The Great Emptying of European Museums

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The Great Emptying of European Museums

Post by Fishnut » Tue Mar 23, 2021 4:03 pm

The Ethnological Museum in Berlin has said it will return its collection of objects, including 440 Benin Bronzes, to Nigeria by the autumn, and will instead either display replicas or "leave symbolic empty spaces" according to The Guardian. This is a big step in the ongoing discussion about repatriation of artefacts looted or dodgily purchased by Europeans during their colonisation efforts and will put further pressure on British institutions to look more critically at their collections.

We've touched on the idea of repatriation of museum artefacts before, most notably with reference to the Elgin Marbles, but never really had a proper discussion, and I thought it would be interesting to try to have one.

There are, of course, arguments for and against returning artefacts. A brief look (mostly at these two articles) came up with the following arguments against returning artefacts. I've also put in my counters to them.

The objects were purchased legally
Argument: Many famous objects, such as the Parthenon marbles, were purchased according to the legal requirements of the time. If we start saying that these sales should not be recognised as valid this has potentially significant consequences for all sorts of things.

Counter: Some were purchased legally, but a lot of the sales were dodgy at best and a great deal more was outright looted. For example, the British Museum has objects looted from the Old Summer Palace during the Second Opium War. We are proudly displaying stolen goods. That's not exactly setting a good example.

The countries asking for the return of the objects did not exist when the objects were made
Argument: Asserting ownership based solely on geography is playing into a cultural nationalist agenda.

Counter: So what if the country didn't exist when the objects were made? England didn't exist when the Sutton Hoo burial was made, but that doesn't make them any less relevant or important to the history of our country. While countries can use objects to advance nationalist agendas the object doesn't need to be in that nation, or even unique or interesting, to be used in that way. Look at the fuss around flags that's occurring in the UK right now.

The objects would not have survived had they not been looked by European institutions
Argument: The museums have been good custodians and therefore deserve to retain the objects.

Counter: While there are some objects for which this argument may be valid (it's most commonly cited in reference to the Parthenon marbles), for many object their destruction without intervention does not seem to have been ensured. According to the wikipedia page on the Old Summer Palace, "Many such treasures dated back to the Shang, Zhou and Han dynasties and were up to 3,600 years old". Are we really going to argue that after caring for these objects for 3,600 years the Chinese would have suddenly given up some time in the last 100 years? While that's an extreme example, it's clear that the vast majority of objects would have been just as safe if they had not left their countries of origin.

Culturally significant objects should be displayed where they are most easily accessible to researchers and the public
Argument: Museums such as the British Museum have significantly more visitors than museums in the countries where the objects originated, and the museums have more resources to permit better study by experts.

Counter: The British Museum is a big and powerful museum because it became one of the main receivers of objects brought into Europe from colonisation efforts around the globe. If the objects had been allowed to stay in their countries of origin then who knows, maybe we would all talk about the Nigerian and Egyptian museums with as much reverence as we do the BM. Rather than continue this imbalance that resulted from centuries of colonisation and exploitation museums such as the BM should be working with other museums to ensure their collections are maintained to internationally recognised standards and sharing knowledge.

Additionally, with the growth of virtual collections there is no reason for people to be unable to access a collection due to geography. And seeing the objects in the context of the country in which they were made as it exists today can be hugely valuable.

The objects can be seen in the context of world history which would not be otherwise possible.
Argument: Museums such as the British Museum have a global focus that means you can see objects in relation to other cultures around the world and across time, and see how they have influenced and shaped each other.

Counter: One of the reasons few museums outside the west have little global focus is that Europe has not been pillaged in the same way to provide these museums with artefacts. Rather than say that these museums should therefore get to hold on to everything, surely it's an argument that they should share more of their collections through long-term loans and assisting in the acquisition of objects that can help museums outside Europe to build up collections with a global focus too.

The advent of 3D scanning and printing means that objects can be reproduced to a very high quality. There is little stopping museums outside the west from getting replicas of significant objects to assist in providing this global context without risking the original objects. This method can, of course, be used to provide the European museums replicas and allow the originals to be repatriated where desired.

Returning the objects for political reasons leaves open the possibility that they will become political footballs, forever spending time in transit between museums
Argument: This is a slightly hyperbolic rephrasing of the concern so I'll quote the section it's trying to paraphrase,
Although there may be legitimate arguments for the return of some artefacts, either now or in the future, doing so by political diktat is dangerous. As we all know, politicians tend to focus on the here and now, responding to the pressures of the moment. They are susceptible to putting political expediency above the preservation of cultural heritage and scholarship.
Counter: Repatriation has been a topic of debate in the museum sector for decades, the idea that political expediency will result in hasty and ultimately regretted decisions misunderstands how any of this works. While it may be possible that some objects become the focus of nationalist sentiment that may turn them into political footballs in their own countries, there seems little chance of this resulting at an international level. And that can happen regardless of their location. Indeed, it could be argued that by refusing to return them they are more at risk of becoming focal points of nationalism than if returned.

If we start returning objects we will have to return everything and be left with empty museums
Argument: if we start allowing objects to be returned then everyone will start requesting repatriation of objects, however legitimate the museum's ownership of that object is, and the museum collections will be significantly impacted as a result, limiting their use as educational and research institutions.

