In this essay Caroline Cox, an OCH Renewal and Recovery fellow, explores the complex, conflicted histories that often accompany cultural artifacts, and the challenges this raises for museums.
When I travel to a new place, I always try to visit an art museum. Most large museums have a vast collection spanning thousands of years of history from all over the globe. Museums are places for wonder, where each object potentially unlocks new discoveries. However, museums themselves have deep roots in colonialism, and many objects in these institutions were stolen during colonial occupations and have remained locked away behind glass and steel. In these spaces, I think about what museums need to do to recover these objects back to their homes and if it is even possible. Recovery implies a healing or returning to a natural state. A museum thousands of miles away from its creation is not a natural state for many objects.
Repatriation is the act of returning objects to their former owners and is typically discussed with objects that have great cultural significance, such as the Parthenon Marbles. In 1812, when Britain’s Lord Elgin was in Greece under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, he cut a deal with the government for half of the marbles from the Parthenon. Since then, the marbles have been in England and now reside within the British Museum along with thousands of other stolen objects like the Benin Bronzes. While the British Museum is not the only institution with stolen objects, it is by far the most infamous and now finds itself struggling, like so many Western museums, with the legacies of colonialism. Simply returning some of these purchased or looted items, however, poses deeply complicated challenges. For instance, objects are fragile; many countries may claim heritage to one object; and despite ethical concerns, the British Museum’s claim to many objects from their collection is legal under international law.
Returning objects is one aspect of decolonizing museums, but the arrangement of museums might also be considered. Many institutions are working with marginalized groups to diversify their collections and present the whole truth of the provenance. Provenance is tracking art’s ownership. Some museums are changing the writing on the walls and the labels by artworks to be more truthful, while others engage with indigenous communities to present programming or have an inclusive exhibition that includes proper contextualization. Curators carefully pick artwork, arrange them, write about them, and set up everything for the show. Each detail is a specific choice, an element in a larger argument that creates something like a visual essay for visitors. When moving through an exhibition, viewers should be conscious of curatorial choices and ask: Why was this object chosen? Why is it on this wall, next to this object? Or why is it by itself? Who is the audience of this exhibition?
In 1994, Fred Wilson created an installation at the Maryland Historical Society entitled Mining the Museum. He paired objects together to spark contradiction and inspire conversation in ways that made many attendees uncomfortable because it flipped the typical museum narrative. For instance, Wilson placed slave manacles next to repoussé silver vessels, both dating from the same time period. This created a commentary on the brutal conditions under which the silver for these gorgeous objects were harvested. Wilson also purposefully placed empty pedestals, essentially begging the question: “What is being omitted?” Mining the Museum thus questions how the museum functions and rearranges the collection into a question of what is lost.
Ultimately, the museum is about storytelling. Who gets to tell the stories, and what stories are being told are constantly in dispute. Information and objects both are charged with contradiction, debate, and complicated histories. Recently, many museums have worked to have more people of color and queer folk as artists and curators in order to develop new kinds of visual conversations and thus welcome new audiences. I am eager for the museum to move forward, hopefully as a space for knowledge that is inclusive and accessible to all. Curators and historians have a chance to share a holistic history that can be healing to communities, educational, and extremely powerful.