Do we really want the freer circulation of cultural goods?

A few years ago, I received a grant from the Getty Foundation for a project on museums in South Asia. I was just about to send 12 researchers to around 100 museums all over India, to get a sense of what place museums occupy in the social landscape of the country today. I asked the Secretary of the Department of Culture for a letter of support, but when I met her, I got an earful. She said, you are going to send people to museums in remote places that have valuable artefacts and very poor security. You will submit your reports to the Getty, and then all our things will begin to disappear.

I dismissed this bureaucrat’s remarks as an aberration, but in 2007 the same sorts of anxieties surfaced next door to India, as the Bangladesh National Museum made preparations for a loan exhibition to the Musée Guimet in Paris.

The Guimet was borrowing 189 objects dating from the fourth to the tenth century from Bangladeshi museums. Journalists, artists, archaeologists and retired museum officials were all expressing concerns (The Art Newspaper, January 2008, p9). They felt the objects were too precious to travel or that Bangladesh was not getting anything out of it, except 20 copies of the catalogue. There was going to be no reciprocal exhibition in Bangladesh, whereas when the Guimet had borrowed Gupta art from India a few years ago, French authorities had sent a Picasso exhibition to Delhi.

On one count the French authorities even yielded to the protestors. The Guimet clearly had tried to under-insure the artefacts and public pressure forced them to reappraise the objects and increase the insured value by 30%. All kinds of rumours circulated at the time. For instance, what was said about the under-insurance was not that the Guimet was cutting costs, but that these objects had been deliberately under-insured because the museum planned from the start to “lose” the consignment and pay the small insured sum and then make a tidy profit by selling the goods on the market. A citizen went to court to block the show, delaying the exhibition’s opening. Then, when the objects started being shipped out, one packing case went missing from the tarmac in Dhaka airport. It had contained two sixth-century terracottas.

The cargo handlers, who were arrested, confessed—under torture—to stealing and destroying the statues. The talk of the artefacts’ high value had led them to believe that the sculptures were filled with gems. When they turned out to be common clay, they threw the fragments into the garbage. Bangladesh cancelled the show. All these pressures must have taken a toll on the young Bangladeshi ambassador to France, because a few days later he collapsed after a meeting at the Guimet and died.

The events and anxieties in Bangladesh tell us how Western museums are seen outside the west: as terrifying places with insatiable appetites for works of art. They are also seen as the arm of a more powerful state, with infinite funds and power at their command. To tell a Bangladeshi protestor that universal museums “build bridges across cultures and promote mutual understanding” would only provoke anger or derision.

For the last 100 years, new nations have needed to show themselves not as modern constructs, but as the fulfilment of a historic destiny. The development of the idea of national heritage has been fundamentally important in shoring up national feeling, and now when artefacts from the nation circulate in the world they become metonyms for national citizens. Their pricing becomes a shorthand for how people are valued. Their trade, licit and illicit, evokes lived experiences of immigration.

Museums like the British Museum or the Louvre describe themselves as universal museums. We are now well aware that these great collections were mostly made possible by historically traumatic events such as conquest or colonialism, at a particular juncture in history when there was a convergence of wealth, power, physical contact with distant lands, and an intellectual interest in encyclopaedism. Today universal museums face criticism and calls for repatriation of objects. In response, they urge us to see them as sites that rise above national boundaries, to affirm an essential unity of humankind.

It is easy to see the universal museum as representing an eternal principle, but, of course, it does not. The museum’s “universalism”

is an ideological position that has its own history and politics,

and the universal museum is fighting to protect its own, not the world’s heritage.

Despite that, I feel the universal museum is worth preserving, not because this kind of museum is essential for us to get to know one another, but because it is a significant cultural phenomenon in itself. If we dismantle these museums we will never again be able to make museums of this sort. I do suggest that the universal museums learn to see that their universalism is one particular way of thinking about art, culture and civilisation. If they want other people to believe in what they believe, they must become genuinely respectful towards other people, not just their artistic masterpieces.