Counter: museum collections are massive. The BM has 8 million objects [PDF], of which only 1% are on display. While the British museum holds a lot of material that is of dubious origin, only a small percentage of it is subject to requests for repatriation. And most of that is not even on display. Human remains are one area where there is strong demand for repatriation and burial from communities around the world. Museum rules make it almost impossible to deaccession objects, and this is often used as an argument against doing so - "the rules won't let us". Of course, the rules were made by people and can be changed by people if the will is there.

So after than very long-winded introduction, what do people think? Should we return objects? Are replicas sufficient or is there something special that comes from seeing the original objects? Should we be even focusing on the objects when really what needs to be recognised is the huge impact on the culture and history of the countries due to colonisation? Or should we just say the past is the past and move on?
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Re: The Great Emptying of European Museums

Post by Millennie Al » Wed Mar 24, 2021 4:20 am

The idea of returning objects feels like it is related to referring to the "real home" of children and grandchildren of immigrants.

If we feel guilty about holding cultural artefacts that originated in other countries, why not allow museum keepers from those countries to look through our local artifacts and take items of similar value and significance?
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Re: The Great Emptying of European Museums

Post by Squeak » Wed Mar 24, 2021 4:24 am

There's an awful lot of human remains of Australian Aboriginal people, from only a little over a century ago, sitting in museums around Australia and overseas and that I can't see any good reason to not return to their descendants. I would hope that the descendants would generously allow someone (perhaps from a neutral organisation) to take a few DNA samples for future studies of human gene flows but great-grandma deserves, at long last, a culturally appropriate burial. Likewise, artworks and other cultural artefacts souls not be in museums if they can't be shown to have been bought legally and at least moderately fairly groom their original owners.

The great museums are largely products of colonialism and, much as I love gawking at the wide variety of ways people live, a critical eye should be cast over the acquisition practices of the past and attempts made to set things right, including supporting efforts to set up good museum protections in the places where the original owners live(d).

On a stupidly off-topic line, am I the only person whose mental image of the Elgin marbles is of giant stone balls? (I think I heard of them when I was young enough that marbles were round toys, rather than ornate sculptures, and i knew that they were huge, but that was all the physical description I had to go on. I still have to remind myself that they're not over-sized catseyes and pearlies.)

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Re: The Great Emptying of European Museums

Post by Woodchopper » Wed Mar 24, 2021 9:16 am

I agree in general that cultural artefacts should be returned as long as they will be stored safely, and be public property which is displayed openly.

These days its possible to make close to perfect facsimiles objects can be displayed in many places. That happens already when fragile items need to be stored safely so a copy is displayed instead. Many of the dinosaur bones displayed in museums are copies. No one notices.

That said I have some minor quibbles.
Fishnut wrote:
Tue Mar 23, 2021 4:03 pm

The objects would not have survived had they not been looked by European institutions
Argument: The museums have been good custodians and therefore deserve to retain the objects.

Counter: While there are some objects for which this argument may be valid (it's most commonly cited in reference to the Parthenon marbles), for many object their destruction without intervention does not seem to have been ensured. According to the wikipedia page on the Old Summer Palace, "Many such treasures dated back to the Shang, Zhou and Han dynasties and were up to 3,600 years old". Are we really going to argue that after caring for these objects for 3,600 years the Chinese would have suddenly given up some time in the last 100 years? While that's an extreme example, it's clear that the vast majority of objects would have been just as safe if they had not left their countries of origin.
In fact there was systematic destruction of ancient artefacts during the Cultural Revolution in China, which you can read about here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Olds

Prior to the Cultural Revolution there was also enormous destruction during the Chinese Civil War (especially during its later years): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_Civil_War

Many of the cultural sites visited by tourists in China are modern reconstructions of buildings that were destroyed in the 20th Century.

A better counter argument might be that over the millennia Europe has hardly been free of destruction. For example, there was enormous damage to cultural artefacts during the Second World War. So its not obvious to me that, say, over the centuries an object would be safer in Europe than elsewhere.
Fishnut wrote:
Tue Mar 23, 2021 4:03 pm

Returning the objects for political reasons leaves open the possibility that they will become political footballs, forever spending time in transit between museums
Argument: This is a slightly hyperbolic rephrasing of the concern so I'll quote the section it's trying to paraphrase,
Although there may be legitimate arguments for the return of some artefacts, either now or in the future, doing so by political diktat is dangerous. As we all know, politicians tend to focus on the here and now, responding to the pressures of the moment. They are susceptible to putting political expediency above the preservation of cultural heritage and scholarship.
Counter: Repatriation has been a topic of debate in the museum sector for decades, the idea that political expediency will result in hasty and ultimately regretted decisions misunderstands how any of this works. While it may be possible that some objects become the focus of nationalist sentiment that may turn them into political footballs in their own countries, there seems little chance of this resulting at an international level. And that can happen regardless of their location. Indeed, it could be argued that by refusing to return them they are more at risk of becoming focal points of nationalism than if returned.
I agree that the travelling political football argument isn't persuasive. But a more relevant issue is that in some cases its not possible to decide who is the rightful owner. The problem is that in many cases the entities that owned the artifacts when they were taken often no longer exist. In addition, the artefacts often had disputed ownership prior to them being taken by Europeans. Finally, there may be spurious claims of ownership that need to be adjudicated. These problems mean that sometimes ownership is disputed, especially for valuable items.

