Keeping Their Marbles – ‘an outstanding achievement… wide-ranging and incisive.’

The Sunday Times reviews Keeping Their Marbles

Museums shouldn’t be sending any treasures back, insists this forthright study

Keeping Their Marbles

John Carey

In October 1860, during the Second Opium War, British and French forces attacked the Summer Palace near what was then Peking. Built of jade and marble and filled with treasures crafted exclusively for the imperial family, it had been described as a “dazzling cavern of human fantasy”. Three days of looting left it a smoking ruin. Eyewitnesses told of soldiers carrying off strings of pearls and pencil cases set with diamonds. The empress’s pekinese was also taken and, tactlessly renamed “Looty”, presented to Queen Victoria. Much of the plunder, which the present Chinese government reckons to have totalled 1.5m artefacts, found its way, via salesrooms, into European and American museums, including the V&A, which has one of the richest Chinese collections in the West.

Tiffany Jenkins cites the sacking of the palace as an example of why museums have fallen into disrepute in recent decades, and been seen as shameful relics of imperialism. Her book is a counterblast to such misgivings. It is an outstanding achievement, clear-headed, wide-ranging and incisive. It is also alarming, for her research uncovers a widespread belief among museum curators and cultural officials that museums should dismember themselves and return their holdings, even if legally acquired, to their places of origin.

At its most extreme the case for repatriation can sound like the ravings of some weird apocalyptic sect. In 2002, for example, Turkey’s minister of culture, Ertugrul Gunay, declared: “I wholeheartedly believe that each and every antiquity in any part of the world should eventually go back to its homeland.”

Jenkins’s argument is that, no matter how their collections were acquired, museums are vital to civilisation because they generate knowledge and understanding. Among her heroes is the British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard, who excavated Nimrud and Nineveh, and inaugurated the study of ancient Assyria, sending back the great winged bull and thousands of clay tablets covered in cuneiform script to the British Museum.

Another of Jenkins’s prime exhibits is the Rosetta Stone, an inscribed slab dating from 196BC, which was being used as building material when a soldier of Napoleon’s invading army came across it in the Nile delta in 1799. After Napoleon’s defeat it went to the British Museum and has been on display there ever since. By 1822, researchers had deciphered its inscriptions and solved the lost secret of how to read hieroglyphs, which was the start of Egyptology as an academic discipline.

Egypt has been demanding the stone’s return since 2003, when the head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities called it “the icon of our Egyptian identity”. In fact, Jenkins counters, it is no such thing. The stone belongs to a culture that flourished hundreds of years before the modern Egyptian state was even thought of.

Similar, and for Jenkins similarly spurious, claims are made about the Elgin marbles. In the 1980s the Greek minister of culture, Melina Mercouri, asserted that the Parthenon and its sculptures embody the values of democracy and belong exclusively to the Greek people. On the contrary, Jenkins retorts, the Parthenon was not built by Greece but by the city state of Athens to display its power, and far from being a symbol of democracy it was built by slave labour.

The Earl of Elgin did not steal the sculptures but removed them legally, with the permission of the Ottoman ruler of Greece. The Ottomans had used the Parthenon as an ammunition store, and an explosion had left it a ruin. By the time Elgin arrived in 1801, the Greek people, whose national identity is now supposed to be intimately linked to the Parthenon, were using it as a quarry, busily carting away stone blocks for housing and pounding down sculptures to convert them into mortar.

The Greek government wants the sculptures returned to a special museum it has built for them on the Acropolis, arguing that they can be properly appreciated only on Greek soil. Jenkins’s response is that the British Museum puts them in a global setting, so that visitors can see how the civilisations of Egypt, Assyria and Persia contributed to the achievement of 5th-century Athens. She regards the present situation, with half the surviving marbles in Athens and half in London, as a good solution. It means that they can be seen close to where they were created and also, in London, in the context of other cultures from the past.

Who owns cultural objects is a complex issue, even when their original seizure was clearly unjust. In 1897, a British military force ransacked the royal palace of the Edo kingdom of Benin (now southern Nigeria) and carried off more than 2,000 metal plaques, known as the Benin Bronzes, some dating from the 14th century. The British Museum acquired 700; others were sold to museums across the globe. Understandably Nigeria wants them back.

benin bronzes

But, Jenkins points out, the glory of Benin was built on the slave trade, and the Bronzes were crafted from brass bracelets, known as manillas, brought over by the Portuguese and exchanged for slaves whom the Edo captured in neighbouring lands. Do the slaves’ descendants have any right to the Bronzes that cost them their freedom? The creators of the Bronzes might have intended them for the royal house, or for the gods. What is certain is that they did not intend them for modern Nigeria.

