Today, we live in a burnout culture. I have mentioned this phenomenon before in previous posts and no wonder, because it is has such a pervasive, damaging effect on how we work and live our lives in the 21st century. This ‘burnout’ may manifest itself in different ways i.e. stress, fatigue or anxiety, though what is clear is that the primary offender is often one’s work life.
When trying to juggle and manage a demanding schedule and unrelenting work commitments, the first sacrifice to be made is almost always sleep. The clinical psychologist Vicki Culpin writes in The Business of Sleep that we are currently suffering from a “sleep epidemic”; Denis Campbell draws attention to the findings of The National Sleep Foundation in an article for The Guardian, which indicates that 16% of adults in the UK sleep for less that 6 hours a night. Inevitably, people often turn to artificial stimulants to compensate for the consequences of a lack of sleep with energy drinks, strong coffee and even caffeine tablets presenting themselves as a way to continue to function throughout the working day. Never mind leisure time, any spare moment throughout the week or even the weekend is precious and to be used to catch up on all things that pile up outside of work, such as doctors appointments, laundry, shopping or cleaning. When one has an unhealthy work/life balance, all other areas of life become marginalized so that life has little purpose outside an office cubicle.
It is abundantly clear that this emphasis on overwork and the idea that salary and career should come first has a hugely detrimental impact on the psyche of workers and society as a whole. A recent study shows that when people feel a degree of power after, say, after a promotion or a salary increase, they are less likely to be empathetic towards others – in indication that the philosophy our work culture is based on favors an unhealthy breed of individualism over collective social well being.Christopher Harvey’s article for GQ calls attention to the urgency and gravity of the issue, hilighting that
Half of all employees do not feel their workplace is an emotionally healthy environment, with 55 per cent of organisations having no formal strategy for handling employee wellbeing. Absenteeism increased 25 per cent over the course of the past year in the UK, highlighting that burnout is set to get worse, not better.
Overwork and burnout have become badges of honor that employees wear with pride, many people familiar with the routine smug moaning bragging of their colleagues over how little sleep they’ve had or how many hours overtime they just had to put in the night before. How much one works has morphed into a way to judge others on their work ethic, with colleagues routinely battling it out to be the most assiduous worker, a phenomenon known as “busy bragging”.
Though this might appear to work in the favour of employers, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that work-related stress and sleep deprivation, however dedicated employees may be, leads to a less productive and efficient work force. When companies exert too much pressure on their employees, it becomes harder and harder to retain staff, leading to a high staff turnover. A Forbes article calls attention to the fact that
Paradoxically, overwork does not equate to higher levels of productivity but instead only to those of work-related mental and physical health issues such as depression, anxiety and high blood pressure.
Perhaps, to curb the effects of this dangerous trend, we should re-envision what it means to be a working man or woman in 2018. Though it may sound naive and idealistic, this should be the year that we change our workplace culture so that the well being and mental health of employees comes before profit at all costs. In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle sets out how he believes the ideal state should be constituted, happiness the central idea behind a functioning, flourishing society. For Aristotle, all actions have ends though some are subordinate to others, the ultimate end being that of ‘eudaimonia’ or human flourishing, essentially “doing and living well”. Moreover, while individual happiness is of value, it again is subordinate to the happiness and flourishing of a community, a philosophy we would do well to incorporate into our profit-driven modern society. Work is a means to an end – that being the happiness or flourishing of ourselves and our community – rather than an end in itself.
More and more, we are seeing corporate wellness programmes enter the workplace which give staff the opportunity to engage in activities such as mindfulness, yoga and exercise to improve their mental and physical health, though admittedly these are the companies that can afford such expenditure on their staff – often not the case for the majority of businesses. Instead, then, perhaps employers could be encouraged to try to engage with staff more on a personal basis, give them more credit for the work they put in and cease to encourage employees to work until breaking point by removing the individual pressure placed on them. It is becoming abundantly clear that businesses need to start putting people before profit not only because it is the right thing to do but also because a happy, healthy workforce is crucial to a well-functioning economy.