For example for decades the Koh-i-Noor diamond has been claimed by India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Unless these three states with a very long history of animosity can agree to a compromise it'll be difficult to know who to return it to.

I think this is a real issue, but it won't affect all artefacts. So return those whose provenance can be decided upon.

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Re: The Great Emptying of European Museums

Post by Fishnut » Wed Mar 24, 2021 10:08 am

Woodchopper wrote:
Wed Mar 24, 2021 9:16 am
In fact there was systematic destruction of ancient artefacts during the Cultural Revolution in China, which you can read about here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Olds

Prior to the Cultural Revolution there was also enormous destruction during the Chinese Civil War (especially during its later years): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_Civil_War

Many of the cultural sites visited by tourists in China are modern reconstructions of buildings that were destroyed in the 20th Century.

A better counter argument might be that over the millennia Europe has hardly been free of destruction. For example, there was enormous damage to cultural artefacts during the Second World War. So its not obvious to me that, say, over the centuries an object would be safer in Europe than elsewhere.
That is an extremely legitimate criticism and I feel highly embarrassed to have forgotten about the Cultural Revolution and the resulting destruction of historical objects. There's also the destruction wrought by ISIS of entire sites. That said, the centuries of interference (to put it mildly) in the Middle East by European powers have a significant role to play in the formation of ISIS so maybe if we'd just stayed out of the way those sites wouldn't have been put at risk in the first place.

Your counter argument is much better.
Woodchopper wrote:
Wed Mar 24, 2021 9:16 am
I agree that the travelling political football argument isn't persuasive. But a more relevant issue is that in some cases its not possible to decide who is the rightful owner. The problem is that in many cases the entities that owned the artifacts when they were taken often no longer exist. In addition, the artefacts often had disputed ownership prior to them being taken by Europeans. Finally, there may be spurious claims of ownership that need to be adjudicated. These problems mean that sometimes ownership is disputed, especially for valuable items.

For example for decades the Koh-i-Noor diamond has been claimed by India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Unless these three states with a very long history of animosity can agree to a compromise it'll be difficult to know who to return it to.

I think this is a real issue, but it won't affect all artefacts. So return those whose provenance can be decided upon.
Also an excellent point.
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Re: The Great Emptying of European Museums

Post by jaap » Wed Mar 24, 2021 10:41 am

I'm not sure whree I stand on these issues, but I do want to bring up one museum that is a bit different - the Pitt Rivers Museum. While most museums have exhibitions grouped by origin and time period, and each of those exhibitions might just as well be housed in the country of origin, the Pitt Rivers is unique in grouping together similar objects from many different cultures and periods. Such comparitive displays would be impossible without extracting the objects from their originating regions.

The Pitt Rivers Museum website has a nice virtual tour.

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Re: The Great Emptying of European Museums

Post by dyqik » Wed Mar 24, 2021 12:28 pm

Fishnut wrote:
Tue Mar 23, 2021 4:03 pm

The countries asking for the return of the objects did not exist when the objects were made
Argument: Asserting ownership based solely on geography is playing into a cultural nationalist agenda.

Counter: So what if the country didn't exist when the objects were made? England didn't exist when the Sutton Hoo burial was made, but that doesn't make them any less relevant or important to the history of our country. While countries can use objects to advance nationalist agendas the object doesn't need to be in that nation, or even unique or interesting, to be used in that way. Look at the fuss around flags that's occurring in the UK right now.
This argument is even weaker when you remember that the reason that half* the countries claiming the artefacts aren't the same as the ones that produced them is that colonial powers invaded and took them over, with the current country on the land only coming into existence after decolonization.

This argument would assert that artefacts removed from India during the period when it was a British colony weren't looted, but merely moved around within the British Empire, and that the post-colonial country of India has no claim on any Indian artefacts from before 1947.

You can also start making the same very odd argument for the Roman Empire, and the various Italian kingdoms and principalities before unification, and conclude that Italy has no specific rights to the works of Leonardo da Vinci, the leaning tower of Pisa or to the Coliseum.

Also, Germany didn't exist in its current form when the articles were deposited in the Berlin museum, so by this argument they've only had them for 30 years.

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Re: The Great Emptying of European Museums

Post by Fishnut » Wed Mar 24, 2021 1:22 pm

jaap wrote:
Wed Mar 24, 2021 10:41 am
I'm not sure whree I stand on these issues, but I do want to bring up one museum that is a bit different - the Pitt Rivers Museum. While most museums have exhibitions grouped by origin and time period, and each of those exhibitions might just as well be housed in the country of origin, the Pitt Rivers is unique in grouping together similar objects from many different cultures and periods. Such comparitive displays would be impossible without extracting the objects from their originating regions.

The Pitt Rivers Museum website has a nice virtual tour.
I love the ethnographic approach of the Pitt Rivers Museum. I don't think anyone is against museums having objects from outside their country of origin, the issues are how they came to have those objects and how they display them. The museum has been unusually proactive in recognising the more uncomfortable aspects of its collection. The Director of the museum, Laura Van Broekhoven, has said,
“Our research has shown that visitors often saw the Museum’s displays of human remains as a testament to other cultures being ‘savage’, ‘primitive’ or ‘gruesome... Rather than enabling our visitors to reach a deeper understanding of each other’s ways of being, the displays reinforced racist and stereotypical thinking that goes against the Museum’s values today”.
They have been working with Maasai activists to work on relabelling parts of the collection. They have a two-part discussion on this subject that was filmed in February and have a talk tonight (fully booked, but will be available online after) on 'discollecting' the museum.

