Wednesday, June 12, 2013

How objects get to Museums

The recent repatriation of the two 10th century Khmer statues by the Metropolitan Museum of Art has led to some comments from India (Neha Paliwal, 'How objects get to museums' The Indian Express Jun 03 2013).
Public museums are wonderful spaces because they allow us to see and imagine things and societies that most of us will never get to witness first-hand. At the same time, we rarely question how these objects have been obtained; how they move through the world and ultimately come to rest in a museum where we can see and be moved by them. The Met's actions force us to ask this question, and to realise that many collections, private and public, contain items that have been obtained by violent means — previously by imperial and colonial governments, and more recently through looting during stressful times such as civil war (in the case of these Cambodian statues), or war (in the case of the National Museum of Iraq in 2003). It is clear that such plunder happens precisely because of the great aesthetic and cultural value of the artefacts, often at the behest of private collectors. [...] Illicit traffic is hardly unique to cultural objects. But in these cases, museums play a critical role [...]  when an object is loaned or donated to a museum, with little verifiable information about origins, its display in a public institution masks its violent acquisition, assigns it value and legitimises it. In other words, displaying a statue looted from a remote site in Cambodia in the halls of the Metropolitan Museum allows similar artefacts to circulate, and gather value in the international art market. [...] It is our appreciation of the art on the walls and the statues in a hall, and our unquestioning belief in the credibility of the museum that confers final value on the artefact. As public institutions, museums then have a special responsibility to ensure that the objects they display are not dubiously acquired. 

The writer then addresses the question of considering ancient objects as global cultural heritage (opposed by "nationalist notions of cultural property") and therefore displaying them in "universal" museums such as the Met or the British Museum, admitting that the idea has some credibility. There is little doubt that objects displayed in big museums in large European or American cities will be seen by many visitors. So-called "encylopaedic museums" spur curiosity about distant places:
However, we must acknowledge that the universal museum itself is a product of modern imperial and colonial interests. They are located almost exclusively in First World countries, their visitors are overwhelmingly from the West, and their collections are filled with objects taken from poorer nations over the last few centuries. Such situations do not make for universal access, by any measure.
While claims of many 'source countries' asking for the return of  numerous artefacts on display in British, French and American museums may ultimately be unsuccessful, the author argues that to assuage them, there may  perhaps in future be more loans, greater circulation of artefacts between the big collecting museums and those in other nations. This in turn would create a more genuinely cosmopolitan kind of museum.
The return of the Cambodian statues is one act in the recent history of repatriations that signals a change in attitude among museums. It shows us that, more and more, illicit acquisition of cultural and historically significant artefacts is intolerable, not just when buying or receiving artefacts as donations in the future but also with regard to past acquisitions. In this instance, the Met has set a standard that other museums ought to follow, both with regard to international acquisitions as well as artefacts obtained within the nation — from minority and oppressed communities. Even as we speak about the responsibilities of museums as public institutions, we as visitors also have a responsibility — to ensure that our museums reflect the concerns and values of their communities. The next time you visit a museum, you might wonder how a Manipuri manuscript found its way to the display case, and maybe you'll even ask the curator. 
Which brings us back again to the issue of public engagement with museums, including Jason Felch's idea of Wikiloot. 

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