Literal Cultural Appropriation

***This is a post from last semester that, although long, I consider to be very good. It was written by Gabi Hulsey***

“Cultural appropriation” is a term defined by the Oxford Reference Dictionary as describing…

[T]he taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another…[I]n general used to describe Western appropriations of non‐Western or non‐white forms…[C]arries connotations of exploitation and dominance. 

Cultural appropriation of abstract things such as symbols, images, or aspects of culture has evolved out of – and alongside – the appropriation of material cultural objects. From bones (the Kennewick man) to over 15 tons of marble artwork (the Elgin marbles), the sheer volume of objects which colonizers and conquerers have taken from their ‘subjects’, it wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that they took pretty much everything that wasn’t nailed down (and even some things that were). 

In some cases, the less-than-noble origins of objects on display in museums are relatively obvious: archeological records definitively placed the Euphronios krater  in Italy prior to 1971, when it disappeared from the tomb it was buried in. By 1972, the krater had reappeared in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (by way of American antique dealer Robert E. Hecht, who had sold it to the museum for a cool $1.2 million). The shady players in this deal (fortunately) left a pretty obvious paper trail  for an object of which the location had been identified in modern times (post-WWII). The krater was returned to it’s rightful owners…on the condition that the country  give the museum multiple “comparable” artifacts on a long-term loan. 

In other cases, museums (and nations) have been much more antagonistic about art repatriation. Some of the most powerful arguments against repatriation are clearly based on remnants of the self-entitled thought processes that led to colonialism in the first place. In the long-running dispute between Greece and England over the Elgin marbles, the British government made the following argument: if every artifact that had crossed national borders illegally or under mysterious circumstances was returned to it’s country of origin, then most famous Western museums would be practically empty. The museums claim that their refusal to concede on even a single request for repatriation is framed by the potential consequences of the modern legal system. For one thing, in England (as in many European countries) it is actually illegal for museums to “dispose” of their holdings (which really means sell or repatriate, not throw out) without formally going through the process of amending the British Museum Act of 1963 for each artifact (the Elgin marbles are considered a single artifact). The act specifically says that even if the artifacts were known to have been stolen, that England’s museums do not even have a moral obligation to return those stolen items. And in many cases, the objects which museums claim were legally acquired were under colonial control or heavily dependent on a European ‘patron’ country at the time of the  transaction.

The legal arguments made by the countries in possession of the artifacts are certainly made in questionable moral taste. Even more unsettling are the arguments that seek to justify retention of artifacts in the same way that custody is decided in a divorce hearing. One of the main points of contention between advocates of repatriation and people who believed that England was the rightful owner of the Elgin marbles was what Greece was going to do with the statues if they got them back. British news media (and at least one Stanford professor) believed that there would only be a moral argument for returning the marbles if the Parthenon was being restored, and the Greek government would install the Elgin marbles as part of the restoration. Otherwise, the British claim to be better stewards of the marbles (and other artifacts) and that having the artifacts in museums serves a larger social purpose than if the artifacts were returned to their countries of origin. 

If any of this sounds paternalistic, it’s because it is. They’re saying that the countries which these artifacts came from should not have them back because the British (or whoever) are in a better position to preserve the artifacts, spread knowledge and cultural awareness, and that if it were not for ‘archeological colonialism’, some of these artifacts might never have been discovered or would have been looted and disappeared into private collections.

They argue that if the artifacts were repatriated they would be seen by far fewer people. The British Museum has claimed (based on visitor statistics) that if the Rosetta Stone was repatriated and exhibited at the Cairo Museum, 3 million fewer people would see it a year (compared to the number of people in a year who would see it if it were exhibited at the British Museum). Lest we question why it’s important that people having artifacts all around the world (and especially in metropolitan hubs) encourages international scholarship and intellectual exchange. 

Perhaps most offensively, they argue that the artifacts are not just part of the history of the country they came from, but part of some sort of ‘universal’ human history. And if you thought that arguments against repatriation couldn’t get any more looney, it has been argued that the presence of artifacts in museums outside their country of origin serves to foster cultural understanding, and tolerance. 