They look to be a great example of how decolonisation of museums can work in practice.
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Re: The Great Emptying of European Museums

Post by Herainestold » Wed Mar 24, 2021 1:29 pm

Museums, like statues of great men, are a Victorian anachronism. There is no need in this digital age for actual possession of the artifacts. Once they have been collected and described they should remain in the posession of their originators.

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Re: The Great Emptying of European Museums

Post by Fishnut » Wed Mar 24, 2021 4:04 pm

Herainestold wrote:
Wed Mar 24, 2021 1:29 pm
Museums, like statues of great men, are a Victorian anachronism. There is no need in this digital age for actual possession of the artifacts. Once they have been collected and described they should remain in the posession of their originators.
I have to disagree with this. For one, who says the originators want the artefacts? Artists and crafters often make products to sell and museums can and do purchase such items regularly. As I noted at the start, only a small percentage of the British Museum's collection is the subject of repatriation discussions, though that doesn't make it any less important a conversation. To abandon the concept of physical museums in their entirety as a attempt to decolonise collections is unnecessarily extreme.

Museums have important roles to play in society. They preserve objects that we deem to be culturally, historically or scientifically significant and allow researchers and the public to view and study these objects. Preservation is not always straightforward. Many items require careful storage (maintaining museum collections is a full-time and highly complex job), with specific temperature, humidity, lighting and pH levels. These conditions are not something that just anyone can create and maintain. I recommend listing to the British Museum Membercast episode on integrated pest management to get a sense of what's required (it's a far more fun episode than the title would suggest). If we want our descendents to be able to have access to these objects then preserving them properly is necessary. Edith Pretty would not have been able to preserve the Sutton Hoo grave goods by herself, they would have degraded following their exposure to the air. It's only through the skill and knowledge of specialist curators that those artefacts will be accessible for generations to come.

While 3D scans are fantastic for displaying objects so that visitors can see what they looked like, they are not a substitute for the real thing when it comes to studying the objects. Advances in all sorts of fields of scientific, historical and sociological research mean that we are continually able to learn more about objects. Take the papyri from Herculaneum. It's only in the last few years that we have been able to start virtually unroll these scrolls and reveal their contents. A 3D scan of these would not have the internal structure to provide this. So a 3D scan would be great for putting on display but if you actually want to study the scrolls you need the originals.

One thing museums can provide that I think is often overlooked is a kind of 'insurance policy', but this only works if they share their objects rather than horde them. Museums are at risk of destruction. Only a few years ago fire tore through Brazil's National Museum destroying huge numbers of artefacts. Countless pieces of art were destroyed in Berlin in WW2. Iraq's museums were looted following the invasion by coalition forces. Keeping all of a nation's most prized possessions in a single building is the ultimate "all your eggs in one basket". It is far better to share them among other museums so that if anything happens to one, at least the entire collection is not lost. If we returned all the Egyptian objects that are currently in museums around the world to Egypt they would have to have an absolutely gigantic building in which to store them, and if anything happened to that museum then all that history is lost forever. Having these objects distributed around the world not only lets far more people have access to them than would otherwise be possible, but it protects them from destruction.

It's also worth pointing out that it's not just museums of human artefacts that are having a discussion about their colonial past. Natural history museums are beginning to recognise and acknowledge the huge role that empire and colonisation has played in the creation of their collections, and the way those collections are described. Kew Gardens recently announced that it was working to decolonise its collections.
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Re: The Great Emptying of European Museums

Post by Fishnut » Wed Mar 24, 2021 8:12 pm

I just read this thread and thought it was absolutely fantastic and relevant to this thread. It's a wonderful story and I highly recommend reading it.
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Re: The Great Emptying of European Museums

Post by jdc » Wed Mar 24, 2021 8:29 pm

Squeak wrote:
Wed Mar 24, 2021 4:24 am

On a stupidly off-topic line, am I the only person whose mental image of the Elgin marbles is of giant stone balls? (I think I heard of them when I was young enough that marbles were round toys, rather than ornate sculptures, and i knew that they were huge, but that was all the physical description I had to go on. I still have to remind myself that they're not over-sized catseyes and pearlies.)
Yes, it's just you. My mental image of them is of normal sized catseyes.

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Re: The Great Emptying of European Museums

Post by Imrael » Wed Mar 24, 2021 8:46 pm

In some cases could museums legitimately purchase or long-lease collection items from cultural institutions in the country of origin? Not for human remains or some of the more famous stuff, but it might be a solution to collections like the Pitt-Rivers to build partnership and outreach.