Jenkins deplores the relatively recent fashion for museums dedicated to ethnic groups, such as particular Native American tribes, which restrict entry to members of that group and sometimes, if the holdings are considered sacred, to males. That national museums should send items to such museums is, as she sees it, a betrayal of the enlightenment ideal of universal knowledge. Her book is timely. The enemies of enlightenment are strong. In March 2015, Isis bulldozed Nimrud; in September they destroyed parts of Palmyra. That the great national museums should safeguard their collections has never seemed more vital.

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Some museums have agreed to requests to return artefacts. In 2012 the German government returned the Bogazkoy Sphinx, dated to 1600BC, to Turkey, and in 2011 New York’s Metropolitan Museum handed back to Egypt several relics from Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Read the introduction to Keeping Their Marbles here

Who Owns Culture? Start the Week, Radio 4

 

radio 4

On Start the Week Tom Sutcliffe discusses who owns culture. The writer Tiffany Jenkins tells the story of how western museums have come to acquire treasures from around the world, but dismisses the idea of righting the wrongs of the past by returning artefacts. The Zimbabwean writer Tendai Huchu believes the west shouldn’t underestimate the impact of colonisation on cultural identity. Ellen McAdam, Director of Birmingham Museums Trust, discusses the pressures regional museums are under. While the art critic Waldemar Januszczak eschews traditional views of Renaissance art, arguing that far from a classical Italian form, its roots are in the ‘barbarian’ lands of Flanders and Germany.

Listen again, here. 

 

Does one ethnic group own its cultural artefacts?

Article on Aeon

Objects that once adorned display cases in museums around the world are disappearing from view. In recent decades, dramatic wooden Iroquois face masks, crafted by the nations and tribes of indigenous people of North America, have been taken off the shelves. Rattles and masks made by the Coast Salish peoples of the Pacific Northwest, in British Columbia, have been moved to restricted areas of museum storerooms. And at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, ‘secret/sacred’ Aboriginal objects have been separated from the main collection: only tribal members of particular standing are permitted to see them.

Inuit Spirit DrummerInuit Spirit Drummer

Such removals are political, enacted in the name of decolonisation and the right to self-determination of Native peoples. By way of restitution, argues the museum scholar Janet Marstine of the University of Leicester, ‘Institutions need to develop long-term relationships with source communities built on trust.’ ‘Source communities’ is the buzzword for groups of people, or tribes, considered to be affiliated to the artefacts, and Marstine believes that they should control the interpretation of the past. That includes how cultural artefacts are understood, presented and stored in museums – and if they are displayed at all.

The idea that one culture ‘owns’ a particular heritage is having a profound impact on museums. Just as campaigners are urging the nations of Greece and Turkey to see themselves as the true owners of cultural artefacts – such as the Parthenon marbles, or sculptures from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, both in the British Museum – so too do activists and sympathetic museum professionals, who are facilitating these removals, consider certain indigenous peoples – Native Americans, Aboriginal people, First Nations – the primary, if not sole, arbitrators of their history and cultural artefacts. Lissant Bolton, a keeper at the British Museum, puts the point like this: ‘In the Australian context, this means that any Indigenous Australian is understood to have a greater right to speak about any Aboriginal object than any non-Indigenous Australian.’

The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), which opened on The Mall in Washington, DC in 1990, has been at the forefront of implementing new museums and policies that make formal concessions to particular groups on the basis of their ethnicity. The US arts journalist Edward Rothstein calls the NMAI and its ilk ‘identity museums’.

The devolving of authority at the NMAI embraced a range of activities, including who designed and built the museum, who selects what is in the collection, and how it is interpreted and presented – as well as how artefacts are conserved, and who can see them. In a similar spirit, in 1993 the Council of Australian Museum Associations endorsed a document, now titled Continuous Cultures, Ongoing Responsibilities, which set a new bar by compelling institutions to work collaboratively with indigenous groups on all aspects of running a museum. The premise behind this move was that indigenous people should be the ones to tell and organise their history: only Native Americans can speak for and tell the story of Native Americans. The Maori for the Maori. Aboriginal groups for the Aboriginal past.

The motives are understandable. Colonisation had a devastating impact on indigenous peoples. But the new identity museums are troubling on many levels – and not just because material is taken off display. Imagine if a museum was established, with public money (the NMAI is federally funded), where white people from one geographical area – sometimes only white men with status – were given the authority to decide what exhibits visitors could and couldn’t see. There would quite rightly be outrage.

Instead of decolonising museums, the new practices echo and reinforce a racial discourse. They present an idea of culture as fixed and immutable – something people own by virtue of biological ancestry. This racial view of the world should trouble us.

