As I have often pondered the staggering quantity of artifacts that were most probably pillaged from other countries in the museums of powerful countries, I was pleased to read the other day BBC reporting about Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s announcement that Argentina will at some point return thousands of artifacts to Peru and Ecuador. Fernandez is, it seems to me, not speaking far off the mark when (as the BBC reports) she describes the action of “restoring the cultural wealth of countries such as Ecuador and Peru” as “something unusual, really special.” The article closes with a recent American example of such return of cultural items—namely, Yale Unviersity’s decision to return “dozens” of items taken from Macchu Pichhu by Hiram Bingham. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-29750832 (you can read more about Yale’s return of the items in Diane Carson’s excellent—and wonderfully titled—NPR piece, “Finders Not Keepers: Yale Returns Artifacts to Peru”).
The number of cultural “treasures” that were most likely at some point plundered from somewhere else and eventually made their way to museums is truly mind-boggling—as virtually any visit reminds one. In my most recent trip to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, I remember thinking that at a certain point the scale of the collections of Egyptian artifacts becomes so great as to risk a kind of obscenity—though not as excessive, as say, the British Museum’s holdings, which seem to me to be so vast as to almost daring the visitor to question the propriety of so much material display. There are, of course, famous examples of Western countries holding the goods of other Western countries (the Elgin Marbles being the most well known), but the holdings of cultural artifacts from New World, African, or colonized parts of Asia by former imperial powers always makes me the most uncomfortable (particularly when it involves mummies or sarcophagi, which most emphatically were not meant to be unearthed for display to casual tourists). Museums, after all, are often the expression, simultaneously, of the great material power of some civilizations, and the vulnerability of so many other cultures.
But I am also sometimes uncomfortable with the rhetoric of belonging that equates those controlling particular territory with rights over cultural objects that can be traced to that location. For the most extreme of examples of the problems with such a view, we have only to look to ISIS and its religiously motivated destruction of ancient artifacts in territory it controls, the most recent instance being its destruction of the Temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra, Syria (see the BBC’s reporting on this here for the most recent updates). As I have written of here, ISIS understands completely the power of museums and the preservation of things deemed to be treasures—and it is calculatingly releasing precisely such energy in the targeted destruction of some such objects. ISIS’s deployment of symbolic violence, which I have discussed elsewhere, is clearly a vital part of its agenda: its destruction of sites and objects associated with any religion separate from its extreme form of Islam materially encodes its efforts to clear a space for its eponymous vision of an Islamic State. Such religiously justified iconcoclasm has clearly been effective as a form of psychological warfare: to put it plainly, such actions have freaked the international community out, presenting ISIS as a group that is truly beyond the pale. As I have written about here and here, ISIS’s territorial ambitions are central to its strategy, as it unsettles international politics by becoming a player within the politics of state-making. ISIS would certainly stand as Exhibit A for the argument against seeing cultural treasures as belonging to the lands where they originated. While one could argue that the international community (however that might be conceived) could make exceptions in extreme cases such as ISIS, it is easy to imagine that such a rationale could be invoked on flimsy grounds.
It is important not to cite the Elgin Marbles case as an example of the latter point, by the way: as this British Museum statement makes clear, the popular view that the museum has argued that Greek authorities could not properly care for the statues, which were removed from the Parthenon, is a myth. As the remarkably full and straightforward British Museum statement makes clear, public value—the ability of people to see such items in the optimal conditions of a museum—are the rimary justification for not repatriating00 to use the rhetoric of cultural authenticity and territorialism—the marbles. I must admit that I find the British Museum statement remarkable for its honesty and for its straightforwardness about its rationale for keeping what it deems to be some 30% of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. I count myself among many who learns much about the world by visiting museums; I try to visit museums whenever I have time while visiting another city. While the guilt of appropriated goods is always an element in the experience, there is also the positive element of the cosmopolitan, as the museum visitor both experiences signs of other worlds while visiting an institutional site that shows such signs and their cultures are valued. Such a powerful transnational experience is often a refreshing departure from the suffocating atmosphere of nationalism and territorialism in a world where so many fight over land and objects, with the accumulation of wealth and prestige being the primary motivation.
Perhaps it is ISIS and its unsettling use of symbolic violence that is destabilizing all of my recent reactions to questions about museums and cultural values. President Fernandez’s decision surely should be welcomed, and it would surely be nice to see more such actions being taken in cases where clearly plundered items are returned to countries whose populations have clear connections to past groups. However, it is vital to avoid assuming reductively direct connections of cultural artifacts to current cultures (which often consigns them to a present pastness, as scholars such as Johannes Fabian [in Time and the Other] and Kathleen Davis [in “Time behind the Veil” in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s The Postcolonial Middle Ages] have argued) to past groups, and it also seems vital to realize that the alternative to the repatriation of items is not always simply shameless plundering and vulgar display.