Friday, 16 October 2015

No 'Respect': Treatment of Trophy Artefacts

Ridiculed and humiliated in America
Billed as "the biggest" one outside Egypt, Penn Musum's sphinx was found near the Ptah Temple at Memphis, excavated by Petrie. It bears the royal names of the 19th dynasty pharaoh Ramesses II and his son and successor Merenptah, and the museum like doing silly things with their trophy to celebrate capturing it:
To celebrate the Sphinx in all of its splendor, join the Penn Museum for quizzo on Oct. 2, a Young Professionals Event on Oct. 11, a Halloween event on Oct. 17, a sleepover on Oct. 18, and workshop on Oct. 26. On Oct. 19—almost 100 years to the day that the Sphinx arrived at Penn—the Museum will host a “Hijinks with the Sphinx” event from 1 to 4 p.m..
This apparently consisted of:
stories of the Sphinx, and an exclusive display of Egyptian kitsch, items from pop culture based on ancient Egyptian themes [...]. Guests matched wits in a True/False game about ancient Egypt, raced through an Indiana Jones-style obstacle course, and enjoyed an ancient hairstyles demonstration. Penn Museum members receieved (sic) an exclusive behind-the-scenes Sphinx history tour in the Museum Archives, while everyone joined the Sphinx for a celebratory slice of cake.
Universal Museums meet Sesame street. Perhaps if displaying it in the kitschy way they do, and treating it like just another pop-culture sideshow to be gawped at and played with, is the best the Americans can do with it, the sculpture would be better off going back to Egypt. It would do better for it to stand again in Memphis so it can be seen in a better context than entrapped by foreign dumbed down stupidity and treated as a alien object of fun.

Collectors say that accumulating these things and removing them from their context they are showing and teaching 'respect' for, and understanding of, other cultures. I see no respect or enhanced understanding  here whatsoever.

UPDATE 18th October 2015
This post was prompted by a photo somebody sent out as part of their Twitter discourse, she later contacted me offline to remonstrate that I was taking things a bit too seriously: "Is archaeology supposed to be dull?", and informing me, as if I could not guess, that the kids who participate in such events get a lot of joy (and information) out of it, and their parents too. I do not think that is in doubt, but that is not the question I was raising.

I remain firmly convinced that archaeology can be made 'not dull' by other means than just dumbdown, but the latter - papier mache birthday hats and Indiana Jones obstacle courses and the rest of the tacky kitschy "fun" fluff - is probably easier to do. But, first of all museums are surely not just about entertainment (or edutainment) but have an educational, culture forming role. But what type of education and what type of culture are they to form? Should they abandon all ambitions and standards in the face of the cancerous intellectual pauperisation of 'modern culture'?

But  my point was something else. Would the Museum organize the same sort of events involving Torah scrolls, Koran manuscripts or Hopi masks and Kachinas? I have faith that the majority of museums would have some ethical qualms about a "race Mohammed (PBUH) to Mecca fun obstacle race", or "Hijinks with the Holy Scrolls" or a "Spooky Sacred Mask Pajama Party"  event. But why not extend the same courtesies to all cultures? We have seen the Egyptians getting distressed about the way the British treated Sekhemka, I would not imagine them being too happy about the Ramesses/Merenptah sphinx ridiculed by having its visage insensitively covered in a stupid brightly-coloured dunce's hat as a thoughtless expression of cultural appropriation and domination. 

Why do western museums need to do these things? Why not treat the cultural property they claim they are 'looking after" (for the rest of us) with the respect it deserves? Yes, I am sure it is "fun" to do a lot of things, smashing park benches is also regarded as fun by a certain segment of society, but there is the matter of respect for what is also there for the use of others too which should temper the search for "fun" at the expense of other values. That is what is also behind the criticism of artefact hunting, depleting the common archaeological heritage by a minority for personal entertainment and profit.

Just what values are dumbdown museum "fun" events promoting?


sw-an said...

Regarding the circumstances in Egypt and other countries, which most people do not even dare visit anymore, sadly archeological artefacts are better off in museums or collections.
The objects of the past give the next generations learning about humanity's history a sense of reality. They are useful to education and are taken care of, and available to the public's eye. Many museums in Egypt forbid photos, and I am ever so grateful to be able to see artefacts all over the world, usually cherished and documented.

Paul Barford said...

So, it's all about people "seeing" them then?

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