museums: some thoughts

Museums: though we might like to think of them as neutral places where observe art, history and culture, arguably it is difficult, nay impossible, to do so with impartial eyes. The many ethical problems that present themselves to us make it clear that the nature of curation is far more ethically complex than we might have initially thought and might merit our reflection before our next visit.

Glaringly, there is the issue of how certain artifacts have come to be acquired, particularly in light of the colonial past of countries such as Britain, where valuables all around the world were plundered and looted both intellectually and materialistically. In 1897, the British led a ‘punitive’ raid of Benin (often described as a massacre), notorious for its violence and brutality.  The British took many Nigerian cultural artifacts home with them where they have remained for decades, though now their right to possession is being contested, there being the possibility that they might return to Nigeria.

blog looting
British soldiers pose next to stolen artifacts in Benin, Nigeria 1897

The Benin bronzes are a case in point in terms of the ethics of museums, namely that they are places fraught with cultural significance and complexity. Surely the way that such artifacts came into British hands cannot be ignored, particularly when their history is steeped in blood, violence and theft, as is the way with so many other valuable and precious objects. In showcasing stolen artifacts, some say that museums are essentially legitimizing the way they were acquired and the profoundly troubling superiority complex that lies behind raids such as these.

This particular objection to museums is such a vast topic, however, that I must move on, being unable to do it proper justice; I would, however, encourage people to do some digging into similar instances of cultural appropriation and theft as it is clear that the history and ethics of museums is intricately woven into the history of the world, both ancient and modern.

On top of this, museums cannot escape cultural hegemony, even if they aim towards neutrality and impartiality. Exhibitions are curated for certain audiences and must make sense for that audience, meaning that exhibitions take on a narrative quality. Curators must decide how the artifacts will be displayed, putting them together in a way that is easy for outsiders to digest. They must choose what information to include or omit, what and what not to display and how to frame and compose the exhibitions. In an article for the Independent, Shazia Awan shows that “cultural imperialism is very much alive and kicking” after a curator for the British Museum explains in a Q&A session how “We aim to be understandable by 16-year-olds. Sometimes Asian names can be confusing – so we have to be careful about using too many” displaying an attitude of what she calls “arrogance and sheer ignorance”.

When we enter a museum, we are not simply seeing a collection of facts grouped together but rather but a certain representation of history, of reality. We look at artifacts neatly dated and captioned with names, perhaps with a little background information about the piece. They are displayed in a sterile public building often thousands of miles away from their country of origin, to be viewed by people who are not only culturally removed but also by time and place.100_3262

Though facts may be objective, their curation is not. Without context, exhibitions are prone to over-simplification of the culture or time they represent. Objects are placed and information told in a certain way so that, while factually accurate, they necessarily become a narrative. On top of this, audiences come with preconceived notions about what they are about to see or intend to take away from the experience which has the potential to then be reinforced upon their arrival. Museums as institutions wield a great deal of power as they, like schools, history books and newspapers, define what is to be understood by ‘truth’.

The British anthropologist and curator who joined the expedition to Benin later published Great Benin: It’s Customs, Art and Horrors , seeking to present some of the items acquired on the raid and give each a short explanation. Though his work attempts to be anthropological and academic, he cannot escape the racism and imperialism of his time, his preface asserting that “if a city ever deserved its fate, that city was the city of Great Benin”, that is, being looted and burned down by British colonial soldiers for its apparent “squalor”, though thankfully the days when captions such as these would have been considered acceptable are long gone.

In spite of all this, to deliver a brief history of hundreds of international cultures and communities is no easy feat and is indeed a noble endeavor, particularly if you want audiences to understand and learn from what they see. Museums are great places for us to move beyond our narrow scope of experience to achieve a more global perspective. As Anra Kennedy writes in a piece for The Guardian,

They’re places where the extraordinary jostles for space with the everyday – our local community’s everyday or that of distant peoples and past times. They hold evidence of craftsmanship, ingenuity, creativity and imagination, alongside that of cruelty, horror and inhumanity. Just as valuable are their people – curators, academics, scientists, artists, makers, researchers, educators, re-enactors and storytellers

Precious objects, wherever they are from or displayed, can be given the proper care and attention they need to be preserved and enjoyed for centuries to come. In a museum, artifacts can be placed alongside similar objects rather than in isolation, allowing us to see patterns of cultural exchange throughout history and the proper context within which they should be understood.

Crucially, some exposure to the past, to other cultures, is better than none or even a limited amount. By making us aware that life goes on outside the bubble we live in, museums fulfill a crucial role in shaping how we see ourselves in relation to the rest of the world and to appreciate the unfamiliar. It is by going to exhibitions that we are able to admire Grecian sculptures or the intricacy and beauty of ancient Egyptian tombs. Though they are by nature ethically complex places, museums are crucial for the success of a culturally aware, pluralistic society.

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