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Re: The Great Emptying of European Museums

Post by Fishnut » Wed Mar 24, 2021 8:48 pm

jdc wrote:
Wed Mar 24, 2021 8:29 pm
Squeak wrote:
Wed Mar 24, 2021 4:24 am

On a stupidly off-topic line, am I the only person whose mental image of the Elgin marbles is of giant stone balls? (I think I heard of them when I was young enough that marbles were round toys, rather than ornate sculptures, and i knew that they were huge, but that was all the physical description I had to go on. I still have to remind myself that they're not over-sized catseyes and pearlies.)
Yes, it's just you. My mental image of them is of normal sized catseyes.
You just reminded me - years ago I took my uncle to London for the weekend so he could, at long last, see the Elgin marbles. We went to the BM, went through various galleries as you do, then went to see the marbles. We had a look around, came out and I asked him what did he think.

"Think of what?"
"The Elgin marbles"
"Where did we see them?"
"Just now, in that room!"
"Oh"

Suffice it to say, I think he was a little underwhelmed.
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Re: The Great Emptying of European Museums

Post by Squeak » Wed Mar 24, 2021 10:04 pm

Fishnut wrote:
Wed Mar 24, 2021 8:48 pm
jdc wrote:
Wed Mar 24, 2021 8:29 pm
Squeak wrote:
Wed Mar 24, 2021 4:24 am

On a stupidly off-topic line, am I the only person whose mental image of the Elgin marbles is of giant stone balls? (I think I heard of them when I was young enough that marbles were round toys, rather than ornate sculptures, and i knew that they were huge, but that was all the physical description I had to go on. I still have to remind myself that they're not over-sized catseyes and pearlies.)
Yes, it's just you. My mental image of them is of normal sized catseyes.
You just reminded me - years ago I took my uncle to London for the weekend so he could, at long last, see the Elgin marbles. We went to the BM, went through various galleries as you do, then went to see the marbles. We had a look around, came out and I asked him what did he think.

"Think of what?"
"The Elgin marbles"
"Where did we see them?"
"Just now, in that room!"
"Oh"

Suffice it to say, I think he was a little underwhelmed.
Well, he would be, wouldn't he? A little pile of glass balls on a plinth isn't much to get excited about. Even if they are extra big ones?

Also, can I plus-one pretty much everything fishnut has said in this thread?

Museums do really important work, most of which is invisible to the public and with huge stores of samples that are often very literally irreplaceable and that we don't yet know how to study.

I personally think that your cannot ethically study human remains without the permission of direct descendants, where they can be identified and where you cannot show that the remains were collected in an ethical way. Your wouldn't get permission today to exhume bodies "for science" simply because the bodies are of people from a different culture, soooo we should certainly extend that view back a couple of centuries. And I think we have to acknowledge that some scientifically valuable samples will get lost along the way because how many families are going to be ok with the same colonial forces who stole grandma's remains, often as part of a wholesale program of dispossession, hanging onto grandma's remains and continuing to experiment on them? In my town, we still have prominent states to local notables who engaged in grave robbing and dissection of Aboriginal people in the 1800s, against the very explicit and well expressed wishes of those individuals, who had seen what happened to the bodies of other Aboriginal Tasmanians.

And in natural history, I know of at least one museum scientist who thinks he sent a frog species extinct by collecting it for the museum. Nobody's seen it since he picked up a specimen ~50 years ago. We can't fix that one now but well can learn to do better.

These are only small bits of museums' collections but they do need to be dealt with ethically and properly now or the issues will continue to fester and the communities who have been hurt will continue to be experimental subjects rather than partners and collaborators in understanding their own history. We don't have to be Victorian scientists peering at the savages any l anymore. We will lose some valuable samples but in the process probably gain all sorts of new knowledge from genuine partnerships between scientists from various disciplines (indigenous or not) and local communities.

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Re: The Great Emptying of European Museums

Post by Fishnut » Wed Mar 24, 2021 10:28 pm

Squeak wrote:
Wed Mar 24, 2021 10:04 pm
personally think that your cannot ethically study human remains without the permission of direct descendants, where they can be identified and where you cannot show that the remains were collected in an ethical way.
Totally agree. I think the human remains are where we need to have the most urgent focus because we are often dealing with remains collected within the last couple of hundred years and in any other context having them kept anywhere but the ground where they were buried would be unthinkable.
Squeak wrote:
Wed Mar 24, 2021 10:04 pm
I know of at least one museum scientist who thinks he sent a frog species extinct by collecting it for the museum. Nobody's seen it since he picked up a specimen ~50 years ago. We can't fix that one now but well can learn to do better.
Oh no :( . Hopefully it will make a reappearance, though if the capture of a single specimen caused it to go extinct changes are it didn't have much longer left anyway. There are, from what I understand, changing approaches to identifying and describing rare species to prevent this sort of situation occurring.

I know one of the fossil species I'm studying is only found in the pages of the sole paper published about it and the photographs contained therein. It was apparently lost in the post somehow.
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Re: The Great Emptying of European Museums

Post by Bird on a Fire » Thu Mar 25, 2021 1:56 am

Thanks for the great writeup, Fishnut.

A lot of these arguments against repatriation seem to rest on a slippery-slope fallacy: the idea that, if some articles are repatriated, sooner-or-later they all will be. I'm not convinced such a slope really exists, nor that it's slippery.

There are plenty of clear-cut cases. Things that were looted? Give them back. Bought in dodgy circumstances? Give them back. Sacred objects or remains? Given them back. I don't find the argument of "oh we were just looking after them for you" very convincing - if the country can look after those objects now, give them back.

