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Ethics of art repatriation and responsibility to protect heritage

In this interview, Smithsonian curator Masum Momaya talks (amongst other things) about the patronising way that the British Museum continues to rebuff any claims made by India for the restitution of artefacts taken from the country during the time of the Raj.

The Sultanganj Buddha is one of many artefacts in the UK subject to ownership claims by India [1]

The Sultanganj Buddha is one of many artefacts in the UK subject to ownership claims by India

Financial Chronical (India) [2]

A sense of history
By Gargi Bhattacharya
Nov 03 2014

Smithsonian curator Masum Momaya on the ethics of art repatriation and the moral responsibility of countries to preserve their culture and heritage

A curator at the Smithsonian Institution, Masum Momaya has a 20-year experience working for gender, race and class equality, and her curatorial portfolio includes multimedia, multilingual and themed exhibitions. The Stanford University graduate and Harvard University post-graduate is in India to showcase her exhibition, Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation, in collaboration with the American Center. Of Indian-American descent herself, Momaya prides herself on being able to situate her work in the best of both worlds. Excerpts from the interview…

As a curator of some experience, how would you say Indian heritage is represented in western museums?

The representation is mostly in colonialist and imperialist ways. All museums have roots embedded in the empire, the way it all started, showcasing exotic things of the east in orientalising ways. There would be gems or fantastic manuscripts or Mughal garments in the exhibitions, which would largely show off the east that has been plundered and conquered. It projected a fantastical idea about the east, positing it as a land to be subdued for its invaluable wealth. There were also photographs displaying some rituals­­ — these ‘other’ culture of savages, who were to be brought into the fold of civilisation. So the imperialist project was hand in glove with the anthropological drive to map and chart and name all things eastern, so as to have the control that the knowledge of the ‘other’ gives a colonial power.

That way of looking at Indian culture still has not altered in neo­imperial times, where people usually associate Bollywood or chicken tikka masala with Indian communities, especially diasporas. We are trying to change that through our work now.

What do you think is lost in that representation?

Incessant replication of imperial or orientalist ways of representation takes away the life of the art objects. If you look at it in terms of history, there is no space for popular culture, of the inner lives of people and places of those eras. This in turn generates new popular notions of what a particular country or culture largely represents as a historical image, which is extremely limiting. For instance, the work I am here for, Beyond Bollywood, was conceptualised exactly to challenge the new popular conceptions that India is associated merely with a cinema industry famous for its colourful song and ­dance sequences. It strives to look at Indians in diaspora which is beyond that notional existence inside the frame of a film industry, so we are looking at athletes, scientists, common men and women, their food, culture, daily lives. We are trying to span the achievements, and a wide range of achievements ­­ including, for instance the securing of rights for workers, even ­­ of an extremely diverse community and culture.

What are your views about art repatriation, seeing as India is an erstwhile colony and many things, including the Kohinoor diamond, the Sultangunj Buddha, and other artefacts, were taken by the British colonisers during their rule in India?

Art repatriation is extremely important, especially in the context of colonisation and vandalisation during wars or conflicts. They are parts, the very building blocks, of the empire and deserve to be returned to the colonised nations. To say that they were taken is a very mild way of putting it. They were in fact stolen, looted. They were put up in museums which serves as repositories of plunder, and therefore, looted art is the very essence of the empire, in a way. It was built on the philosophy of a higher civilisation ‘collecting’ archaeological or anthropological pieces of history to showcase the east, which they have colonised.

The idea of forcefully taking away thus lies at the heart of the overture, as it is with the imperialist project. An object kept in a museum does not merely represent the civilisation that produced it; it also tells the history of how the object went somewhere, travelled somehow until it ended up in that museum space. Objects of art carry layers of historical meaning. They tell stories of repression, and narrate histories of empire. Until they are given back, they continue to protest against their procurement.

What are your views on the fact that Britain has repeatedly denied claims of Indian governments to return the stolen artefacts, citing the arcane British Museum Act of 1963 that forbids return of objects, as also on the pretext that they better taken care of in Britain than they would be in India?

To say the least, it is extremely patronising. They still continue to deal with the issue in the same spirit under which the stuff was taken away in the first place, namely, they belong to a higher civilisation where they would get the attention they deserve as spoils of colonisation or war. Laws are not non­amendable, especially if they have helped in the unlawful acquisition of treasures rightfully belonging to another culture or nation.

Does India have a long way to go before it has the infrastructural and curational training or expertise for preserving invaluable works of art?

I lack the amount of experience about Indian museums to accurately answer this question, but in case that India does lack the knowledge or resources to preserve, protect or exhibit its treasures, then I believe it is definitely the ethical responsibility of the erstwhile coloniser who looted and plundered India’s art objects not only to give those treasures back but to share their know­how and their resources, to at least provide infrastructural support to India in the spirit of cultural exchange.

Would you say for erstwhile colonial subjects, like India, never having access to stolen pieces of history leaves a lacunae or gap in their notion of historicity since the history handed down to them is in a way controlled by the empire? Do you think it affects their historical self-perception or esteem? What’s the solution?

It is absolutely imperative to have access to one’s legacy and history, and more importantly, to have a hand in the creation of that history. It is equally important for that history to allow a multiplicity of micro-histories and narratives, which is how parallel histories and layers of identity get excavated through art objects. This is where there is a crucial distiction between migratory diaspora and a colonised populace.

For instance, Indians never looked at themselves as ‘British’ although they were lawfully subjects of the queen, because they looked at themselves as the oppressed population, ruled by a foreign power, and delimited in their agency and identity, both socially and politically, not to mention economically. On the other hand, people who migrate to US, for example, start looking at themselves as Americans after a generation or two, because they have more socio­political agency in the identity that they create in the host country.

India has definitely lost out on a lot by not being able to participate in the process of labelling, collecting, curating and creating those bits of artefacts that empower a self­-fashioning identity. Their perception of themselves is bound to suffer from that. The solution is to relentlessly resist curation by others and define a historical self with whatever is available at present, with an effort to retrieve as many pieces of the immensely large puzzle of its centuries­ old civilisation as it may come across.

Now, a couple of personal questions. How do you look at history as a person of mixed heritage?

I think I am fortunate to feel equally at home in both cultures. I have always visited India, and now I am lucky to combine my personal visits with professional work, as this time, I carried this exhibition to Delhi, and then to other places. I was there in Kerala for the last few days, and it’s always good to come home.

On the other hand, it’s thrilling to have this sense of heritage when I try to change the way Americans look at Indians or Indian-Americans. It is important for them to acquire a new perspective of Asians, and to know more about their culture and achievements, which falls on me to highlight.

What got you interested in art curation in the first place?

Well, I am not an art curator. I am a history curator. I trained as an academic, and in some ways, as an activist. I am an artist myself, so I always had interest in art and curation. While I was finishing my PhD in 2007, I had the opportunity to bring those passions together, so I started curating.