Wednesday, November 18, 2009

'Repatriation' or 'Am I a Hypocrite?'

It's no secret that I am a museum junkie... I could spend days wandering around museum halls and galleries, discovering new and wonderful things from countries far, far away; exotically different cultures and times long gone. I love to go to a museum and flit from place to place, from Egypt to Messopotamia to Ancient Athens, as easily as going from room to room. I love to be able to discover the art of African tribes, or Mayan ceramics while in reality, I am still in Montreal (or wherever I happen to be at the time). I do not take for granted the cultural richness ready for me to devour and absorb while others may easily let it collect dust. I've long been all for the cultural richness and diversity available at the museum, until a lecture today got me thinking...

I'm taking an class on The Art of Native America at Concordia, which I love. Today, finishing up our class on art of the North-West, the issue of repatriation was raised, with good reason. I strongly feel that the repatriation of important material culture is a must for positive relationships between cultural groups and to show respect. Yet I love that I can float around in a museum and see material culture from other countries without the need for extensive travel. Does this make me a hypocrite? I have, through my travels in North America, gone to museums and exhibitions to learn about the Native cultures through their art, yet have never, until now, considered the ramifications of ill-gotten collections, shifty traders, broken cultural taboos, reluctant museum officials and the cultural ramifications of taking art, especially that of religious significance, out of context and how this could be insulting to the nations from which the art comes.

When forced to consider this issue from the other side, I began to question my perceptions of art and how it is used in contemporary western culture. I questioned the role of the museum, perhaps in the future it could be used to foster good inter-cultural relations through dialogues and discussions instead of imposing a set of cultural values. I began to question my entire position on this issue, and when discussion of the British Museum Collection began, I felt my skin crawl. To return anything, the Museum would set precedent, even 'insignificant' (for lack of a better term) items from storage, regardless if keeping these items provides a source of insult and ill-feeling between people. The reason being that the British Museum would loose a lot of its collection if there was a precedent for repatriation (the Elgin Marbles, for example, may finally make their way back to Greece!), and the results would not be good for the museum, economically. But it leads to the question, why should a group benefit from theft, semi-legal transactions or colonialisation? All the while possibly breaking taboos of other cultures?

And yet, what would happen to inter-cultural understanding when these objects are repatriated. Would there be another way for people, such as myself, to learn about the aesthetic traditions of other cultures? Where does repatriation stop? Could it lead to the collapse of the museum institution all together?

I could write a doctoral thesis on this. (Perhaps, one day I will). I feel strongly both ways. I love to wander through museums and satisfy (at least for a while) my thirst for knowledge and exploration of other times and places. Yet I also recognise the cultural significance of repatriation and the negative impact on cultures that museums have had. But, this issues is not always black and white, and there are many shades of grey that lead me to think, that like any other issue this complex, the issues surround the aquisition and repatriation of museum collections need to be examined and decided on a case-by-case basis, with favour to preserving cultural integrity and respecting the significance of objects which may not be so obvious to the western eye.

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