Museum work with cultural artefacts can obviously benefit from collaboration with the cultures that produced those artefacts. I saw a nice article a while ago about the Pitt Rivers getting descendants from a group who'd produced something in their collection to come and have a look at what they had, discovered that a lot of things were misclassified, and are now working on a plan to repatriate sacred objects and ancestors' remains. So I think the argument shouldn't be about the bare minimum that has to be returned, and rather about best practice: where should things be kept most ethically, and where are there opportunities for more fruitful collaboration? (Obviously if the group in question doesn't want to collaborate, they should still get their stuff back)

I don't think that following those kinds of principles would mean returning every last artefact that came from abroad. I certainly hope that many of them were obtained legitimately, for example by archaeologists working with permission.

I think similarly weak arguments often arise about cultural appropriation. There certainly are clear-cut cases where the adoption of certain symbols or practices degrades the originating culture. Those cases are probably a minority of the kinds of cultural borrowing and inspiration that take place. For instance, tourists taking part in shamanic rituals just because they want to get wasted in the jungle degrades indigenous peoples' sacred practices (even if economic factors often drive those communities to facilitate their own exploitation). That doesn't mean you shouldn't eat a curry or wear a poncho or whatever. You can have things and do things, but don't appropriate things.

One tricky case is repatriating objects to countries with a history of destroying artefacts. For example, China has destroyed a number of sacred sites in Tibet, and now in Xinjiang. Objects relating to Han history might be safely repatriated, but Buddhist or Uyghur artefacts would be at risk. (Other oppressive ethnostates are available, and similar arguments would probably apply to sending things back to active warzones.)
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Re: The Great Emptying of European Museums

Post by Bird on a Fire » Thu Mar 25, 2021 1:57 am

Found the Pitt Rivers article with surprising ease! https://www.theguardian.com/culture/201 ... -artefacts

A sample:
One purpose of the weeklong visit was to provide the museum with more accurate information. The database was littered with errors and gaps: it transpires that an object marked as a Maasai bracelet is actually an anklet; a trinket made for an unknown purpose in fact plays a vital role in circumcision rituals. After a Maasai sword is laid down on the table, Marina de Alarcón, joint head of collections, tells us that the museum takes great care when holding arrows, assuming that their tips – as is Maasai custom – are poisoned. Francis Shomet Ole Naingisa, a village elder, duly confirms this: “If the poison mixes with your blood then you have five minutes left.”

Of the 60 objects examined, the Maasai came across five that are sacred, which “they would not expect to find elsewhere apart from within their community”. One was the orkatar. Another was an isurutia, a necklace used as a wedding dowry. Nangiria sent a photograph to village elders back home via WhatsApp: “They were astonished to hear that such a thing was here,” he tells me. “They say this particular object might have brought bad omens to the family [who lost possession of it].” For the Maasai, these items are not historical curiosities. They are part of a living culture.

ETA Other things can come out of actively engaging with the originating cultures:
Will the Maasai be able to facilitate the return of sacred objects? Van Broekhoven tells me over email that “in principle”, and provided they find funding, the museum is ready to “learn together how we might envision new ways of redress”. The words are carefully chosen. Nangiria, ever the diplomat, suggests an alternative solution in one of our conversations: inviting elders to perform a spiritual ceremony that will “disconnect” the objects from their cultural function, allowing the Maasai to actively donate them to the museum. The museum will wait to hear from the elders to “jointly decide” on the next steps in the partnership.
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Re: The Great Emptying of European Museums

Post by Millennie Al » Thu Mar 25, 2021 4:43 am

Fishnut wrote:
Wed Mar 24, 2021 10:28 pm
Squeak wrote:
Wed Mar 24, 2021 10:04 pm
personally think that your cannot ethically study human remains without the permission of direct descendants, where they can be identified and where you cannot show that the remains were collected in an ethical way.
Totally agree. I think the human remains are where we need to have the most urgent focus because we are often dealing with remains collected within the last couple of hundred years and in any other context having them kept anywhere but the ground where they were buried would be unthinkable.
It's highly thinkable. Try asking Jeremy Bentham.

While I can see a reasonable case for returning human remains to close living relatives or friends (and by 'close' I mean people who knew the deceased in person), after a few generations it's no more than a foolish sentimentality and we should not pander to it. Even then, I am reminded of The Soldier by Rupert Brooke:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
The remains of the ancestors of faraway places should be regarded as something similar to ambassadors, forever reminding us of their foreign descendants and their history.
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Re: The Great Emptying of European Museums

Post by bolo » Thu Mar 25, 2021 4:47 am

Thanks, Fishnut, for an excellent post.
Fishnut wrote:
Wed Mar 24, 2021 4:04 pm
While 3D scans are fantastic for displaying objects so that visitors can see what they looked like, they are not a substitute for the real thing when it comes to studying the objects. Advances in all sorts of fields of scientific, historical and sociological research mean that we are continually able to learn more about objects. Take the papyri from Herculaneum. It's only in the last few years that we have been able to start virtually unroll these scrolls and reveal their contents. A 3D scan of these would not have the internal structure to provide this. So a 3D scan would be great for putting on display but if you actually want to study the scrolls you need the originals.
This is a really important point. Major museums are important research institutions, not just places where visitors can go for an interesting day out. Scanning objects is great for widening access to collections, but if all you have is a model, you can't do DNA analysis of the leather and fibers used to make Ötzi's clothing, or x-ray computed tomography of what's inside the antikythera mechanism, or hyperspectral imaging of Leonardo's paintings.

