Saturday, July 17, 2010

The 'Universal Museum': an anthropological perspective

Dr Magnus Fiskesjo of Cornell University's Department of Anthropology has kindly sent me a link to his recent paper, Global repatriations and 'Universal' museums, published in a special repatriations issue of Anthropology News (51.2, March 2010, pp10-12), which can be found online here.

Thanks, Magnus

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.

Italy 1 Spain 0 — Madrid museum shown red card for acquiring looted objects

If UNESCO showed red cards for cultural heritage misdemeanours, it would surely be Spain taking the long walk back to the changing rooms this week after Madrid's National Archaeological Museum was found in possession of a bunch of Attic hot pots acquired in 1999 in clear defiance of the UNESCO 1970 Convention. Sadly, unlike FIFA, UNESCO doesn't hold disciplinary panels. It was left to The Art Newspaper to blow the whistle.

In an article in this month's paper, Fabio Isman focuses on a number of Attic amphorae in the collection of Madrid's National Archaeological Museum that bear a striking resemblance to pieces discovered in Giacomo Medici's Geneva warehouse during the now famous Italian/Swiss police raid in 1999 (Watson, P & Todeschini, C., The Medici Conspiracy 2006) (see image above left). No, hold on, let's not beat about the bush. They're the same pots.

"Is it right, or moral," Isman asks, "for museums (places established to conserve and exhibit objects, but also to educate and promote culture) to display artefacts plundered after the 1970 Unesco Convention, (on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property) rather than, as in centuries past, during wars and conquests? What type of 'culture' are these museums exhibiting, promoting and teaching: the culture of clandestine excavations and fraud?" Good question.

But to imply, as Isman does, that the objects acquired by museums "in centuries past" were acquired exclusively "during wars and conquests" is simply factually incorrect. More importantly, his sentence seems constructed in such a way as to absolve museums of earlier collecting strategies, by implying that war and military conquest represent legitimate circumstances in which to loot countries of their material heritage.

Anyone caring to scrutinize the circumstances in which most of the great encyclopedic collections were formed would have to conclude that very significant quantities of objects in those collections were acquired unethically (whether one judges one's ethics by 19th century or 21st century standards).

I'm often criticized for conflating pre- and post-1970 museum acquisitions and I can understand Paul Barford's constructive criticism of my recent blog posting (Tom Flynn Blames the Museums) that it is not always helpful to mix the question of post-1970 (ie post-UNESCO Convention) acquisitions with acquisitions made prior to that, particularly those made during the age of imperialism.

Nineteenth-century acquisitions are too hot a potato to handle and condemning them probably doesn't help clarify the more pressing and demonstrably unethical post-1970 acquisitions of the kind Isman refers to.

But like an oncologist looking to your family DNA for the cause of your illness, I have good reason to continue conflating these issues.

As Paul Barford points out in his comments on the Madrid affair, the archaeological museum’s then director, Miguel Angel Elvira Barba, said of his 1999 acquisition: “We have taken an enormous step forward both in terms of quality and quantity; [this] collection now puts us among the ranks of the greatest museums in Europe and the US”.

Here, then, is further telling evidence, if any were needed, that European and North American museums remain locked in the same competitive race towards an encyclopedic embrace of the world's material culture, no matter what the consequences might be for archaeology.

That is why I continue to focus on the underlying modus operandi of our museums — namely the Enlightenment-born idée fixe that seeks to place the whole universe "'neath one roof".

And as I said in my earlier piece, that macho museum model is what inspires the private collectors to do what they do. We won't beat the looting and the private collecting of illicitly acquired antiquities until we reform the museums.