Western Archaeology Museums: Contextualization or Justification?

Yesterday I visited the Niniveh exhibition at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden. It was an amazing collection of reliefs, statues, cuneiform tablets and other objects from the ancient Assyrian capital. The exhibition features two massive replicas of the imposing winged lion gods (Iamassus) which were placed at each side of the city gates and palace rooms to protect every inhabitant and visitor. Next to one of the replicas, a photograph is put up, showing an Isis member destroying a 3,000 year old Iamassus with a hammer drill, along with a text describing what had happened. Putting the exhibition in the context of what is currently happening in northern Iraq was powerful and necessary, the museum is even donating the two three meter high replicas to the University of Mosul in Iraq after the exhibition closes. I need to stress that what I’m writing about today is in no way directed at this exhibition, the only connection is that seeing the photo of an ancient artifact being destroyed by its “own people” posted next to these artifacts displayed safely in a Western museum brought up many issues I previously had regarding this topic.

In my Archaeology, Museums and the Public class, we were assigned a text by James Cuno from his 2008 book Who owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over Ancient Heritage. In it, Cuno writes of the Rosetta Stone: “ The Egyptian government has called for the Stone’s return, claiming that it is important to the Egyptian identity, although at the time of its taking there was no independent state of Egypt and wouldn’t be for more than one hundred years. Nor was there a local regard for the land’s ancient past, and this despite the extraordinary evidence of it all around them. [..] It was only through European interest in the remains of ancient Egypt, in great part provoked by the finding of the Rosetta Stone and the deciphering of of its hieroglyphs, that the Egyptians also became interested. And then their interest was as much or the current political value of those remains as for their scientific importance.” Cuno continues and starts describing an alternate future where the Europeans had not “discovered and acquired” the Stone: “Not being acquired or published, and thus neither studied nor deciphered, the Rosetta Stone would be a mere curiosity, Egyptology as we know it would not exist, and modern Egyptians would not know it to claim it as theirs”. As an Egyptian (and a human person) it makes me indescribably angry every time I read Cuno’s words. Not only is he explicitly stating that the Egyptian people are not to be trusted with their own heritage, but that they are too stupid and oblivious to even figure out it’s there “despite the extraordinary evidence of it all around them”. This is one of two lines of thought by which the justification of European countries keeping the material heritage of other countries is argued. The second line of thinking is also used by Cuno in the same text; it is the argument that “artifacts should be spread across the world so we can learn about each other and grow closer and more tolerant”. This is a lovely sentiment, however there’s a glaringly obvious problem with it; why are there no European artifacts in other countries? Other than the structures and objects which colonizing countries left behind in the countries they colonized, why is there no English Wing in the Egyptian Museum where one of the standing stones of Stonehenge is displayed? Why is there no French Wing where murals from the Palace of Versailles hang? Is it because these things are too meaningful and too much a part of their collective identity to part with? Even if it is for the noble cause of teaching the world?

Then again, I cannot come from a place of pure emotion. It is a fact that material heritage is mishandled in many “developing” countries in the world. I have seen firsthand, the nonchalance by which some ancient Egyptian artifacts are transported in the back of pickup trucks in Cairo as if they were furniture. And I cannot deny the sincere efforts which some European countries today exert to preserve material heritage in these areas. However, when we talk about history, present good deeds cannot completely erase the past. Perhaps the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities would not be lacking the resources to properly train their workers and provide heritage sites with proper transportation and packing materials if they had the income generated from keeping their artifacts and perhaps the British and French museums get to provide safety because they did.

This post is not a call for the return of artifacts to their original countries, it is far too complicated a situation now. It is a call to think more critically about how things have come to be, and perhaps in a more personal way, a post for me to vent about how much I dislike James Cuno.

Cuno, J. (2008). Who owns antiquity? : Museums and the battle over our ancient heritage. Princeton, NJ [etc.: Princeton University Press.

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