This respect might mean accepting that even the core functions of the Universal Museum—the commitment to preserving, displaying and making accessible the objects that they hold—might be deeply disturbing to some people. Consider for instance, the physical preservation and display of an object that its community of origin considers impious and should be destroyed, or the revulsion felt by a community that sees grave goods, provided for the comfort of their ancestors in the afterlife, being put on display in a museum.

What our age has done, even when it has not been able to redistribute real power or money, is make it possible for an increasing number of people to raise their voices and be heard. In some instances museums have accepted their arguments. We see this in the restitution of items to Native Americans and Australian Aborigines, where objects leave the museum sometimes to enter ritual use or to be buried, with no guarantee that they will remain visible or even physically preserved.

Now while these are significant events that mark a paradigm shift in the museum’s self-understanding, it is no coincidence that when the museum’s preservationist policies have yielded to ritual or religious sentiment, this has been out of respect for the views of indigenous peoples who also happen to be citizens of the US, Canada or Australia.

I believe we are likely to see pressures mounting on the museum to give things back to other communities in the future. When objects are free to move, where should they go? To those who most devoutly believe in them in a religious sense? To those who would be the best physical caretakers or the most engaged or sophisticated interpretive community? To those national or local formations that most urgently need them for their sense of identity? Or to the highest bidder?

This last category is opening wider than ever before, as billionaires are being added to the world by China, India and Russia. After Islamic art, the Gulf has begun collecting not world art but universal museums. And Abu Dhabi’s agreement with the Louvre has sparked anxieties in France not dissimilar to those voiced in Bangladesh. The French protestors say their objects are too precious to travel; that the government has no right to play with the national patrimony; that the cultural diplomacy is guided by political and economic goals. There is one significant difference, however. While the Bangladeshis were unhappy that they were not getting “enough” out of their deal with the French, the French protestors are angry that the Louvre is accepting money at all. “Our museums are not for sale,” prominent French museum directors

and art historians say in response to the E1bn that the Louvre and other French national museums stand to gain.

As the French express their revulsion at being “bought” by the Arabs, we have to ask: are we ready for the freer movement of artefacts? Principles worth espousing are the ones we will stand by even when they no longer favour us.

A few years ago, I received a grant from the Getty Foundation for a project on museums in South Asia. I was just about to send 12 researchers to around 100 museums all over India, to get a sense of what place museums occupy in the social landscape of the country today. I asked the Secretary of the Department of Culture for a letter of support, but when I met her, I got an earful. She said, you are going to send people to museums in remote places that have valuable artefacts and very poor security. You will submit your reports to the Getty, and then all our things will begin to disappear.

I dismissed this bureaucrat’s remarks as an aberration, but in 2007 the same sorts of anxieties surfaced next door to India, as the Bangladesh National Museum made preparations for a loan exhibition to the Musée Guimet in Paris.

The Guimet was borrowing 189 objects dating from the fourth to the tenth century from Bangladeshi museums. Journalists, artists, archaeologists and retired museum officials were all expressing concerns (The Art Newspaper, January 2008, p9). They felt the objects were too precious to travel or that Bangladesh was not getting anything out of it, except 20 copies of the catalogue. There was going to be no reciprocal exhibition in Bangladesh, whereas when the Guimet had borrowed Gupta art from India a few years ago, French authorities had sent a Picasso exhibition to Delhi.

On one count the French authorities even yielded to the protestors. The Guimet clearly had tried to under-insure the artefacts and public pressure forced them to reappraise the objects and increase the insured value by 30%. All kinds of rumours circulated at the time. For instance, what was said about the under-insurance was not that the Guimet was cutting costs, but that these objects had been deliberately under-insured because the museum planned from the start to “lose” the consignment and pay the small insured sum and then make a tidy profit by selling the goods on the market. A citizen went to court to block the show, delaying the exhibition’s opening. Then, when the objects started being shipped out, one packing case went missing from the tarmac in Dhaka airport. It had contained two sixth-century terracottas.

The cargo handlers, who were arrested, confessed—under torture—to stealing and destroying the statues. The talk of the artefacts’ high value had led them to believe that the sculptures were filled with gems. When they turned out to be common clay, they threw the fragments into the garbage. Bangladesh cancelled the show. All these pressures must have taken a toll on the young Bangladeshi ambassador to France, because a few days later he collapsed after a meeting at the Guimet and died.

