Sunday 28 February 2016

Who owns culture - thoughts provoked by Tiffany Jenkins

Over the weekend, I participated in an accidental masterclass on contemporary museum values. It all started on Friday afternoon, when I read British sociologist and writer Tiffany Jenkins' recent blog post for OUP, which marks the launch of her OUP-published book Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended up in Museums, and Why They Should Stay There. The blog post left me aghast - for reasons I will come to soon. 

I've struggled in the past with what I see as Jenkins' rigid - even wilful - reluctance to treat with museums on their own contemporary terms, and her tendency instead to frame all arguments in absolute terms of what museums are and aren't for. The OUP post is the latest in a couple of years' worth of strongly worded and (I believe) intentionally provocative statements Jenkins has made on the topic of museums repatriating collection items to source communities. (It makes sense that earlier columns, such as this one for The Scotsman or this one for Spiked, both from 2014, were leading up to this book.)

Jenkins is vigorously opposed to repatriation, and - for that matter - to many of the contemporary activities and goals of museums. From the Scotsman, her definition of the purpose of museums:
The role of museums is to further understanding of past civilisations and their accomplishments. 
And from that Spiked article, on the British Museum's decision to loan one of the Elgin Marbles to the Hermitage Museum as a self-conscious act of cultural diplomacy:

This is about soft power, improving relations between countries, rather than inspiring people with the artworks and the values of the ancient world. The loan is an attempt to show the relevance of museums to modern society. If they can prove they are essential to international relations, they might survive. 
These strategies threaten the future of the museum. Pursuing social outcomes that museums can’t possibly achieve will come at the cost of their core role: research and dissemination of knowledge. The decision to loan the marbles to Russia shows that museum heads today have things completely the wrong way around: artefacts should not be put to work for the museum; the museum should be put to work to understand the artefacts. 

In her blog post, Jenkins makes a series of assertions, including:
  • repatriation activities are not only returning collection items to source communities, but limiting what museum-going audiences (where 'museum' means, implicitly, the encyclopedic collections of parts of Europe and North America) can see and learn from 
  • the involvement of source communities in decisions about the management, research and display of collection items makes an 'unfortunate elision [] between someone’s ethnicity and their authority to speak definitively about cultural artefacts, which excludes those who do not share that ethnicity, despite their expertise' and leads to 'the disappearance from public display of important material' and the restriction of access on the basis of spiritual, religious and cultural beliefs 
  • consulting a source community in research for a collection or exhibition ('it’s true that people who may be close to the original manufacture and use of an artefact will reveal a significant amount about its creation, use and meanings') is okay, but 'granting a measure of control to people on the basis of their apparent cultural roots' risks threatening the museum's highest purpose, as 'a secular institution in the service of historical inquiry' 
The most breathtaking assertion to my eyes however was this:
The Western traditions for the production and disposition of knowledge [] are the best way to research history and culture. Indeed, surrendering the authority to curate an exhibition to communities on the basis of their identity hinders the understanding of the very people it claims to help, because the effect is to make it impossible to research historical—and current—indigenous life. And it is an approach that does nothing to address the political and economic problems faced by indigenous populations. 
I was blown away by what I perceived as the enormous arrogance of that position. At that point, I wrote two tweets 

Via those tweets, a number of New Zealand museum professionals and cultural commentators went to the article and a robust, occasionally emotional, and occasionally defensive conversation ensued. I took part, here and there, but also settled into write a blog post - the first draft of which was definitely emotional and defensive, and not especially robust. Since then, I've been following the conversation, and trying to widen my understanding, and trying to articulate my own position - an endeavour that has resulted in this piece you're reading now.

From that blog post I went to Jenkins' site, and found there this review of her book, by John Carey, published in the Sunday Times. Carey describes the book as "an outstanding achievement, clear-headed, wide-ranging and incisive" and Jenkins' position as a defence of "the enlightenment ideal of universal knowledge" against the "betrayal" of Western museums returning artefacts (obtained legally or illegally) to source communities. He also notes that "[a]t its most extreme the case for repatriation can sound like the ravings of some weird apocalyptic sect", a characterisation of communities' desire to have their taonga returned to them that is best unsympathetic and at worst - well, I'll leave it to you to decide what your 'at worst' is.