What with the access to audiences of thousands, even millions, of users, social media is in theory the perfect tool for social activists. Anyone can get involved in a campaign with the touch of a button, the only prerequisite being the possession of a smartphone. Where once protest movements were, to a degree, limited in their outreach by distance and means, protest movements can now reach almost anyone, anywhere and at any time. In the past, campaigners relied on public pickets, posting flyers, radio or television interviews – anything that would get them noticed – though they can now take to platforms such as Twitter or Facebook, where a revolution is born in the palm of a hand.
Information can be passed extremely quickly, not only making it much easier to get a movement off the ground but also to then organize and manage it. Sociologists have identified the 4 stages in the life cycle of a protest movement, those being emergence, coalescence, bureaucratization and decline. It is not difficult to make the connection between social media and the first two; thanks to the diversity and scope of such platforms, it is easier than ever to find people with similar views and political motivations with whom one can show solidarity on the streets or online.
A crucial advantage of social media platforms over more traditional campaigning methods is the wide range of different medias they carry. One of the reasons for the success of the American civil rights movement in the 1950s is the rise in popularity of television, allowing many in the North to see footage of the violence of the white authorities as they tried to quell demonstrations in Selma, Alabama and elsewhere. The ability to utilize film or audio carries huge advantages in that it makes a movement more personal and emotionally engaging on a deeper level than mere hearsay. Video or audio recordings act as a kind or proof, much like the civil rights footage; it becomes impossible to dismiss news stories as overblown sensationalism when there was concrete evidence that the police were using water cannons and beating peaceful protesters to the ground. As Martin Luther King Jr. said in a speech, “We will no longer let them use their clubs on us in the dark corners. We’re going to make them do it in the glaring light of television.”
If this was the case in the 50s with television, then, it isn’t difficult to imagine the scope we have now in an age where almost everyone carries a smartphone with them and can capture and upload to social media any footage that might aid a protest movement. The video of a Black Lives Matter campaigner who was arrested seemingly without cause while talking police went viral across the Internet. In recent weeks, the debate about gun control laws in the US has been ongoing, the principal young campaigners using their social media accounts as ways to mobilize and engage their support network as well as counter the opposition.
It is worth taking these successes with a pinch of salt, however, as while social media can be an excellent tool, it also has the potential to be a movement’s downfall. Though a cause might initially gain a lot of support, it is so easily lost, many fading into obscurity after a movement has had its ‘moment’. The #Kony2012 campaign that took social media by storm – while in some ways greatly successful – was heavily criticized on a number of counts but notably for fueling, as Kate Dailey for the BBC puts it, “the idea, however misguided, that the social media generation has the opportunity to change the world with the click of a mouse”. It becomes very easy to sink into complacency as the abundance of hashtags and online pledges of support may make it seem like more is being done then it actually is. With social media being such a free, open space, it carries the potential to also hurt a campaign; followers can post whatever they want, potentially to the detriment of the campaign’s reputation. Online bullying and mindless Twitter rants, for example, can hardly be said to cast a movement in a favorable light. As we saw earlier with the 4 stages of a protest movement, poor use of social media could contribute to a decline, social media movements particularly prone to factionalism and internal conflict.
When a movement relies solely on likes, shares, or hashtags it is ultimately at the mercy of social media users and however long their attention span is, making it essential that it goes hand-in-hand with additional action. Matt Collins puts it well in an article for The Guardian, asserting that:
“Selfies and hashtags are unlikely to lead to social change on their own – only real governmental pressure and action can do that. But world governments listen, and act, when enough people speak. Social media is the most shareable, durable and global collection of voices the world has ever seen, one which is increasingly difficult to ignore.”
Social media being a phenomenon that is constantly evolving, it is almost impossible to make predictions with any degree of certainty as to their impact on current events, however they appear to have profoundly affected the stage on which world events play out. Social media can be an incredible tool with the power to make or break the success of any social movement with the caveat, though, that they are used intelligently.
The end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018 have undeniably heralded a pivotal moment for the international women’s movement. What with the recent sexual harassment scandals involving key figures such as the American film producer Harvey Weinstein and sports coach to the stars Larry Nassar, the world is gradually waking up to the everyday injustices faced by women. What these high-profile cases demonstrate is that even women in positions where we might consider them to be, to a certain degree, untouchable are affected by the suffocating embrace of a society based on patriarchal values.