Of course, it goes without saying that if another country asked to borrow, say, Stonehenge in the interest of cultural exchange, the British would not find it such a compelling argument. To even argue that these appropriated objects foster cultural understanding is ingenious.  The people who live in the countries who possess the artifacts don’t consider the modern descendants of the people whom the artifacts were taken from have any right to them. The history of the artifacts that is significant to them consists of the time period in which the artifacts were created and then the life of the artifact from when it came into English possession until the moment they stepped into the museum and saw it themselves. The life of the object from the time the civilization it was a part of collapsed/evolved to the time that it was discovered by one of their countrymen is completely excised from historical memory. Unless they can point to an instance in which the artifacts were nearly or partially destroyed (in which  case they’re expecting gratitude and thanks from the people they took the artifacts from for having saved that part of their cultural history) until a Western archeologist stepped in to whisk them away to safety, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking that the artifacts disappeared from physical existence and were wiped from the minds of locals until the artifact was uncovered by – you guessed it! A Western archeologist (re)discovered them. 

Most people don’t think about where the things in the museums they visit actually came from or how they actually ended up at the museum. The real perpetrators of the insidious myths that colonizing or conquering countries rightfully own the artifacts they either stole (or finessed away) are the governments of the possessing countries. The governments are totally reluctant to have a discussion about repatriation because it would mean that people might also want to talk about exactly what their governments were doing in those countries (i.e. colonization, slavery, or less formal exploitative relationships) in the first place. And that’s uncomfortable and embarrassing for the government. So in the cases that they can make even the most remotely plausible claim to having gained to artifacts legally, they do so all the while intentionally ignoring the political context of those transactions. Consider the case of the Koh-i-Noor diamond.Koh-I-Noor roughly translate to “Mountain of Light” in Persian and when it was mined in the 13th century,  it was an astounding 793 carats.  It was once the largest diamonds in the world (after an incredibly amateurish early cut which reduced the stone to under 200 carats, it has been through additional re-cuts while in British possession and is now a little over 105 carats). The Koh-I-Noor was claimed by England’s Governor-General of India Lord Dalhousie on behalf of the British East India Company in the 1840s when he confiscated the diamond along with the entire Indian province of Punjab, which became part of British India. To judge by the responses of the British government (to altogether ignore or simply dismiss India’s requests), it would seem that Britain won’t even concede that the circumstances under which they acquired the diamond might be exculpatory (as in “Yes, we [England] took the diamond. But that was as part of colonizing India.  Now we recognize that colonialism is bad. But the people who advocated for colonialism didn’t think about it like that. Sorry that they did that. We know colonialism is wrong, and because we know that, we’ll give you back the stuff we took when being imperialistic jerks. So here’s your diamond back”). 

The museum ‘industry’ is similarly culpable. The curators and trustees who hide behind their government’s laws and claim that (even if the country the artifact came from did have a legitimate claim – which is something even most museums are not prepared to concede), the laws of the country where the artifact is currently located prohibit the Museum from repatriating it. But of course, with few exceptions (and almost all of them involved museums in America, which has demonstrably stronger repatriation laws than most European countries), no museums have advocated for changing the laws that prohibit museums to repatriate artwork. In the case of British repatriations, it would not even be possible (not that this is the appropriate remedy) for the countries to purchase their artifacts from the British government without amending the laws.

The excuses for keeping artifacts, the arguments against repatriation, and the laws preventing repatriation are all instances of structural violence that quietly survived the end of colonialism. The very same argument that the locals would not put their cultural artifacts to good use (i.e. displaying such that the number of people who see them is maximized) was made to justify colonization (that the British would use the resources that the local societies were not properly exploiting). Contemporary insistence on a policy that seems to be based on the idea that if it isn’t talked about openly, then even though it still happened, they can pretend that the citizens of the countries that were colonized are not still feeling the effects of their subjugation. By virtue of insisting that they keep (literally priceless) cultural artifacts, aren’t the British and other European nations acting out a remote (as in geographically distant) occupation of those countries by keeping parts of their cultural landscape (taken wholesale) and artificially making those artifacts part of their own cultural landscape?   

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