Sunday, 7 November 2010

Metal Detectorist on Universal Museums

I have long argued that repatriation/restitution issues of items removed from a country before (say) 1970 is really to a great degree a separate issue from the type of problems I discuss here (though it too is a "heritage issue"). This does not mean I think the problem should be ignored. The UK metal detectorist calling himself "Candice Jarman" comments (scroll down) on a little project of mine connected with this from earlier this year, a spoof "blog" called "Scattered Heritage" (I mentioned it earlier here). It is something of a thought-experiment, how the British would regard calls for the return some cultural property taken in days of colonial expansion if the tables were turned, if history had played out differently and it was Britain that was forced into the position of the petitioner. I had a bit of fun doing it. Jarman disapproves, referring to the notion that countries which have been despoiled in this manner might want some of their more iconic cultural property back as "rot!". In typical portable antiquity collector mode, she claims that:
"repatriation is mainly the concern of western-educated, socially-advantaged elites in the source countries, with their own personal agendas and bloated egos (just think of the Egyptian with the silly hat)! The average Egyptian man in the street and the Guatemalan peasant farmer apparently could n't care less about repatriation!"
What an extraordinary thing to say. So the views of the "western-educated, socially-advantaged elites" in foreign lands should be ignored. They should be ignored because their countries are not full of educated people but peasants who no doubt would be unable to appreciate having access to their heritage currently held by more "enlightened" people in foreign countries. Eh? That is so patronising and neocolonialist! I'd not be surprised to find that Jarman voted for the BNP. This is Jarman's idea of "archaeology for the people" is it? She wants her blog to be
a forum for examining how archaeology is done in the world today. I passionately believe that archaeology belongs to the people - to all of us - and not just to archaeologists.
That is "us" middle class (though she cannot spell) white Brits, not "Guatemalan peasant farmers" or the "average Egyptian man in the street" or Bulgarian schoolchildren, Greek street sweepers and all the rest of the browner-skinned world who do not deserve access to the past as much as "Candice" and her metal-detector waving cronies a short weekend saver train ride away from central London and the BM with all the loot of the world stashed away.

Candice thinks that nothing should be returned to foreign countries (such as those once under British domination) because the Wily Oriental Gentlemen have more than enough to serve their needs:
it’s not as if Egyptian museums and store-rooms are not stuffed with thousands and thousands of antiquities already!
Candice reserves for herself the role of judging just how much archaeology for the people there can be in those foreign countries, the inhabitants have no say-so. Those "people" have no say on how archaeology is apportioned out. That is for collectors, dealers and museum directors in the market countries alone to decide and dictate terms to them. Who empowers them to make those decisions for citizens of other countries like that? "Divine right of..." what precisely? Manifest destiny and all that.

How utterly arrogant.

The true depth of the British artefact collector's interest in the heritage and access to the heritage is revealed in the following passage:
The Scattered Heritage blog aims to demonstrate the “colossal loss” (his words) us Brits would have experienced if certain iconic British antiquities were now in foreign museums – all fanciful clap-trap of course. Oh give me a break! How wretched our lives would be if Mr Barford’s musings were actually true! I think not! Most people are much more concerned about earning a living than about the location of a few archaeological artifacts (and this is the same the world over, for the Egyptian public and the British public).
I wonder whether that is actually true, Britain can afford to be smug about its culture, but would it really not be a political issue if the situation was otherwise. Look at the fuss over the Stone of Scone (just a stone) and the Lewis Chessmen, remember Plaid Cymry firebombings merely over the language on road signs?

So Jarman insistes that portable heritage collection and the heritage really are of no interest to anyone in Britain. As far as she and her fellow (ahem - "responsible") collectors are concerned academics and heritage managers might as well all pack up and go home and let the artefact hunters, collectors and dealers get on with gathering up what they want by the bucketload and throwing away the rest. That is apparently the British artefact hunter's idea of "archaeology for the people" obviously.

Jarman labels me as
anti-universal museums and very pro-repatriation so it seems. Thank God, men like him were not around in 1753 – the British Museum – which has inspired generations of scholars, visitors and school-children – would never have been founded. Nor too the other great museums of the World. How much poorer our life and culture would be! Believe me, history will judge Mr Barford and his cronies as the real cultural criminals
Hmm. But it is not now 1753. In 1753 there was no air travel whereby even a solicitor's secretary from Bournemouth can be within hours in Luxor, Athens, Rome, Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat or taking part as a volunteer in a pedestrian survey of pictographs in the Western Desert. There was no universal literacy and universal access to books, magazines and other material on the ancient world. There was no television with its Time Team, Discovery/National Geographic channels, no internet to look up facts about the past. Nothing. The average Brit in 2010 has immeasurably greater possibilities than his fellow of 1753 (actually the museum opened in 1759 and originally contained mostly written sources and comparatively few antiquities, these were added mostly in the nineteenth century). Do we really need the universal museum in the same way as in the middle of the eighteenth century? Especially as today the museum is increasingly being filled with multimedia rather than just the objects. I really do not think it is culturally 'criminal' to urge we re-examine these collections and enter into dialogue and negotiation with the citizens of the sovereign states which would like some of their stuff back please.

What however is very interesting here is this symbolises really quite well what really is going on in collecting. When they want to persuade the world that no-questions-asked collecting is really "beneficial" to the nation/world/humanity, collectors will bend over backwards to declare that their hobby is all about "understanding other cultures" and facilitation of communications between cultures, peoples and people. But that's what giving back parts of a scattered heritage that it can be agreed really should not have been taken is all about. Jarman's outburst reveals however that collecting is for her not about sharing, but getting and keeping hold of as much "stuff" as possible for oneself, and hang the rest. I think that if the truth was known, despite all the fine talk about "internationalism" and "cosmopolitanism", this is wholly typical of the whole milieu.

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