In recent months, the world has borne witness to the emergence of popular social media hashtags such as #TimesUp and #MeToo that aim to promote female solidarity in the face of aggressive misogyny, particularly in the workplace where men in positions of power are able to take advantage of their more vulnerable female colleagues. In 2017, hundreds of accusations of sexual harassment and assault were leveled against the film production giant Harvey Weinstein, sending shock waves throughout the Hollywood industry. In sport, Larry Nassar has been accused of sexually assaulting hundreds of female athletes, many of them underage, with more than 265 women testifying to that effect. Even the U.S. president Donald Trump has been branded a misogynist due to his consistently offensive and inflammatory comments about women dating back to the 1980s. Some have compiled them to exhibit them in a way that demonstrates just how alarming his attitude towards the Second Sex actually is and how his hostility towards women goes far beyond his “grab ’em by the pussy” interview, most commonly undermining a woman’s political or professional capability and giving his unsolicited opinions on her appearance.
Despite these scandals, however, the women’s movement has undeniably made significant progress, noticeably in the UK and the US among other countries that should not be overlooked. We have reached a key turning point where women’s voices are increasingly being made to matter as the Weinstein case only serves to demonstrate. Where these same victimized women would previously advised to remain silent, they are encouraged to speak up, slowly challenging and dismantling the crippling attitude of the past. Nowadays, there is more of a zero-tolerance policy to unacceptable behavior, crucially manifesting itself in the way that women are able to identify and challenge discriminatory behavior. What once might have been dismissed as par for the course, in line with the philosophy of ‘boys will be boys’, is being treated with the urgency and severity it truly merits, which indicates a profound cultural shift in our perception of what is means to be female. We, as women, have intrinsic value and agency which should be reflected in all areas of our personal and professional lives, many now prepared to publicly name and shame those who seem not to have got the memo. Since then, we have seen what has been termed the ‘Weinstein Effect’, with many more cases of similar misconduct coming to light after the landmark case opened the jar to a giant can of worms.
While this loosening of tongues is clearly a step in the right direction, it has some unpleasant side-effects, the principal one being that it shatters the comfortable illusion that feminism is becoming unnecessary, even obsolete in a society that pays lip-service to equality. All of these horrific and disturbing cases shine the spotlight on what we’d rather not see or acknowledge, that being the unsolved problem of gender inequality. In January, it emerged that a men-only event took place in London hosted at the President’s Club, dubbed “the most un-PC night of the year”. Hostesses were required to wear tight-fitting black dresses and heels to cater to powerful male businessmen, many of whom were accused of inappropriate behavior towards the women present. The flurry of news stories that came afterwards were shocking, many incredulous that this type of behavior and culture are still around in 2018, though should we really be so surprised? To look on the bright side, however, while the event itself shows how long the journey ahead still is, the public outcry that succeeded it shows just how far we have come.
Now, the conversation needs to translate into the lives of everyday women. So far, the debate has arguably been dominated by a select group, namely wealthy white Western women who, while they may be doing great work, are not representative in any way of all women and the huge variety of difficulties that they face. It will take much more than a privileged few who have little to lose donning expensive and glamorous black gowns and tweeting a few hashtags to really change things. We need to recognize the vital importance of intersectional feminism as it is the only way to truly support and further the interests of all women, particularly across racial and gender divides. The actress Rose McGowan, for example, has recently been criticized for failing to acknowledge this diversity of experience, a classic case of denying the problem exists if it doesn’t exist for her, though it most certainly does. White women, for instance, have benefited most from affirmative action, the playing field far from level for women of color. Liv Little, the founder and editor in chief of gal-dem magazine puts it well in a Guardian article, asserting that:
“We need to start by trying to empower the women with the biggest number of intersections, rather than white, middle-class women, who probably have the fewest gaps when it comes to their opportunities versus those of white men. We need to do better when it comes to the inclusion of trans women’s experiences and those of women who are not cis and able-bodied.”
