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keeping their marbles

16 september 2017

Tiffany Jenkins' Keeping Their Marbles is an argument against repatriation of the museum treasures of the West, as its subtitle ("why they should stay there") clearly indicates. Yet Jenkins attempts an unbiased survey of both sides of the dispute before coming down on the one she prefers.

I'll say at the outset that Keeping Their Marbles is an odd book. It's not a theory-heavy contribution to museum studies. It's not a color-plate-laden contribution to your coffee table – there isn't even enough illustration to give the reader much of a picture of what Jenkins is talking about. There's some padding, in the form of excurses on the histories of museums, Captain Cook's voyages, and the like. There's a sort of blurring of the lines between natural history, art, archeology, and ethnography. (Though to be fair, those disciplines and their museums can get blurred in practice, too). Perhaps oddest, many of Jenkins' arguments reduce to mere forceful assertions. I can tell you exactly what she thinks, but much of what she thinks consists of paraphrasing critiques of Western museums and then basically saying "is not!" At one point Jenkins says of early modern collecting, in so many words,

Things were different in the past. Actions and deeds were permitted and approved of then that would not be now. (122)
But that's the whole point of repatriation. It's now, now.

Keeping Their Marbles is still a pretty interesting book; I don't review 'em here if I don't finish 'em, and I was both entertained and informed by Jenkins' text. As the title suggests, the museum centerpiece of the repatriation debate is the Elgin Marbles, that portion of the sculptures that once graced Athens' Parthenon that now reside in the British Museum. There is no question that the Elgin sculptures belong legally to the British Museum. They were granted to Lord Elgin by the Ottoman government in the early years of the 19th century. But shipping them to England was a bad look even in the 1810s. A fair number of British people thought that the Ottomans had no more right to give away Greek heritage than Lord Elgin had to take it.

Other museum pieces have even less savory provenances. The Benin bronzes were basically stolen. The treasures of the Chinese Summer Palace were spoils of war (evidently carried off by Lord Elgin's son, perhaps feeling the need to emulate Dad). All kinds of other stuff that adorns the museums of the West was removed from the non-West under circumstances ranging from economic duress to borderline swindling to outright pillage.

And so, should it go back? And to whom, and to what use, what ends? Jenkins argues passionately that it shouldn't go back; that humanity as a whole learns from this accumulation of material. There's no particular reason, she believes – after centuries of political change, migration, and the incorporation of items like the Elgin Marbles into new cultural traditions – for such things to go back, arbitrarily, just so they can hang out in some artificial setting somewhere near their original homes. (One thing is clear about the Marbles: they're not going back onto the Parthenon. Their weight would crush the surviving fabric of the temple.)

Jenkins' principles are universalist and absolutist. She really does think globally: for her, artifacts are the heritage of all humanity, not of the Zip code where they were created.

When it comes to art, I largely agree with Jenkins. I've mentioned here before that some of my most beloved works of art are Predynastic Egyptian pieces that now reside in Brooklyn, New York. It stands to reason that their creators have descendants who currently live in Egypt. But those descendants share no more culture with Predynastic artists than I do. Presumably there's some Predynastic art in Cairo. Presumably there's some 20th-century American art there too, representing the culture of my people. I think – barring evidence of outright theft – we should leave things that way. Let's leave the Elgin Marbles, and the Pergamon frieze, and the Temple of Dendur where they are.

I part company with Jenkins when it comes to human remains, and certain types of ritual artifact that have living meaning. I had a feeling, while reading Jenkins' chapter on human remains, that I was having a mild C.P. Snow moment (for the first time in quite a while). Here, Jenkins is the scientist, arguing adamantly for the research value of old bodies and their parts.

The Natural History Museum in London … holds around 19,950 human remains. … Having such a large and diverse collection is vital for comparative research … [in] human evolution and human origins. The collection has also been used to train anthropologists working on the identification of victims in mass graves … Scientists also study human remains to analyze diseases like osteoporosis. (299-300)
And diet, and ritual, and religion, and display and beauty – all right, all right! But as Snow's humanist here, the question I always ask is "what if it were Grandma?" (Always assuming your Grandma didn't donate her cadaver to science. And assuming she's a cadaver already, too.)

Thus, what if it were your Catholic grandmother, buried with solemn ritual, confident in the Resurrection to come – and unceremoniously dug up by the Natural History Museum so they can find the cure for osteoporosis? Jenkins makes the point that it's rarely that close a relative; but these bodies were somebody's relatives; there's no statute of limitations on awaiting the life to come. Even bodies of extreme antiquity, connectable to no living culture, were buried out of respect and awe. Can't we leave them – and their carefully disposed grave goods – be?

Though the mention of Catholicism brings me partway back around the circle. Those museum bodies glamorous enough to go on permanent display – mummies and Moorleichen – are yet another story. They play the role of secular relics. After reading Cynthia Hahn's Reliquary Effect earlier this year, I made it a point to visit the sanctuary at Altötting in Bavaria over the summer. This highlight of the central European pilgrimage routes contains many treasures, ex votos, and one of the greatest of all joyaux, the incredible Goldenes Rössl.

But Altötting also contains several dead bodies under glass, just like many an "encyclopedic" museum. There's St. Hyacinthus, for instance. Supposedly. If St. Hyacinthus is maybe a bit apocryphal for your tastes, there's Count Tilly, a quite-genuine secular superstar of the Thirty Years' War, dead less than 500 years. Tilly probably is somebody's Grandpa, a few times over. Yet they keep him in a box in the church basement, for tourists to trip over.

So I shouldn't jump to the assertion that Catholics like their ancestors serenely buried. Nonetheless, these Bavarian Catholics, even the restless Tilly, deliberately chose public display as a method of veneration. American Indians, indigenous Australians, and ancient Egyptians didn't, and Moorleichen were evidently thrown into bogs in the hopes of concealing them indefinitely. I don't see any compelling reason for poking around in their ribcages or installing them like artworks and charging admission.

One American researcher, faced with Native demands for repatriation of remains, complains that meeting them is "sucking day after day, year after year, out of our careers" (308). To which I can only reply that academic busywork is like that, and usually for far less noble causes. "The scariest aspect of repatriation and reburial is the loss of scientific freedom," complains another archeologist (308). But scarier than being abandoned in a museum drawer for all eternity?

Remember that Jenkins is choosing quotes she feels are most sympathetic to her thesis – one can only imagine how some researchers feel about their deceased subjects when they're not speaking for attribution. Children like mummies, Jenkins offers. But do mummies like being gawked at by children?

It really does seem to come down to treating people as research material rather than as people. Jenkins blithely begins one paragraph "In Britain, where there are no indigenous communities …" (317). This would be news to Cheddar Man and his descendants; but even if you don't want to go that far back, what about the mute inglorious Miltons in so many country churchyards? We could get a lot of data out of them. If early-modern Englishmen are not "indigenous" enough for museum study and display, maybe ancient Indians shouldn't be, either.

Jenkins, Tiffany. Keeping Their Marbles: How the treasures of the past ended up in museums … and why they should stay there. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.