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Losing Her Marbles

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Had Jenkins been more invested in actual museum practice rather than its philosophy, she might have been aware that, in fact, by closely cooperating with indigenous cultures, museums actually gain far greater understanding about how artefacts were used, their cultural significance, and often a far greater understanding of their material conservation. The neglect of that importance is actually pretty terrifying.

Tiffany Jenkins

Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums … And Why They Should Stay There

368 pp

Oxford University Press, USA, 2016

There is an old saw misattributed to Artistotle that ‘it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it’. It was in that spirit that I started Tiffany Jenkins’ Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums … And Why They Should Stay There (Oxford University Press, 2016). Jenkins is not without a reputation in this part of the world. She euphemistically describes herself as a ‘repatriation sceptic’, but really that sits within a whole mess of dogmatic and imperialist politics stretching far beyond the museological issues of repatriation.

We may pass over the first section of the book as the Angel of Death passed over the Israelites, because it’s a fairly bog standard history of collecting and the historical genesis of the museum, though in full apologist flight. Instead, let’s get straight to the meat of the matter in the second section which specifically deals with everything Jenkins regards as Western museums appeasing nations and peoples she doesn’t seem to have any regard for.

She begins with the eighteenth century by drawing up a simplistic dichotomy of Enlightenment rationalism versus Romantic nationalism, does a fair job of providing an overview of the differing points of view, and then things go downhill rather rapidly.

Defending against the accusations of Tony Bennett and others that traditional museum structures impose narratives and hierarchies on the things they contain, Jenkins trots out James Cuno’s Museums Matter: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum (2011) - for some reason the book erroneously calls it ‘Museum Matters’, hardly the only typo - with the old chestnut that ‘whatever the museum leaders’ conscious or unconscious ambitions, visitors have minds of their own; they interrogate and interpret exhibits and displays for themselves.’

Now anyone who cared to think about it for two seconds would probably realise that your average museum visitor is not particularly expert on what they’ve come to see and in most cases are heavily reliant on the accuracy and objectivity of wall texts, curation, and representation to provide context for what they’re looking at. While, to her credit, Jenkins acknowledges care must be taken to get a balance between culture and power, but then we get to the grotesquely flawed pièce de résistance: that museum repatriation is a product of economics and national interests, and that it subordinates culture to politics.

Yes and no. Let’s start with no. In Keeping Their Marbles‘ introduction, there is a fleeting reference to the repatriation of a mokomokai back to New Zealand by a French museum. By Jenkins’ reasoning this is merely politics. To an extent this is true insofar as the New Zealand government has certain obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi in respect of Māori. It simply doesn’t occur to Jenkins that there could be other reasons in play; though she acknowledges that while such a grisly item may indeed find its way into a New Zealand museum, that museum will be acting as proxy guardian in partnership with the relevant iwi who want their family member back. Her argument rejects any possibility for the head other than as anthropological artefact.

This kind of desacralisation is one of the chief causes of alienation of museums for indigenous peoples. It’s one of the reasons, for example, that museums really haven’t taken off in the Pacific Island states, for example. Jenkins complains that museums shouldn’t have a political role, while ignoring (even as she acknowledges the nefarious ways objects got there) that the objects themselves may very well remain political where they originated, and for reasons other than mere jingoism. Jenkins seems to imply that by, as the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg, Sweden did with an exhibition of Peruvian artefacts called Stolen World, acknowledging that these objects were effectively looted and returning them, they did something wrong because they opened other museums up to demands for repatriation. One gets the impression she views this as a betrayal of sorts.

Then follows a chapter provocatively titled ‘Who Owns Culture?’ and a torrent of twaddle that sounds more rooted in the imperialism and cultural assumptions of the nineteenth century rather than twenty-first century museological and historiographical practice.

The Parthenon Marbles (Jenkins insists on calling them the ‘Elgin Marbles’ against all modern practice*) have been a repatriation cause célèbre for decades. Jenkins’ argument is effectively that because the Ottomans sold them to Lord Elgin when they occupied Greece, Modern Greece has no claim to them. I think it would have been informative had she dared to argue that logic with art looted from Jewish collectors by the Nazis, but that would have simply highlighted the fallaciousness of it.

While I agree there is a certain amount of political humbuggery involved on Athens’ part, in highlighting the mote of Greece’s nationalist posturing Jenkins seems strangely blind to the beam in her own eye. She argues that culture doesn’t have a ‘home’ per se, in which case why should the marbles necessarily stay in the British Museum? It seems to me that Greece has a valid claim in the form of the Parthenon itself, still in situ on the Acropolis in Athens, where a modern version of the language inscribed on the sculptures by Pheidias 2500 years ago is still spoken today.