So far, the spotlight has been on a select number taking to social media and other campaigning platforms, though this is only the tip of the iceberg. The Guardian shines light on standout cases around the world, with Spanish women going on strike for the day to mark International Women’s Day. Hundreds of South Korean women are taking to the streets wearing black to support the #MeToo movement in Seoul. Thousands of female aid workers across the world have composed an open letter to push for reform in the sector.
So, this International Women’s day, while we should recognize and be proud of the progress that has and is being made, we must also acknowledge that there is still a long way to go. It would be utterly premature to pat ourselves on the back as there are still still formidable obstacles for ordinary women to overcome across intersections such as race, class, sexual orientation and gender identity. While things might have improved for a portion of the population, there are still many for whom this apparent progress is still not being felt. Today should be a celebration of all women and of how far we’ve come, but also a reminder that there is still a hell of a lot to push on with.
It’s no secret that charities have gained a bad reputation in the wake of the countless scandals that fill newspapers and dominate radio headlines; household names have been dragged through the mud and doubt sewn into the minds of donors. Despite these instances of appalling behavior, though, we should treat this as an opportunity to reconsider our attitude towards charity in order to make our ongoing support as meaningful and worthwhile as it can possibly be. In 2016, The Guardian published an article on how trust in charities has been declining slowly but surely, with 33% of people blaming media coverage of recent scandals as the reason for this apparent trend. Figures like these are likely to be even more stark a year on will all of the recent, high-profile scandals that have been rigorously covered by news outlets, Alice Ross of the Financial Times warning that donors, particularly big ones, will be much more wary of donating in future.
Over time, there have been countless examples of misconduct in the charity sector, though these last few years seem to be the worst yet. Oxfam, for example, has been embroiled in a sex scandal that emerged from 2011 which took place in Haiti, where aid workers allegedly used sex workers (some potentially underage) while working on the ground. Save The Children, the international NGO promoting children’s rights, has also been in the media firing line after it was revealed that its chief executive – as well as the husband of the murdered MP Joe Cox – harassed his female employees whose concerns were not addressed with the appropriate scrutiny and respect. In 2016, The Wounded Warrior Project, a foundation that aims to help ex-combatants recover after service was accused of “spending lavishly on itself”, directing funds towards luxuries like expensive hotel rooms and business class flights rather than its service users.
Scandals such as these happen everywhere and in almost any organization, though while there may be a measure of outrage following exposed tax evasion or fraud, such as that of Starbucks for instance, it is not nearly as long-lasting or damaging as the fallout from a charity scandal. In these cases, we are far less forgiving, which may say something about how we imagine a charity to be. In the minds of many, charities are purely do-gooding institutions that not only make the world a better place but also make us feel better about ourselves. When charities we support are involved in questionable or downright immoral behavior, we feel betrayed and experience a loss of the trust we put in them when we decided to hand over our credit cards details. To add insult to injury, many find it embarrassing when they have publicly donated to a ‘good’ cause only to be told that their contribution went to nothing or, worse still, that it funded bad behavior at the expense of people in need.
Perhaps, then, the reason why charity scandals are so abhorrent in particular is because of the way in which we think about these organizations and about ourselves when we give. Giving to charity is an easy way of assuaging a guilty conscience, an example being the thousands of people who donate to homelessness charities after passing a rough sleeper. The psychology of charity is extremely complex, research featured in the New York Times indicating that there is not one motivating factor but many when we donate, ranging from pure altruism (if that exists) to self-interest. If there’s one thing we might salvage from these charity scandals it is that they have forced us to consider why and how we give as well as who to and how our money is being used. David Shariatmadari writes for the Guardian on how giving to charity has a similar effect in the brain to taking addictive drugs such as cocaine, neatly putting it “Charity can get you high”. If anything, it is charity scandals that threaten to kill our buzz.