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Re: The Great Emptying of European Museums

Post by bolo » Thu Mar 25, 2021 5:15 am

Millennie Al wrote:
Thu Mar 25, 2021 4:43 am
While I can see a reasonable case for returning human remains to close living relatives or friends (and by 'close' I mean people who knew the deceased in person), after a few generations it's no more than a foolish sentimentality and we should not pander to it.
There's part of me that agrees with you about foolish sentimentality, but I think there's a lot of western privilege built into that idea. The reality is that nobody's going to dig up my grandparents from their graves in England and put their remains on display. And if for some reason they did, the graverobber wouldn't be from a foreign country that had systematically oppressed the English and their culture.

You might feel differently if aliens from Alpha Centauri had appeared in the UK one day in 1850 and laid waste to the countryside, decimating the population and taking away a few dozen corpses and the best bits of Westminster Abbey to put on permanent educational display in their starship.

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Re: The Great Emptying of European Museums

Post by Squeak » Thu Mar 25, 2021 6:41 am

bolo wrote:
Thu Mar 25, 2021 5:15 am
Millennie Al wrote:
Thu Mar 25, 2021 4:43 am
While I can see a reasonable case for returning human remains to close living relatives or friends (and by 'close' I mean people who knew the deceased in person), after a few generations it's no more than a foolish sentimentality and we should not pander to it.
There's part of me that agrees with you about foolish sentimentality, but I think there's a lot of western privilege built into that idea. The reality is that nobody's going to dig up my grandparents from their graves in England and put their remains on display. And if for some reason they did, the graverobber wouldn't be from a foreign country that had systematically oppressed the English and their culture.

You might feel differently if aliens from Alpha Centauri had appeared in the UK one day in 1850 and laid waste to the countryside, decimating the population and taking away a few dozen corpses and the best bits of Westminster Abbey to put on permanent educational display in their starship.
Very much this. Here's a couple of examples...

In Tasmania, in 1869, William Lanne's body was decapitated by a man who broke into the morgue and his hands and feet later cut off for the Royal Society of Tasmania. (Apparently Lanne's skull/brain demonstrated physical changes thanks to the "civilising" effects of living among white folk, so the science was definitely reliable and important.) The man who did the decapitation became the state's premier a decade later and is still honoured with a bronze statue in the middle of town and with his name on various things. Nobody really knows where Lanne's skull ended up, though it may have been among a collection of remains held by the University of Tasmania, which were returned and buried in the 1990s. Nobody alive in 1990 ever met William Lanne or any of the other people whose bones were in that collection but I think you can see why the local Aboriginal community wanted that collection of remains returned to them.

Truganini, the woman we were taught at school was "the last Tasmanian Aborigine"*, asked to be cremated when she died in the 1870s to avoid being treated the same way as Lanne. Her request was disregarded and her skeleton displayed at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery until the middle of the last century before she was finally cremated in 1976.

Nobody alive in 1976 ever met Truganini but her descendants are still around and the utterly disrespectful way her body was used and displayed for a century very, very clearly told Aboriginal Tasmanians how much respect they could expect from local institutions. Respecting her dying wishes wasn't just about foolish sentimentality of her friends and relations. It was about communicating respect for the targets of genocide by institutions that took part in that genocide and rewarded its perpetrators.

Given how many artefacts and samples in the world's museums were collected as part of colonial exploration, it's worth thinking about what message is sent by continuing to hold remains and artefacts that were taken as part of similar exploitations.

*There are still many Aboriginal Tasmanians but they're sufficiently light-skinned that it was easy for authorities/educators to pretend they didn't exist for a century or so. Truganini was probably one of the last few "full-blooded" Aboriginal Tasmanians and one of the last few fluent speakers of a local language. Listing her as "the last" was a useful way to pretend that there was no need to provide support/respect to the survivors of a highly effective genocide. For a further sense of how successful the genocide was, we can look at what happened to the local languages. Palawa kani is a reconstructed aggregate Tasmanian Aboriginal language, pieced together out of colonists' diaries, place names, a single record of a woman singing traditional songs, and scraps of family history. There were probably somewhere between 8 and 16 languages here. We don't even know how many there were, let alone anything much about their grammar or complexity.

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Re: The Great Emptying of European Museums

Post by kerrya1 » Thu Mar 25, 2021 9:04 am

My Alma Mater has decided to proactively repatriate a Benin bronze from its collection (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland- ... d-56513346). I'm fully in support of this, particularly as Aberdeen is not a major centre for the study of African cultures so it is little more than a curiosity where it is now.

I try to think about this in terms of "how would I feel if I had to travel half-way around the world at great expense to see great examples of my history and culture". The answer is pretty pissed off, I think.

Why should the people whose history and cuture this is not have easy access to it in their own museums? And the researchers from those countries should be able to analyse the objects easily and without having to beg access from Western institutions. Even though research funding is limited here we are still in a far more fortunate position than those in the countries from which these objects were removed.