Carey extrapolates Jenkins' arguments against the return of the Rosetta Stone to Egypt, the Elgin Marbles to Greece, and the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, with recent atrocities committed against cultural heritage:
Her book is timely. The enemies of enlightenment are strong. In March 2015, Isis bulldozed Nimrud; in September they destroyed parts of Palmyra. That the great national museums should safeguard their collections has never seemed more vital. 
This kind of generalisation - that museums' collections are under an ideological threat from repatriation that is equivalent to the danger posed to architecture and objects in an ideologically-driven war zone - is inflammatory in the extreme.

It's worth taking a moment to interrogate the word 'enlightenment' there, because it's important. Far from being the kind of omniscient, objective institution Jenkins and Carey describe, today's Western encyclopediac museums are founded upon a set of English and North American Enlightenment-era ideals, relating to how the natural and cultural phenomena of the world should be collected, organised, studied, interpreted, displayed, and made publicly accessible. The British Museum's Enlightenment Gallery sets out the museum's raison d'être - of universal collections and universal access (a term which has morphed with time, as originally 'universal' originally meant "learned and studious men, both native and foreign": the right of access was limited to those of the correct gender, educational level, and financial ability to travel).

Tangentially, the BM's own study guide for this gallery is a fascinating read. To the point however: in 2004 the then-director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor (who stood down at the end of last year) mounted a spirited, eloquent, and almost convincing defence of the need for institutions like the British Museum to hold true to these ideals and, in particular, resist the pressures to return items to source communities, or the "narrowing of [an] object's meaning and its appropriation to one political agenda", actions which would both threaten the public's ability to encounter a collection that "embraces the whole world" and therefore "consider the whole world".

This is a noble and important goal and role. It's one that Jenkins clearly believes in wholeheartedly. However, I personally and professionally believe it to be a goal and role that can't be treated as one static set of unchanging rules and conditions, but one that must be aspired to, and worked on, at a level that effectively encounters each item that resides in a museum collection on its own terms, with respect to who it was created by, when, and where, and with what original intent - and the path it travelled from its source to the storeroom or gallery in which is now lies. I fundamentally support the collaborative care of collections in partnership with source communities. I acknowledge that the repatriation of objects is a far more nuanced and difficult topic - and one that changes in every instance under consideration - and I don't claim to have any hands-on professional experience in this area, let alone guidance as to when repatriation is "right" or "wrong". But I disagree with Jenkins' assertion that a source communities claim must always be bested by that of the enlightenment museum.

To ensure I wasn't just going off half-cocked, I sat down and read the first chapter of Jenkins' book, which is available online. The book has three aims, which she delineates in this introduction. First, she sets out to explain how Western museums (my modifier, not hers) have assembled their collections over time. Here she acknowledges that 'repatriation sceptics' - a group she sees herself as aligned to, but not part of - tend to "underplay the more questionable acts by means of which objects were seized".

Second, she seeks to understand why the conversation around repatriation is becoming louder, and the number of requests is growing. She writes:
More countries, groups, and individuals have agitated for the return of ‘their’ artefacts since the late 1980s than did in the past. The objects that they want returned were taken centuries ago. Yet the cries for return escalate. ... Returning artefacts is said to heal the wounds of the past, to provide a kind of therapy to the descendants of those violated, and to restore the objects to their rightful place. Great claims are made for what repatriation can do and what the movement of cultural artefacts can achieve. 
My hackles rose as soon as I read this - based entirely on my education and experience as a 21st century museum professional raised in Aotearoa New Zealand. Perhaps the "cries for return escalate" because indigenous communities all around the world are finally - after decades or centuries of economic, educational and social disadvantage resulting from colonial actions - finding themselves in the position to think about expanding their reclamation of self-governance to their lost heritage, and also having the social, political and and financial leverage to undertake this work?

