November 28, 2011

The importance of repatriation for museums

Posted at 1:56 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

Despite what institutions such as the British Museum might claim, repatriation has become an important part of the role of most international museums.

The Epoch Times

Museums Gain New Relevance in the Modern World
By Shar Adams
Created: Apr 11, 2011

Every one has heard of blockbuster movies and sell-out theatre performances but we do not usually relate blockbuster exhibitions to museums. We can now, the dusty shelves and creaking floorboards of the C20 museums fast becoming a thing of the past.

Today well considered and relevant exhibitions can be found in museums with artifacts from the past cleverly displayed to interact with multi media, digital displays and even live performances.

Witness for example Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition which continues to enthral audiences around the world, attracting over 20 million people to visit.

Andrew Sayers, director of the National Museum of Australia, which is based in Canberra, says museums have had to reconsider how to engage the public and be relevant, and often that is a multi-layered, constant process.
National Identity

In terms of national roles, people expect a museum to reflect a national identity.

This, however, is a complex process, he said, citing the fracas surrounding French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s suggestion that a new museum of French history, to be established in the National Archives building in Paris, would “reinforce national identity”.

Critics of the Sarkozy Government’s immigration policies immediately raised concerns that it would further drive anti-immigration sentiment.

“Many French historians and museologists have an uneasy feeling that the museum will attempt to entrench an insular idea of what it means to be French,” Mr Sayers said.

While an assumption of national identity cannot be predicated on one dominant identity, Mr Sayers said all members of a country were indelibly linked by one commonality, and that is place.

“From this point, we can move to the idea of citizenship and from there to the interpretive responsibilities of the museum,” he said.
Soft Power

Interpreting responsibilities of museums involves not only thinking locally, but increasingly internationally, he said.

Speaking at Sydney’s Lowy Institute, Mr Sayers noted, for instance, the increasing “soft power ambassadorial role” for museums.

The British Government, for example, has a clear and defined strategy of cultural exchanges as a way of furthering country relations, he explained.

He cited the UK Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt, who, in a recent letter to the British Museum, emphasised how important the museum’s cultural exchanges were to the Foreign Office by offering directions on which countries to particularly engage.

The museum director hastened to add that cultural institutions should not be seen as mouthpieces for government propaganda.

“This is an important point. Cultural institutions are proudly independent when it comes to content,” he told the audience at the Lowy Institute.

To further illustrate, he read out comments made in a media review of an Australian Indigenous exhibition, titled Cultural Warriors, which was touring in the US.

“Though the show acts as the most civil of diplomats, it also subverts expectations; more important, its very existence acknowledges a country’s history of state-mandated racism,” the reviewer wrote in The Washington Post.

Mr Sayers said the exhibition was considered “a success for Australian interests in the United States precisely because it was tough, critical and political, not in spite of these things”.

Museums too are well aware of their role in bridging gaps and creat their own initiatives, he said, noting the British Museum’s loan this year of the ancient Babylonian cuneiform cylinder – the Cyrus Cylinder – to the National Museum of Iran.

Mr Sayers quoted Karen Armstrong, a British Museum trustee, who said: “This cultural exchange may make a small but timely contribution towards the creation of better relations between the West and Iran.”
Repatriation of Artifacts

Museums have benefited from the digital revolution, Mr Sayers said, but were already well connected.

“Indeed, colonial museums saw themselves as parts of an established worldwide community of scientific and material exchange” he said.

The British Museum, the Louvre and the Smithsonian based in Washington were all renowned for their international collections and were considered “world museums”.

World museums, however, have sparked debate about national or international ownership of artifacts, he said, referring to the ongoing challenge faced by the British Museum from Greek authorities over the Elgin Marbles.

Extended friezes and other pieces were taken from the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis in Athens in the early 1800s, by the then British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin.

While the stand-off between Britain and Greece remains, repatriation of cultural artifacts has become an important part of a museum’s role.

He referred to the National Museum of Australia, which has returned the remains of over 1000 individuals to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and 360 secret/sacred objects.

“It is a 2-way international exchange—the National Museum assists in the repatriation of remains from willing overseas museums (many of which happen quietly, without publicity) and culturally sensitive material has been repatriated from Australian collections, for example, to Maori and Native American communities,” Mr Sayers explained.

While museum directors looked for ways to be worthwhile and to engage audiences, he remarked on an important factor in the increasing relevance of museums in a modern world.

He noted the performative element in the Australian exhibition, Culture Warriors which included speaking opportunities for artists and music, singing, and dance performances.

“This human element, often overlooked if we see museums only as collections of objects, is a vital part of our role into the future and it is where the most lasting impacts will occur,” he said.

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