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Re: The Great Emptying of European Museums

Post by Squeak » Thu Mar 25, 2021 9:34 am

kerrya1 wrote:
Thu Mar 25, 2021 9:04 am
My Alma Mater has decided to proactively repatriate a Benin bronze from its collection (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland- ... d-56513346). I'm fully in support of this, particularly as Aberdeen is not a major centre for the study of African cultures so it is little more than a curiosity where it is now.

I try to think about this in terms of "how would I feel if I had to travel half-way around the world at great expense to see great examples of my history and culture". The answer is pretty pissed off, I think.

Why should the people whose history and cuture this is not have easy access to it in their own museums? And the researchers from those countries should be able to analyse the objects easily and without having to beg access from Western institutions. Even though research funding is limited here we are still in a far more fortunate position than those in the countries from which these objects were removed.
That's a fabulous step for the museum. I think that even where an immediate repatriation is not possible for unethically acquired pieces, due to political instability or a lack of curatorial resources, at the very least, a plan and set of criteria could be established for when and to whom a return would be appropriate. And there's a strong moral argument for the colonial powers (who are, as KerryA1 says, comparatively very well resourced) to help poorer nations build up their skills and resources so that they can care for fragile or otherwise endangered objects.

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Re: The Great Emptying of European Museums

Post by Fishnut » Thu Mar 25, 2021 12:11 pm

Millennie Al wrote:
Thu Mar 25, 2021 4:43 am
Fishnut wrote:
Wed Mar 24, 2021 10:28 pm
Squeak wrote:
Wed Mar 24, 2021 10:04 pm
personally think that your cannot ethically study human remains without the permission of direct descendants, where they can be identified and where you cannot show that the remains were collected in an ethical way.
Totally agree. I think the human remains are where we need to have the most urgent focus because we are often dealing with remains collected within the last couple of hundred years and in any other context having them kept anywhere but the ground where they were buried would be unthinkable.
It's highly thinkable. Try asking Jeremy Bentham.
If you can't recognise the difference between someone who requested their body to be preserved and put on display, and someone whose body was taken explicitly against their will or the will of their relatives then I really don't know what to say.
Squeak wrote:
Thu Mar 25, 2021 6:41 am
Truganini, the woman we were taught at school was "the last Tasmanian Aborigine"*, asked to be cremated when she died in the 1870s to avoid being treated the same way as Lanne. Her request was disregarded and her skeleton displayed at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery until the middle of the last century before she was finally cremated in 1976.
That's horrific.

I did a little investigation and found that, as of November 2019, 1,600 ancestors from 9 countries have been returned to Australia [PDF]. The Australian government writes that,
For more than 150 years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains and secret sacred objects were removed from their communities for various reasons and placed in museums, universities and private collections in Australia and overseas. During the 19th and 20th centuries medical officers, anatomists, ethnologists, anthropologists, and pastoralists collected ancestral remains for 'scientific' research linked to explaining human biological differences.
This excellent page states that,
Indigenous Australians' remains were removed from graves, burial sites, hospitals, asylums and prisons from the 19th century through to the late 1940s.
The page refers to a Guardian article from 24 February 1990 called The Quest for the Missing Dead that I highly recommend reading. It describes the secrecy that surrounds a lot of the human remains in museum collections - one curator claims "absolute secrecy is required because of the sensitive nature of his research" and the complete disregard with which many of the remains have been treated:
"Things were thrown into the basement of Anatomy, hoping they would disintegrate, because interest in physical anthropology post war wasn't very arduously looked after. There was supposed to be a whole Aborigine in pickle in one of the Royal Colleges, but being contraband, they won't admit to it."
The article goes on to say,
"As far as the London Royal College of Surgeons is concerned, it either deliberately hid this valuable information [about the extent and content of its collection of Aboriginal human remains] for its own reasons, or honestly had no idea of its own holdings. If it is the former, then why does a place of learning have a policy of not disseminating information. If it is the latter, then they do not know what they have because they obviously don't use it, therefore abrogating any scientific "right" to the material."
This last point is, I think, rather important. It's clear that the remains are not being used. The article notes that "little if anything has been published over the last 50 years". This article about the repatriation of bones from more than 60 people stolen in 1948 from mass graves notes that,
The Australian National University historian Martin Thomas told the Herald that, as far as he has been able to establish, not one scientific paper was published about the remains, which were taken for supposedly scientific research. "I think there was a real sense of trophy hunting about the way it went on in 1948," Dr Thomas said.
And a reminder, if one is needed, that this isn't ancient history,
Mr Nayinggul, who was a boy when the bones were taken, asked Dr Thomas, who has been researching the 1948 expedition, to explain to white people the importance of returning the remains for his people... Experts who studied the bones estimate they are probably not more than 120 years old, meaning they could be the parents or grandparents of living Aborigine people.
One of the reason for museum collections is to study the objects in those collections. This doesn't mean that all objects have to be studied all the time - it would be wonderful but there just isn't enough research money to do. And just because an object is currently unused doesn't mean it won't be used in the future - as new techniques are developed and new scientific ideas need testing objects can become suddenly highly useful where once they seemed to be merely taking up space. But these remains were collected to support theories of racial hierarchies. Those theories are no longer accepted, and as such the remains hold little scientific value. Certainly not sufficient value to continue holding them against the wishes of their descendants.
it's okay to say "I don't know"

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