Arts. If you want to view the marbles: they’re here. And because they’re there, they’re not on the museum’s own website. Sold as a way of allowing the public access to already-publicly-accessible information, the Google Arts tie-in ironically has taken the form of a more modern, stateless imperialism: the imperialism of mega-corporations.

Another extremely important cultural item barred from inclusion due to its non-display is the Gweagal Shield. The shield, removed by James Cook (who eventually met his end at the hands of at least one of the groups of people he routinely defrauded, looted, and assaulted during his voyages of discovery), remains in storage–adding insult to the injury already felt by Indigenous Australians who have already lost so much of their heritage both to looting and to extremely recent culturally destructive legal frameworks.  At least, after some debate, the museum eventually returned the remains of William Lanne to his rightful home.

Why is it such a struggle for museums to do the right thing? Simon Jenkins at the Guardian has suggested that fear of the extinction of museums may be a factor: “A deeper worry is what restitution will mean to the purpose of world museums. They really are the heirs to empire.” But an argument couched in terms of lack of content is operating on false principles: for a start, the British Isles themselves are full of a rich history and endless cultural artifacts. It’s impossible to continue the excavations for Crossrail at pace precisely because the landscape is absolutely crammed with archaeological finds. While Jenkins makes the following citation: “A museum, as French art historian André Malraux noted, has always been an artificial concept, a wrenching of objects not into context but out of it. The tossing together of disparate artefacts – most of them never displayed – is like burying them in a mausoleum. It suggests the museum is not about art or beauty but about acquisition, ownership and status”, and argues that perhaps museums are unnecessary altogether, I’m not so sure.

The Science Museum, one of the ArtString’s other featured institutions, and its neighbour the Natural History Museum have long dealt in interactive, virtual, and video exhibitions. The British Museum itself has items recreating designs and forms for the purpose of public education, rather than the original items themselves on display. As Jenkins notes in the above-linked article, in an age of 3D printing (which already benefits the museum shop) and holographic renditions of everything from deceased rock stars to 3-D fly-throughs of entire ancient cities, a museum isn’t limited by the physical items in its collection in terms of what can be displayed. As for study: it’s cheaper, easier, better for conservation, and more contextually relevant to send scholars to objects than bring objects to scholars.

But perhaps it’s time to let the British Museum have its say. The focus of this string and the admittedly extremely murky history both of the Museum’s founder and of the society that allowed it to be founded give the impression that the museum itself is by definition a terrible thing. I don’t believe that the institution is of one mind on this–or any other–subject! Alice Procter’s eye-catching tours have already had a positive effect on the Museum’s own projects–it’s launching a series of curator talks about provenance and context which takes in instances of cross-cultural exchange (or, in the language of the 19th Century, “going native”).

I also known that while the Museum has been complicit in looting in the past, it now works towards preventing items of contentious provenance from entering the collection, and last year identified and returned a stolen artifact from Uzbekistan that had made its way into British auction rooms. Many governments now, too, see the voluntary donation of artifacts from their own country to the British Museum as a form of outreach and education for far-off nations which may known little about what their nation may have to offer the world; private individuals have frequently donated collections–not all of them acquired through dubious means! And in a time when divisive politics and fringe groups push the idea of ethnostates, having an immediately-accessible proof of the humanity, creativity, and complexity of a wide variety of societies can only be good for countering racist mentalities.

However, if those items exist not as a voluntary bequest for the confirmed purpose of education and celebration, they can instead act as magnets for social disquiet, a sense of grievance, and festering wounds to the cultural psyche.

Hoa Hakananai’a of the Rapa Nui people currently sits at the entrance to the Oceanic gallery. Recently granted self-administration by Chile, the islands’ governor Tarita Alarcón Rapu has swiftly made a public plea for the return of this statue, which has incomparable cultural and spiritual importance to the islanders. To the visitors at the museum it’s a strong draw–an impressive, unique image in a highly visible location, with an air of mystery about it, there is almost always a throng of people photographing the basalt figure. But a draw is all it is to them. To the Rapa Nui, it is the spirit of the people. These are hardly equal claims.

Whether the restitution of Hoa Hakananai’a will go ahead is hard to say–the public plea was made only recently and these processes, even when they are successful, take time.

There is hope, however. The Benin Bronzes, previously held by the British Museum after their looting from the Kingdom of Benin, has finally been returned to Nigeria’s Edo State, where the historic kingdom was located, for a long-term loan. Social media response to this has widely raised one specific question, as phrased by a Nigerian friend of mine: “How’d you loan something back to the people you stole it from in the first place?”

My understanding is that long-term loans are easier to legally arrange and justify with boards of Trustees than straightforwards repatriation. Allowing items back to their rightful country for display at least gives the cultures to whom they belong the chance to see and connect with what’s rightfully theirs. It also hopefully gives museums the chance to reflect on whether their collection is actually depleted by the loan, or whether they can make a better case for formal, permanent restitution. Long-term loans have to be seen as a beginning of the second stage of dialogue, rather than the endgame.

Ethiopia’s priceless Maqdala treasures may soon be joining the bronzes in a return to their homeland; having had a powerful and instructive exhibition with contextualised display to the British and visiting public at the V&A. While the most eye-catching of the treasures are held by the V&A, there are also several items in the British Museum’s collection–which are not on display.

It’s true, too, that opinion is not always monolithic within any given culture; while the governor of Rapa Nui’s islands wants Hoa Hakananaia’a returned, the mayor, Pedro Edmunds Paoa, believes that the statue is more likely to be preserved indoors than on the platform on which his fellow-friends are displayed, exposed to the Pacific winds and rain.

Retention of contentious items is not the only area in which the museum skates close to a line of social acceptability; accepting donations of illegal materials can certainly be claimed to be sending the wrong message.

It isn’t just the British Museum, however. Indeed, there is one item in the featured string that joins the Rosetta Stone in having the dubious honour of being looted by Napoleonic forces, only to end up in a British Institution–in this case, the National Gallery. To the best of my knowledge, the church hospital hasn’t asked for this one back.

Although there are few “star items” in this string, its expansion could theoretically be vast, including anywhere touched upon by a European empire. According to Proctor, where items appeared to result from fair acquisitions, they had to be seen in the context of colonial relations and power imbalances: it’s hard to say no to someone who wants to take your belongings when you know that “no” can result in reprisals for perceived inhospitality–not just for you but for your whole community.

But what of the “safety” argument? Surely in a time when the destruction of Palmyra and Nimrud are heart-rendingly fresh in the global memory, a case can be made for the retrieval of historically significant items to safer locations?

Well, first of all we have to ask ourselves why these regions are unstable in the first place. Destabilising, looting, and conquest are all parts of the cycle of imperialism–is continuing to participate in the removal of artifacts from locations destabilised and ravaged by conflicts started by external powers materially any different from what was taking place in the 19th Century?

Secondly, there is an even more recent and devastating destruction of priceless artifacts still fresh and ugly in the minds of the museum community in particular. I’ve written about it already.

Are antiquities and cultural artifacts really any safer in European museums?


Featured String: Display it like you stole it

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