The events and anxieties in Bangladesh tell us how Western museums are seen outside the west: as terrifying places with insatiable appetites for works of art. They are also seen as the arm of a more powerful state, with infinite funds and power at their command. To tell a Bangladeshi protestor that universal museums “build bridges across cultures and promote mutual understanding” would only provoke anger or derision.

For the last 100 years, new nations have needed to show themselves not as modern constructs, but as the fulfilment of a historic destiny. The development of the idea of national heritage has been fundamentally important in shoring up national feeling, and now when artefacts from the nation circulate in the world they become metonyms for national citizens. Their pricing becomes a shorthand for how people are valued. Their trade, licit and illicit, evokes lived experiences of immigration.

Museums like the British Museum or the Louvre describe themselves as universal museums. We are now well aware that these great collections were mostly made possible by historically traumatic events such as conquest or colonialism, at a particular juncture in history when there was a convergence of wealth, power, physical contact with distant lands, and an intellectual interest in encyclopaedism. Today universal museums face criticism and calls for repatriation of objects. In response, they urge us to see them as sites that rise above national boundaries, to affirm an essential unity of humankind.

It is easy to see the universal museum as representing an eternal principle, but, of course, it does not. The museum’s “universalism”

is an ideological position that has its own history and politics,

and the universal museum is fighting to protect its own, not the world’s heritage.

Despite that, I feel the universal museum is worth preserving, not because this kind of museum is essential for us to get to know one another, but because it is a significant cultural phenomenon in itself. If we dismantle these museums we will never again be able to make museums of this sort. I do suggest that the universal museums learn to see that their universalism is one particular way of thinking about art, culture and civilisation. If they want other people to believe in what they believe, they must become genuinely respectful towards other people, not just their artistic masterpieces.

This respect might mean accepting that even the core functions of the Universal Museum—the commitment to preserving, displaying and making accessible the objects that they hold—might be deeply disturbing to some people. Consider for instance, the physical preservation and display of an object that its community of origin considers impious and should be destroyed, or the revulsion felt by a community that sees grave goods, provided for the comfort of their ancestors in the afterlife, being put on display in a museum.

What our age has done, even when it has not been able to redistribute real power or money, is make it possible for an increasing number of people to raise their voices and be heard. In some instances museums have accepted their arguments. We see this in the restitution of items to Native Americans and Australian Aborigines, where objects leave the museum sometimes to enter ritual use or to be buried, with no guarantee that they will remain visible or even physically preserved.

Now while these are significant events that mark a paradigm shift in the museum’s self-understanding, it is no coincidence that when the museum’s preservationist policies have yielded to ritual or religious sentiment, this has been out of respect for the views of indigenous peoples who also happen to be citizens of the US, Canada or Australia.

I believe we are likely to see pressures mounting on the museum to give things back to other communities in the future. When objects are free to move, where should they go? To those who most devoutly believe in them in a religious sense? To those who would be the best physical caretakers or the most engaged or sophisticated interpretive community? To those national or local formations that most urgently need them for their sense of identity? Or to the highest bidder?

This last category is opening wider than ever before, as billionaires are being added to the world by China, India and Russia. After Islamic art, the Gulf has begun collecting not world art but universal museums. And Abu Dhabi’s agreement with the Louvre has sparked anxieties in France not dissimilar to those voiced in Bangladesh. The French protestors say their objects are too precious to travel; that the government has no right to play with the national patrimony; that the cultural diplomacy is guided by political and economic goals. There is one significant difference, however. While the Bangladeshis were unhappy that they were not getting “enough” out of their deal with the French, the French protestors are angry that the Louvre is accepting money at all. “Our museums are not for sale,” prominent French museum directors

and art historians say in response to the E1bn that the Louvre and other French national museums stand to gain.

As the French express their revulsion at being “bought” by the Arabs, we have to ask: are we ready for the freer movement of artefacts? Principles worth espousing are the ones we will stand by even when they no longer favour us.

By Kavita Singh

The writer is an associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. This is an edited version of a paper presented at the Salzburg Global Seminar “Achieving the Freer Circulation of Cultural Artefacts” which took place from 9 to 13 May

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