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.

the filth of ‘clean’ eating

The other day, I was stacking shelves where I work and was shocked at the conversation I overheard between two young girls popping in for a post-workout snack which went something like this: “I want to buy something healthy – what about these gluten-free dairy-free brownies? Or the vegan wheat-free flapjacks?” “Oh but look at the price” “Oh yeah *groan* it’s so hard to eat healthy – it’s all so expensive”. The girls left the shop with only a small pot of melon slices each – apparently it was the only ‘healthy’ food on offer that they could afford. I was left rather confused and disgusted, having been confronted with the inescapable force of the food trend that everyday shows itself to be more and more problematic, that being the ‘clean’ eating phenomenon that seems to have stealthily taken over attitudes towards food in recent years.

The link between poor mental health and ‘clean’ eating is undeniable, particularly when in is exacerbated by the pressure and strains of social media. The subject has been well documented by health organizations, the eating disorder charity Beat recording a rise in the number of calls to its hotline over the past few years linked to anxiety overly restrictive food rules.bloog1 Documentaries such as the BBC’S Clean Eating’s Dirty Secrets and Clean Eating – The Dirty Truth have exposed the fragility of many of the claims being made and the impact they have on those exposed to them. Eating disorders are serious mental conditions that can have devastating consequences – anorexia having the highest mortality rate of any mental illness – and affect all age groups, ethnicities and genders. Recently, the phenomena of orthorexia, defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy”, has come to popular attention, though it cannot currently be clinically diagnosed. Social media platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook alongside other sharing platforms like Youtube act like a petri dish, facilitating the growth of myriad restrictive and absolutist diet trends that often overlap and contradict one another, flying in the face of well-researched evidence on what a truly healthy diet for body and mind might actually look like.

To make matters worse, food becomes a moral issue with a hugely negative impact on the mental health of vulnerable young people. What one eats comes to be placed in to two categories, namely foods that are ‘good’ and those that are ‘bad’. This black and white thinking generates a lot of anxiety for people who feel that they are failing if they do not meet these exacting standards. As mentioned earlier, the emergence of orthorexia nervosa points to a serious problem with our attitude towards food, orthorexia also translated as a “fixation on riteous eating”. This could not be more telling, food not only being a way to fuel our bodies on a daily basis but a means to improve our moral character, to become a “righteous” individual by proxy. Eating the ‘wrong’ food triggers self-loathing and acute anxiety, the message behind the moralism being that we are intrinsically unworthy and it is only through eating the ‘right’ way that we can somehow vindicate ourselves.

It is ironic, then, this obsession with restrictive diets often proves to be unhealthy, not only mentally but physically. Much of the ‘clean’ eating movement is based on pseudoscience concocted by individuals financially invested in this lucrative lie. Restrictive food rules are dressed up as science and packaged seductively, be it in a beautiful and slim food vlogger, an expensive new cookbook or a new range of pricey products in the supermarket. Often, these companies make dubious claims about what their products can do, some saying that they reverse disease, aid weight loss or garuntee an overall ‘healthy glow’. Many, if not most, of these corporations rely on a kernel of truth which they exaggerate and capitalize upon. A significant number of these ‘clean’ celebrities do not have the appropriate medical qualifications to be touting such advice, taking advantage on the vulnerability and ignorance of their customers to turn a profit. In a piece featured in The Guardian, Bee Wilson insightfully points out how

clean eating confirms how vulnerable and lost millions of us feel about diet – which really means how lost we feel about our own bodies. We are so unmoored that we will put our faith in any master who promises us that we, too, can become pure and good.

The promise of wellness is, however, a mirage.

Crucially, this trend is also having a sinister effect on society as a whole, particularly in regards to class and elitism, food offering yet another way to divide and segregate.bloog2 These so-called ‘health’ foods are marketed at inordinately high prices in full awareness that their affluent target market are willing to pay extra to opt into the ‘clean’ eating club. Food is an accessory, a statement of class, completely inaccessible to those who cannot afford to participate. Only the wealthy can afford to pay £3.99 for Deliciously Ella’s Original Granola when Tesco’s own is under half the price, or £2 for Rude Health’s organic oat milk when cows milk costs just £1.50 for more than triple the amount.

The clean, healthy eating movement is essentially a vanity project for the middle class, food being just one more way to distinguish the haves from the have-nots.

This movement is the perfect money-spinner, as where diets or eating trends used to be temporary, this trend is permanent and necessitates a complete and sustained lifestyle overhaul. Despite what the advertising industry would like you to believe, it is entirely possible to lead a healthy lifestyle without emptying your savings account. 

Similarly, this same movement is contributing to the divorce of food from its social and historical context; once deeply embedded in a collective culture, certain foods turn into trivialized fads in the western world. Matcha green tea -an integral part of the ancient Japanese tea ceremony  – has been adopted and can now be consumed as a latte, ice-cream or even a ‘chocolate matcha butter cup’. Quinoa, once an obscure crop from South America to many in the west has become as basic a grain as pasta. Foods that are integral to a culture heritage are taken and commercialized as the next ‘it’ food, only to be dropped and forgotten to make way for the next trend. Food is often imbued with cultural significance so the idea that a middle-class young food vlogger in Shoreditch has just ‘discovered’ the versatility and health benefits of sorghum when it has been growing in Africa for centuries and is the fifth most popular crop in the world is not only arrogant but demeaning too.

The myths of the ‘clean’ eating movement – essentially ‘fake news’ – could be debunked with proper education about the reality of what constitutes a healthy diet. No, eating only alkaline foods will not reverse cancer. No, you do not need to blow your next paycheck on the most expensive products in the supermarket to be well. No, cutting out gluten when you are not coeliac or even intolerant will not necessarily make you feel ‘energised’, neither will it make you a better person. With proper education, many of the ‘truths’ of the industry would be exposed as lies. Yet this would not solve the other equally if not more important issue of the sense of moral superiority associated with ‘clean’ eating.

Until we stop feeling the need to make ourselves feel better at the expense of others and by appealing to the standards set by the advertising industry, this distinctly unhealthy trend and accompanying mindset is here to stay.