One way of thinking about positive charitable giving might be to think if it as a relationship between two people. If one was experiencing difficult times, the other – if they are a true friend – should try to support them and to enable them to overcome or adequately cope with the hardship while allowing them to retain a degree of independence and dignity. Clearly, this is preferable to a relationship of unequals where one party is dependent on the other, who is only committed to giving just enough, the bare minimum. In Mighty Be Our Powers, the autobiography of the leader of the Liberian women’s movement for peace, Leymah Gbowee has some interesting things to say about giving aid, arguing that organizations must work with the people affected or the service users as, quite obviously, they know that will work or what won’t and where funds really need to be channeled. In her words:
“Most of the institutions that come in to offer help after disaster don’t have the resources to provide concrete help like that. Donor communities invest billions funding peace talks and disarmament. Then they stop. The most important postwar help is missing…You’d think the international community would be sensible enough to know they should work to change this. But they aren’t.”
As we see so often, charitable causes are reduced to hashtags and one-off donations during its five minutes of fame. In 2012, for example, my Facebook feed was full of support for victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army and cries for Joseph Kony to be brought to justice for his atrocious crimes. Tellingly, the hunt only ended last year, 5 years after the media storm took off, though you’d hardly know as the cause had long ceased to be ‘fashionable’, a scandal in itself.
Charity scandals, while not all alike, shatter the illusion that these organizations can do no wrong and provide opportunities to reconsider what they need to be about. What is becoming increasingly clear is that these organizations must work with the affected people to be as meaningful as possible and fully realize their potential for doing good. Service users must be able to make informed choices about the help or support they receive and be able to meaningfully contribute to the decision-making process. It is these people who best know the scale of the issue, how outside help fits in and how they might best be supported . Now, in many organization mission statements is a declaration of the intention to work alongside those affected, such as that of the Refugee Council, for example, who claim that “We[they] work with refugees and people seeking asylum in the UK…We offer a helping hand to support and empower them to rebuild their lives”, the key words being “support” and “empower”.
Giving to charity can be a wonderfully positive and fulfilling enterprise though, like everything else, should be undergone with serious thought and reflection. There are many organizations doing excellent work which we should be funding to further empower their continuation. Really, then, we should do proper research and take time to reflect before we thoughtlessly donate and ask ourselves the difficult questions before we hit the ‘pay’ button and then share our ‘generosity’ on our social media feeds.
What with the internet and social media, the society we are currently living in nurses a culture of oversharing. We now share everything, including our bodies, tastes, habits and histories; nothing really is taboo. Without a second thought, we let those we know, our ‘friends’ or followers, what we’re reading, eating, where we’re going and what we’re buying. At face value, this may seem harmless though there is plainly a sinister undercurrent to this seemingly innocuous habit.
More and more, we offer up our personal information to be consumed by others, the essence of the issue lying in the fact that all of our actions have become performative and about marketing, be it a service, product or most often ourselves. Though this fascination with the intimate details of people’s lives is nothing new, this “narcissism epidemic”, as The Guardian refers to it, can be traced to the rise in popularity of reality TV, from shows like The Real World to Big Brother to Keeping Up With The Kardashians which glamorized the minutae of the everyday and gave audiences a taste for ever more in-depth access to peoples’ lives.
Effectively, sharing everything about ourselves on social media creates a ‘cult of the self’ where the ordinary and banal is made exciting with the automatic assumption that others are interested to hear about it. Scrolling through my Facebook feed, I see incredibly personal posts about chronic illnesses, people opening up about their sexuality and generally filling us in on almost everything, even what they had for lunch. Though there are undeniably positive aspects to this honestdirect approach to sharing, my first impression is that it indicates a fundamental insecurity, a fragility where we look outwards for affirmation and approval rather than inwards.
This apparent self-confidence actually masquerades as insecurity as we are totally dependent on others in how we see ourselves. Though we might share some good news that we are excited about, such as a pregnancy or a promotion at work, by putting it on social media we are also seeking approval from our audiences. So often is it the case that someone will share a photo of themselves that they feel confident about, only to remove it days later because it hasn’t accumulated the right amount of likes to justify its being on their profile. The phenomenon is entirely different to self-love as rather than looking inwards and being content with oneself one must look outwards to achieve a similar degree of satisfaction.
