Monday, 19 March 2018

Merryman Challenged

Erin L. Thompson has uploaded her latest article, "Which Public? Whose Interest? Rethinking Merryman’s 'The Public Interest in Cultural Property'" (Art Antiquity and Law 2017). On Twitter sOn Twitter she writes:
'Merryman’s influential 1989 article “The Public Interest in Cultural Property” proposed that all decisions about the fate of cultural artifacts should be based on consideration of a property triad of core values: preservation, truth, and access. My article uses case studies of cultural artifacts to argue for a rejection of Merryman’s values, arguing that they are not universal values but instead prioritize a Western experience of art over the needs and rights of source countries, particularly indigenous cultures. For Merryman, the centrality of the value of preservation “is too obvious to need elaboration.” But he ignores the frequent cases where a source culture creates an object with the intent that it be consumed, deteriorate through exposure, be deliberately destroyed after ceremonial use, or be seen only by a restricted group of people. Merryman’s failure is not just a failure to give proper weight to non-Western points of view about the value of preservation. Merryman has also failed to understand crucial Western attitudes towards preservation and destruction. Westerners also frequently engage in rituals of destruction and concealing. Western law contains many provisions recognizing that we can be harmed by other people seeing certain images, e.g., victims of child pornography can sue viewers for re-traumatizing them. Similarly, under another legal theory of harm, in some situations we can claim compensation for the emotional distress caused by other people seeing images of the suffering of our loved ones, e.g., EMTs circulating gruesome crash scene photos. Next up: the value of truth. Merryman wants cultural heritage objects to be presented as "a genuine relic, speaking truly of its time” The difficulty here is that many of us use cultural artifacts in ways that have very little to do with the way in which they speak about their place and time of origin, and much to do with our wants and needs in the moment we are looking at them. Most people, most of the time, look at cultural artifacts to imagine what their own lives could or should be like – as a prompt for thinking, as a means of dreaming, as a source of aesthetic pleasure unconnected from any idea of artifacts' original use.  Merryman’s last proposed core value is access, by which he means that we should insure that the widest possible public can see cultural heritage objects.  But Merryman means museum access - and the way museums use cultural artifacts can be very different from the ways in which these artifacts are used in their source communities.  Museum use is about looking – not about touching. Museum use is about display, not hiding or burial. Museum use is concerned with objective facts about the past, not about subjective, personal reactions to artifacts. Museum use is about the worship of beauty, but not literally – artworks within them are no longer gods.  I can't give a replacement set of universal values instead of Merryman’s, to make decisions about cultural property neat and easy. Any "universal" values are values only for a very specific “we,” and are valid only if this “we” controls all decision-making.  We can't find solutions that will satisfy everyone. We must embrace solutions that have to leave everyone at least a little angry. We must make cultural heritage policy that accords with the way that people actually use heritage instead of the way a few people wish they would'.

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