The quiet corridors of great public museums have witnessed revolutionary breakthroughs in the understanding of the past, such as when French and English scholars at the British Museum cracked the Rosetta Stone, deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs, and no longer had to rely on classical writers to find out about ancient Egyptian civilisation.
But museums’ quest for knowledge is today under strain, amid angry debates over who owns culture. When it comes to requests from once colonised peoples, cultural institutions are timid. This is not a question of shipping back artefacts in museums to tribal groups in Australia, America, Canada, or New Zealand. Still, claims made by these groups are restricting what audiences can see – and what they can know.
‘Ancient Indian Art’, by Norm Bosworth. CC0 Public domain via Pixabay.
In America, Canada, Australasia, and even parts of Europe, since the 1990s, indigenous people have been granted extensive control over art and artefacts in museums. Museum policies mandate the active involvement of ‘source communities’– sincere laypeople from the relevant cultural group – in decisions about exhibitions, research and the care of objects. An unfortunate elision is made 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.
It has meant the disappearance from public display of important material. Artefacts are segregated and access to them limited if they are sacred or have ceremonial status. In British Columbia, rattles and masks made by the Coast Salish peoples of the Pacific Northwest have been moved to restricted areas of museum storerooms. Female museum staff have been asked to stop handling certain medicinal objects originating among Northern Plains Indians, as they originally were for men. The National Museum of Australia in Canberra keeps ‘secret sacred’ Aboriginal objects segregated from the rest of the collection; only certain tribal members may see them, via strictly controlled levels of security — even the director may not be permitted to know the contents of the storage. And in museums across Britain, you will rarely find on show tjurunga from Australia, objects given to young men as they reach adulthood, because they are deemed sacred and are held instead in storage. Female researchers are discouraged from even examining them.
‘Indigenous Australia: enduring civilization’, an exhibition held at the British Museum last year was informed by the same principles. British Museum staff visited Aboriginal people, Torres Strait Islanders, and indigenous art and cultural centers across Australia to discuss objects from the museum’s collections and how to exhibit them. Museum professionals assure me that this sort of consultation tells us more about the objects. And 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. But that is different to granting a measure of control to people on the basis of their apparent cultural roots, which is what appears to have happened.
The consultations for ‘Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation’ resulted in the identification of the central messages for the exhibition content; objects for display; an initially selected artefact not being shown; and another displayed in a particular way, in line with community wishes.
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.”
But if museums no longer offer universal access to their collections, and if the right to interpret material culture is granted only to those with what is deemed the approved ethnicity then the museum is no longer an institution in the service of open inquiry. 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. 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 if 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.
The encroachment of liberal guilt into curatorial decisions is undermining the traditional purpose of the museum; a secular institution in the service of historical inquiry. It risks transforming our great institutions into places where understanding the past is conditioned by present-day political and therapeutic criteria. And yet it should be the role of a museum to open up the past to everyone.