Earlier this month, Anna Freedman wrote an interesting piece for Dazed and Confused magazine about the Kylie Jenner’s decision to delay releasing news of her pregnancy until after the birth of her daughter Stormi. Freedman writes of how the young woman’s decision was “a masterclass in how to publicly strategise the private and intimate phenomenon of motherhood”. Much like the oversharing that has proved so profitable for her family, Kylie Jenner has now shown how “privacy and intimacy can be employed as skillful marketing tactics”. Even privacy is now a marketing tool, though it is important to remember that this ‘privacy’ swiftly came to an end after the birth when an 11 minute video was shared chronicling her journey through pregnancy to mollify fans who felt they had been kept in the dark. Kylie Jenner is only one of many who have shown that online performance now knows no bounds, promoting the idea that the key to success lies in the ‘share’ button.
Like all things, though, it’s not all bad; undeniably, there are some positives to this direct approach to social media. Things that were once taboo, such as medical or mental health conditions, for example, are more widely discussed. Similarly, sharing platforms can be used to find like-minded people or those that you identify with, the internet often acting as a space for marginalized groups, such as the LGBT community, to come together. We are becoming more and more confident with expressing ourselves and, in this way, wearing our hearts on our sleeve, though while this approach may be direct it is not necessarily honest. Though we might share a lot about ourselves, we share carefully and choose exactly what we want people to know or to see to align with how we want to be perceived.
In sharing intimate details of our everyday lives, it is no surprise that studies show that narcissistic traits are becoming more common and more pronounced, particularly among young people who are the principal users of these sharing platforms.
The graph shows the Narcissistic Personality Inventory score set against the year, gleaned from an online self-test, it being clear that there has been a definite rise in narcissistic traits in recent years. This trend is clearly only likely to continue in a society that tells us that everything we do is fascinating and that everyone would like to hear about it. Zoe Williams again puts it well writing for The Guardian as she sums up the belief as “once you are important enough, nothing is mundane”. In sharing everything about our lives, we are hoping – consciously or not – to obtain some kind of approval or reassurance about ourselves that is undoubtedly a hugely unhealthy habit. TIME magazine recently ran an article that links poor mental health to social media usage, particularly of Instagram, accounting for higher levels of depression and anxiety based on poor self-esteem. When we log in to our social media accounts, we are bombarded with stories of our friends going out or on holiday, news of their successes and photos showing just how attractive they are, inevitably leading to negative comparison making about ourselves.
So much of this oversharing is borne out of the need to market oneself – so telling about the society that we live in. Nowadays, the individual is king, a philosophy that breeds the need to market oneself to succeed. According to Jean Twenge, joint author of The Narcissism Epidemic, “Economic prosperity does seem to be linked to individualism” partly explaining the boom in sales of products marketed and advertised over social media and sharing platforms, particularly Facebook, Instagram and Youtube. On sites such as these, people become a highly lucrative brand, the Kardashian sisters evidently a case in point. On Friday, he BBC reported that Kylie Jenner’s decision to tweet that she no longer uses Snapchat regularly “wiped $1.3bn (£1bn) off Snap’s stock market value”, an indication of how interlinked the personal and financial are in our heavily digitized modern society. Zoe Williams writes insightfully of how the careful curation of our social media accounts creates “a competitive culture in which asserting one’s difference, one’s specialness, is the bare minimum for being market-ready.”
Oversharing and self-branding is now an ingrained a part of our everyday, bleeding into our all aspects of our lives including our personal relationships and work life; suffice it to say, it is difficult to know how to adopt healthy digital habits that preserve and promote mental well-being for the future. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, recently announced that the site would be working to prioritize “more meaningful social interactions” over paid-content like media articles or advertising as “We[they] feel a responsibility to make sure our services aren’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being”. TIME mentions a report on social media usage conducted by the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health which “recommends the introduction of a pop-up “heavy usage” warning within these apps or website” which seems to have considerable popular support.
Regrettably, neither of these proposed solutions adequately seem to tackle the multifaceted and vastly complex underlying issue, though this is hardly surprising. Perhaps, along with policy changes and the actions of major corporations and civic bodies, it will really take the will of the people who use these platforms for any meaningful change to take place. Maybe rather than living our lives as open books, privacy might replace oversharing as the new social media trend, as unlikely as the prospect may seem. With all this uncertainty, it seems that all we can really do is think before we share and wait and see.
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.
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.
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.