Thirdly, Jenkins outlines what she sees as the role of the museum. For her, this is clear (even in our ever-more nuanced times):
My central observation is that our great museums as institutions are struggling to find their place in the new millennium, and that this is an important contributing factor in why they have become the object of scrutiny, and defensive in response. Social changes and intellectual currents have contributed to challenging the foundational purpose of the museum: to extend our knowledge of past people and their lives. Since the latter half of the twentieth century, museums have faced a crisis of conscience and confidence, as an array of social and intellectual shifts—including the ideas of postmodernism and postcolonialism, which question the possibility of knowledge and common understanding—have become mainstream. With the influence of these trends, the institution has become a focus of a relentless critique, castigated for historical wrongs and current social ills. (My emphasis)
Here Jenkins frames the museum sector's evolving understanding and interpretation of its role in society in negative, reactive and reluctant terms - rather than proactive, collaborative, and socially-driven ones. Her assertion of "the foundational purpose of the museum: to extend our knowledge of past people and their lives" is one she defends against all things she sees as encroachments, from co-curation of exhibitions to child-oriented programming.

All of this left such a sour taste in my mouth, and anger in my heart. I mentally railed against Jenkins' solipsism, her Eurocentricism, her patronising tone towards the descendants of those people who originally made, lived with, used or worshipped the objects to which she refers: the "sincere laypeople from the relevant cultural group", a phrasing which denies the learning and professionalism of so many I see working around me in Aotearoa New Zealand, and in particular the role and work of kaitiaki Maori here.

So I went looking elsewhere. I went, for example, to the work of an anthropologist Jenkins disparages in that blogpost. I elided Ruth B. Phillips' name in the above quote, so let me reintroduce it here:
Removing artefacts that were once on display is an increasingly common practice in museums with indigenous collections, one celebrated by the anthropologist Ruth Phillips, as rendering objects “invisible” and as a “grand refusal of key Western traditions for the production and disposition of knowledge.” 
... Scholarship cannot thrive if limits are placed on who can investigate the past, or if lines of investigation are shut down. The Western traditions for the production and disposition of knowledge, so disparaged by Ms Phillips, are the best way to research history and culture. 
The quoted phrases from Phillips are drawn from a chapter of her book Museum Pieces: Toward the Indigenization of Canadian Museums, and a chapter from which Jenkins' quotes can be (mostly) read online. It relates to the return of particular taonga - ceremonial objects, never intended for general public display - to their original tribal owners. It describes what is to my mind the future of the responsible and responsive museum: a storehouse at the service of its many communities, a place where objects and ideas are lodged, but also released, on the basis of community consensus and changing needs.

I went to Huhana Smith's description of taonga in E Tu Ake, a description that conveys the power of objects and ideas and cultural knowledge as far more active and pluripotent than Jenkins' static objects, which wait to be cracked and communicated by qualified researchers:
taonga - both physical and intangible - have a vital connection to a living culture. They are sacred links to the past - a past that is alive in the present and that guides Maori towards the future. Taonga are an expression not only of the histories, identities and world views of Maori, but also the future political aspirations of this strong and resilient culture. 
I went to Mark O'Neill's (head of Glasgow Museums) response to Neil MacGregor's article above, and the the preceding 2002 Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums, signed by over 30 international museums, asserting the universal values MacGregor argues for. O'Neill challenges many of these assertions, including the implication that the non-returning of objects is somehow a neutral act. He writes, near his conclusion:
Unless the museums which signed the Declaration make a fundamental shift in their basic mode of engaging with visitors, they will remain not universal, but narrowly metropolitan. Despite new mission statements tailored to fit the political language of our time, they continue to insist on being the centre, not merely in a geographical or demographic sense which could be transcended, but as the point from which all others are viewed and judged. The clearest evidence for this is the almost complete absence of any but the curatorial voice from their displays - there is no technical or aesthetic reason why historical and/or contemporary voices from the cultures which produced the objects couldn’t be included. The sense of being the invisible centre is reinforced by the exemption of one culture in each museum from scrutiny – that of the metropolitan country itself. 
And I stumbled upon a piece by Tessa Laird, published in Natural Selection in 2007, that I have not previously read, a meditation on her visit to the Musee Quai Branly on the occasion of its opening, and her discomfort there. Laird writes:
I experienced moments of elation and moments of a kind of dread and even nausea (perhaps it was the jetlag). I felt giddy at the enormity and weirdness of it all. Because, no matter the architecture, the multimedia, the MONEY, it was still white people looking at the sacred artefacts of non-white people for a frisson, a tingling of the nerves, a form of entertainment like any other. And while it’s an enormous privilege to be able to view such works, it’s one I’d gladly relinquish for the far greater privilege of witnessing the return of these objects, masterpieces, taonga, to their original people and contexts. 
In the end, I think that the only truly “modern” museum is one that repatriates its collections. Just imagine all the “going home” stories! If each one could be as detailed and magnificent as the one elucidated by Paul Tapsell in Pukaki: A Comet Returns, we would be culturally richer, not poorer, for the process. These are the stories I want to hear. 
It's a thought experiment worth working through. What if we could go back and say to every original maker or owner: This is what we who manage the museum believe it is for - to share knowledge and beliefs through objects and scholarship. Do you wish your taonga to be part of this? And on what terms? What would we learn about ourselves, not only from those objects, but from those conversations? What understanding of the "whole world" could we foster then?