You could only possibly argue the case if you genuinely thought the marbles were better off in the British Museum (which, when the sculptures first arrived two centuries ago, immediately took wire brushes to them, not realising the Pentelic marble was naturally yellowish). The problem with that line of reasoning is that for all its present difficulties, Athens is a modern city in a modern EU country and there’s a state-of-the-art museum waiting to take them. Do they really mean anything more to UK now than tourism potential? When she argues, if we may call it that, ‘It is not possible to call any of the pieces from the Parthenon, when isolated from the others, inartistic. What is so interesting about them is that they are still magnificent when standing alone,’ I can only shake my head in befuddlement.

Again, to Jenkins’ credit, she does acknowledge that many ‘repatriation sceptic’ (ie. mostly Cumo’s) arguments are scaremongering tosh, but frankly so are hers. She argues for the ‘encyclopaedic museum’ (a slightly watered-down version of the ‘universal museum’), waxing lyrical as to how, ‘the civilizations of Egypt, Assyria, and Persia … contributed to the great accomplishment of Athens in the fifth century BC.’ This presupposes some magical authentic virtue in the original objects. Since at least the eighteenth century, museums (especially in our part of the world) made do with plaster casts. There’s rather a lot of ‘our great museums’, and, most obnoxiously, ‘museums we can easily visit’, which tells you all you need to know about Jenkins’ worldview really.

She goes on: ‘The positioning of the Elgin Marbles in Bloomsbury also helps us to appreciate their impact on European society and beyond in the nineteenth century.’ This reeks of old school imperialism, and rather hypocritical given Jenkins’s railing against the legitimacy of historical context. Nor is Athens some out of the way, hard to get to place; thousands of tourists flock there every year. Perhaps the marbles should be shipped to New York, which is closer to the centre of Western civilization these days.

In any case, none of this has bearing on all the non-Western material the British Museum holds. Māori heads and African carvings say nothing about Western civilization except that it was rapacious, sticky-fingered, and liked a bit of the exotic. You could argue that there is a relevance to modernist art movements like cubism, but you can get that looking at books as did most of the artists involved.

At one point Jenkins attempts to deconstruct the philosophy behind what she calls ‘identity museums’, that is to say museums dedicated to ethnic groups, indigenous peoples, the Holocaust etc, which is borderline offensive to say the least. When one reads a sentence decrying museums making marginalised minorities ‘feel better about their lives’, one really has to pause and check that the book really was published by one of the most prestigious academic presses on the planet.

Further on, Jenkins moans about things being restricted from public view for cultural reasons. Is there really any difference doing exactly the same thing for conservation reasons?

The old bit about Te Papa advising menstruating visitors against entering certain areas is given an airing. The chapter on the repatriation of human remains, titled ‘Burying Knowledge’, actually left me feeling slightly nauseous. While it’s all well and good that historically museum-held human remains led to many anthropological breakthroughs, but that doesn’t really justify why they should continue to be held post-research, or why that research couldn’t be done collaboratively between several countries, though the condescending flavour of sentences like ‘The Natural History Museum in London, founded in 1881, is one of the most important research institutions in the world’, leaves one in no confusion about what Jenkins thinks.

There are also some ridiculing insinuations about the ability of indigenous peoples to identify their whakapapa. Of the Buhl Women, found in Idaho and dated at 10, 800 years old, and the Pelican Rapids Woman, found in Minnesota and dated 7,800 years ago, she asks, ‘How, then, can these remains be considered as related to people living today?’ The utility of empathy doesn’t seem to be a thing for Jenkins. There’s even a section titled ‘Why Did Human Remains Become A Problem’ - as if wasn’t blindingly self-evident that the people running the museums and visiting the museums eventually came to a similar conclusion as they would had it been their own great grannies on display.

Jenkins, it has to be said, doesn’t appear to have ever worked in a museum or have a museological qualification (two things I can at least claim in my rebuttal) - she is ‘an author, academic, broadcaster and columnist’ and advises on ‘cultural policy’. Her qualifications are in art history and sociology. Had she been more invested in actual museum practice rather than its philosophy, she might have been aware that, in fact, by closely cooperating with indigenous cultures, museums actually gain far greater understanding about how artefacts were used, their cultural significance, and often a far greater understanding of their material conservation. The neglect of that importance is actually pretty terrifying. A little digging reveals Jenkins’ politics to be libertarian and to the right, which probably should surprise no one given the general tone of the book and its disregard for the moral rights of indigenous peoples to their cultural property.

Despite going in knowing I was likely going to be appalled at the politics of it, I am genuinely surprised that Oxford University Press would publish what amounts to little more than a poorly researched and badly argued rant, a diatribe replete with as many logical fallacies as factual errors. One does, as just one example, have to wonder how Jenkins managed to relocate the Athenian Odeon from the foot of the Acropolis to the Acropolis proper. I’d never go so far as to call a book ‘dangerous’, but the ideas in this one certainly are and not in a good way.

Andrew Paul Wood

* This is to distinguish them from the parts of the frieze still in Greece and elsewhere, but it just comes across as deliberate bloody-mindedness.

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