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Who owns culture?

The quiet corridors of great public museums have witnessed revolutionary breakthroughs in the understanding of the past, such as when 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.

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.

'Ancient Indian Art', by. CC0 Public domain via Pixabay.
‘Ancient Indian Art’, by Norm Bosworth. CC0 Public domain via Pixabay.

‘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.

Featured image credit: ‘Museum’ by Unsplash. CC0 Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Sarah Carr-Locke

    In my opinion, the point being missed here by Ms. Jenkins is that involving Indigenous communities in making decisions about their heritage is not liberal guilt, but ethical practice that helps museums play a positive role in reconciliation. By privileging academic expertise over Indigenous knowledge, colonial power relationships are blindly reinforced, rather than questioned critically and creatively as some of these collaborative projects do. One might also ask how museums “open up the past to everyone”, if mostly wealthy, mostly white, Western-educated curators retain complete control over how that past is presented and retain all decision making power over access to collections.

  2. Rose Scott

    I completely agree with Sarah Carr-Locke’s comments. When we ask ‘who owns culture’ why should the answer always be – ‘first world, educated elites’?

    Rather than sneering at ‘liberal guilt’, we should be adressing Warranted guilt.

  3. Puawai Cairns

    This is so laden with Eurocentric arrogance, that frankly I’m appalled such lazy, privileged nonsense has found a platform on here.

    Ms. Jenkins, you need to step out of the 19th Century and your nostalgic fantasies of the grand tour. I’m very happy that you are discomfited by the shift by indigenous communities to demand shared authority and control over their intellectual property, material belongings, and the voice used to tell their stories in museum. If blinkered individuals like you are upset enough to write bollocks like this, indigenous museum curators like me are winning.

  4. Juan Lewis

    Well, Ms Carr-Locke has just shown Ms Jenkins’ point…

    Those museums are not “involving communities”, but reproducing the patriarchal relationships that have kept women and lower class members down for centuries… all in the name of guilt-ridden pomo bullshit…

  5. Dr Andrew Paul Wood

    Ms Jenkins shows an appalling excess of privilege and not a little arrogance in her dismissal of indigenous knowledge and involvement in curatorial practice. Given that in many cases these artefacts were acquired by less than ethical means through processes that represent the excesses and violence of the colonial-imperial system, it is a matter of reciprocal justice that indigenous peoples be involved in the curation and conservation (they may know more about the materials than you do) of artefacts that for them may hold profound spiritual, cultural, and identity defining meaning.

  6. […] For OUP on Who Owns Culture and the threats to the pursuit of knowledge  […]

  7. huntea

    y’all say “colonial relationships are blindly reinforced” and “first world, educated elites” like those are bad things.

  8. David Stiles

    Three issues come to mind. 1) Tradition serves the present, not the past. As one Kia Tahu leader said “What we do now is different from what we did 50 years ago, and will be different from what we will do in another 50 years.” 2) The realisation that human-kind is essentially one, these objects and their meanings belong to the whole of the human race, not just one small section. 3) Old-fashioned sexism as a base of power has no place in society today, anywhere. Dr Jenkins is correct in her assertions.

  9. Eleni Petmeza

    Some thoughts developed while reading the article and your comments.

    The first thing we should ask ourselves is why museums still have indigenous artefacts. If we agree that indigenous artefacts are held by the museum as a cultural capital, then why not exhibit them or do whatever they like with them? Trying to reconcile a traditional colonial past with a postmodern colonial present seem to me as two sides of the same coin. I find it very hypocritical to keep those artefacts in a museum, hidden from display, but giving access to them only to entitled indigenous people. Give the artefacts back to them. There’s a power game played here, and being naïve about it, is not taking us anywhere. Museums, having both cultural and political power should open their doors to everyone. Have you ever heard Indians complaining about an Indian cow being held in zoos around the world? Cows are sacred in India. Argument made.
    I’m open to discussion.

  10. […] Tiffany Jenkins, a regular commentator to the Scotsman and other papers, wrote a blog post titled “Who Owns Culture?” for the Oxford University Press blog. She’s also written a book “Keeping Their […]

  11. […] Who Owns The Past? Our Museums Seem To Be Confused We’re risking “transforming our great institutions into places where understanding the past is conditioned by present-day political and therapeutic criteria.” […]

  12. Laura W

    Hi Eleni,

    I think the question here is what does a museum do? Is it purely to display and interpret objects for everyone or can the museum perform a variety of functions surrounding objects?

    The responsibility of a museum can be more nuanced than to repatriate or not repatriate material. For example, the National Museum of Australia also functions as a keeping place for objects (including secret sacred objects) that cannot be returned to communities for various reasons, e.g. the community has no facilities to store and care for the objects. The museum works closely with source communities and provides culturally appropriate access, which Ms Jenkins referred to in her article as “‘secret sacred’ Aboriginal objects segregated from the rest of the collection; only certain tribal members may see them, via strictly controlled levels of security”.

    In terms of opening collections up for everyone to access – what if this is a different concept to ‘everyone’? Not everyone takes what might be referred to as a ‘eurocentric’ view that all items and knowledge should be available to the general public. For example, many Australian Indigenous communities (consisting of many living cultures) believe that traditional knowledge and objects should not be available for everyone to view. Therefore, should we disregard Indigenous understanding of their own objects in favour of the western understanding of making objects accessible to everyone?

    On a personal note, as someone who works with Indigenous collections that can be restricted due to gender or ceremonial contexts, I have no issue respecting the wishes of source communities if it is culturally appropriate to restrict certain sensitive objects or material (occasionally this means that I, as a female, cannot view or work with the male-specific objects).

    Courtney Johnston wrote an interesting rebuttal to Tiffany Jenkins piece which is also worth checking out: http://best-of-3.blogspot.com.au/2016/02/who-owns-culture-thoughts-provoked-by.html?m=1

  13. […] Ed Rodley, this article by British sociologist Tiffany Jenkins warns about repatriation trends in western museums and offers a definition of enlightenment-based […]

  14. Jared Davidson

    For an excellent and relevant overview of tikanga Māori and restrictions on taonga, check out: http://starspangledrodeo.blogspot.co.nz/2011/02/tapu-of-taonga-and-wahine-in-colonised.html

  15. Oliver O.

    British institutions and many of those who serve and perpetuate them still don’t grapple with what colonialism is, how it works, and their responsibility is in relation to its history/present/future. In nations that are founded on colonial dispossession this wrestling is unavoidable even though the colonial project continues and its Australian politics and social realities are a sick national shame. British institutions and British thinkers and actors need to get a grip, take notice, willingly take up their responsibilities, stop publishing things like this and do better.

  16. […] blog post about the voice and involvement of ‘source communities’ in the curation and management of […]

  17. […] The quiet corridors of great public museums have witnessed revolutionary breakthroughs in the understanding of the past, such as when 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 civilization. But museums’ quest for knowledge is today under strain, amid angry debates over who owns culture. (Read more from OUP Blog.) […]

  18. […] began the week with Courtney Johnston’s blog. She’s rebutting a reactionary blogpost from the UK, which states that Museums must be enlightenment scholars of objects, and that any […]

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