Nancy Proctor said...

Thank you, Courtney, for grappling with this critical issue with such intellectual courage and care. The Māori concepts you allude to, which I first encountered in the E Tu Ake exhibition at Te Papa in 2011 and its wonderful book are powerful and rich with potential for museum practice. I would welcome more dialogue on how we might understand museum collections and our work in museums better through the ideas of taonga and kaitiakitanga, and perhaps reimagine the museum itself as marae...

Nina Simon said...

Wonderful post, Courtney. You might also be interested in this account of a journey to repatriation for a major Canadian museum, Glenbow.

When I did the research for that case study, I was very surprised to learn how differently Europeans--especially in the UK--see this issue from folks in North America. Perhaps those of us in "younger" countries feel a different sense of ownership and longevity of culture (despite also perpetuating atrocities against indigenous people)?

Jared Davidson said...

This is an especially relevant post about tikanga Māori and restriction to taonga:


briggsay said...

Great stuff, Courtney, and Nina, I think you're right - the attitude of New World museum scholarship is night and day different from the older UK and Continental Europe museums. I've sat with execs at The Louvre and the BM and heard things that were so outrageous that they seemed self-parody.

One of the best rejoinders to Jenkins is the beautiful and largely empty state-of-the-art Acropolis Museum sitting and waiting for the Elgin Marbles, the return of which would allow most of the 17 million international visitors to the country to see them - far, far more than see them at the BM. Her theories are just more of the same smokescreen that keeps the status quo what it is in her world.

Dan Elias said...


The article is thoughtful and on point. Here are a couple of observations that may sum up the points made:

Power is not often willingly handed over to others, it must be taken.

In defending traditional museum practice, Euro-Americans are protecting their power, and their exclusive right to interpret everyone else's stuff.

Public funding of museums (in the US at any rate) is in inverse proportion to the diversification of the electorate. Why?

It seems to me the best thing museums can do is to acknowledge source communities' right to interpretation; provide training and tools, and hope that it produces a richer cultural conversation than currently exists.

the lucid librarian said...

Great analysis Courtney, you have helped to expose tatty and fragile underpinnings of this work by Tiffany Jenkins.

I would read the book, but only as an ethnographic study into the mind of a cultural reactionary, perhaps one hungry for dispute and media coverage. It is possible the change in museum practice to one of more social connection, engagement, cultural dialogue, is drawing into light the those desperately uncomfortable with all that comes with cultural co-existence. Museums are social and cultural institutions, and by their very nature they are political. The relevance of museums as institutions, in my view, is only as strong as they are able to embrace, and reflect social and cultural change, no matter how awkward and difficult that may be in any transitions.

What I think may be common to attempts like this, to subvert social progress and undermine cultural co-existence is the use of exceptional cases to make the argument, coupled with no direct experience of the practitioner, and no surprises, a normative agenda.

Two of my more confronting museum experiences were recent: a visit to the Musee Quai du Branly and the Museum of Immigration. While I enjoy learning about other cultures, their traditions and beliefs, and artistry... I was disturbed by the disconnected cultural experiences in both museums. I got the impression I was stuck in some modern version of a Victorian cultural laboratory and I felt sad. In dark moments I view this museological method as one with the taint of fetish, ridden with a desire for cultural and political control, and morally corrupt.

So I encourage peers working in the cultural sector who embrace change, to continue to push for social connection and change, be keen and open to experience and know the satisfying embrace and light that comes from new museum practices.