Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Encyclopaedic museums and the 'Primitive Accumulation' of cultural heritage

An abridged version of my paper on the Universal Museum is to be published by the House of World Cultures (left) in Berlin in October to coincide with an event exploring current thinking on 'encyclopaedic' or 'universal' museums. I'll be giving a paper on the Universal Museum at the panel discussion in Berlin on 9th October.

Among the topics slated for discussion at the conference is the theory of 'primitive accumulation' (of capital) — a notion derived from classical economics, which seeks to explain how a small percentage of the population came to control, at the expense of the majority, a disproportionate amount of wealth.

I've been pondering this in the context of the universal museums and their own 'primitive accumulation' of the world's cultural heritage. Whether one can helpfully map a theory from classical economics onto the history of museums is a moot point, but there are interesting crossovers.

Following Adam Smith's concept of 'previous accumulation' of capital, Karl Marx illustrated his theory of 'primitive accumulation' by reference to the theological notion of original sin. Extrapolating from that, Marx goes on to sketch an economic process that might equally be applied to the development of the great universal museums, often at the expense of colonized peoples who were left correspondingly impoverished:

"In times long gone by there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent, and, above all, frugal élite; the other, the lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living. [...] Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort had at last nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority that, despite all its labour has up to now nothing to sell but itself, and the wealth of the few that increases constantly although they have long ceased to work." (Karl Marx, 'The Economics: 1857-1867', quoted in McLellan, D, Karl Marx: Selected Writings, OUP, 1977, p483).

That contrast between the "diligent, intelligent, frugal élite" and the "lazy rascals" (the subaltern Other, for our purposes) echoes the rhetoric used by the "civilizing" imperial powers to justify their accumulation of the material resources and cultural treasures of colonized nations during the nineteenth century. (See, for example, Sharon Sliwinski's excellent paper, 'The Kodak on the Congo: The Childhood of Human Rights', published by Autograph ABP to coincide with 'Mémoire', the recent exhibition of video work and photographs by Congo-born contemporary artist Sammy Baloji at Dilston Grove, London).

If you missed Sammy Baloji's 'Mémoire' at Dilston Grove, it's worth looking out for at other venues. Yet how ironic that so much contemporary art of this kind now finds itself in the collections of the new economic élite, rich on the fruits of their own primitive accumulation of capital.

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