We need to ask who speaks for the relevant indigenous community, and on what basis. Even who qualifies as indigenous is a vexed question, as is the fact that ‘the indigenous’ rarely speak with one voice. Ethnocentric policies therefore tend to vest authority in anointed chiefs and elders (local equivalents of the privileged white male), without asking how many and which tribal members need to subscribe to the traditional view for it to remain authoritative. What about those who disagree? And what about those who want to change it, or challenge it from within?

It also follows, according to the logic of identity museum practice, that those outside the culture cannot truly understand it because they’ve never experienced it. It’s an approach that creates barriers between people. And also between people and artefacts. It advances the idea that cultures are separate and irreconcilable. When Seddon Bennington was chief executive of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington – formally a bi-cultural museum – he articulated precisely such a view: ‘There is a Western way of seeing the world and a Matauranga Māori way. The rest of the world cannot tap into Māori wisdom.’

But handing over the right to narrate history to those with the approved ethnicity is not the way that knowledge works. The pursuit of truth and the understanding of history must be open to everybody, regardless of class, ethnicity or gender. There must be universal access. That is how questions can be explored, and old forms of authority challenged.

We often hear about the problem of hidden histories, invisible and unheard because the stories of women and minorities have been written out of mainstream narratives. But identity museums are guilty of the same sin of omission, since surrendering the authority to shape museum collections to indigenous communities hinders the understanding of the very people it claims to help. It creates an idealised version of the past – one that never accounts for itself, because it cannot be questioned.

The US anthropologist Michael Brown has observed how all kinds of information about past indigenous people, particularly religion, is now deemed ‘culturally sensitive’ and unsuitable for public discussion in these museums, leaving mainstream accounts of Native religion with little to report but ‘generic spirituality’. The effect has been to make it impossible to research indigenous life. And, paradoxically, to drain it of the individuality that earned it its distinction in the first place.

For more on the debates on museums and cultural possessions, see Tiffany Jenkins’s new book, Keeping Their Marbles, out now through Oxford University Press.

Obsessing about past ‘wrongs’ is to miss the power of culture

Article in the Observer

Two bark etchings and an emu figure made in south-eastern Australia in the mid 19th century are the subject of a dispute between the British Museum and indigenous activists. Only three bark drawings from this area, from this period, are known to survive. They are rare examples of ceremonial art that tell us about the lives of indigenous people. Or they could do – if activists stopped using them as weapons in their broader, political battles, doing a disservice to history, past people and their own material culture in the process.

bark etchins

Bark Etching; Bark, natural pigment; Fennyhurst, Victoria, c.1854

The British Museum owns the barks and emu figure, which it acquired from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Since 2004, when they travelled to Australia for an exhibition, Gary Murray, a Dja Dja Wurrung’s Yung Balug clan elder, is claiming the artefacts as the tribe’s property and demanding their return. “The institutions in the UK obtained these items … in very dubious circumstances,” he says. They were “taken, stolen – and we just want to right these wrongs”. Murray’s accusation is familiar, his claim for repatriation far from an isolated case. Similar demands have escalated since the late 1980s. From the Elgin marbles to the sculptures and porcelain torn from the Chinese Summer Palace, to the glorious feathered cape and helmet obtained by Captain Cook during his Pacific voyages, objects in western museums are commonly described as “loot”. This comes with an insistence on their removal from these storehouses of colonial plunder and their return to the rightful owners.

But this is to rewrite the past. What is often described as stolen, wasn’t. Lord Elgin acquired the marbles with permission from the Ottoman authorities; the cape and helmet were gifted to Cook. Even some of the most heinous acts were legal, as with Napoleon hauling ancient treasures back to Paris for the Louvre. These acts may not be pretty, looking back from apparently more enlightened times, but it is far better to try to understand the past than treat it as a morality play with wrongs to be righted. Those calling for the return of cultural property to indigenous people – an especially heated issue – stress the unequal relations during this historical period, whether they are referring to the acquisition of Native American sacred objects, or masks of Coast Salish peoples, which have been sent back to communities as a result.

Click here to read on. 

Historical apologists should beware bloody history of Benin Bronzes

Article in the Daily Mail on the complicated history of the Benin Bronzes

bronze head 2

‘Benin is a city of blood, its pits full of dead and dying; human sacrifices were strewn about on every hand, hardly a thing was without a red stain.’

That was how the Illustrated London News recorded the destruction of Benin City – in what is modern-day southern Nigeria – when, in 1897, a British naval expedition was raised to avenge the deaths of nine officers killed during a trade dispute between the king of Benin and Britain.

That dispute was, in turn, part of the wider 19th-century struggle between the European powers as they competed to carve up the riches of the African continent.

Britain sent a force of 500 men to destroy the city, with one eye-witness describing how the British troops turned their newly manufactured Maxim machine guns on the local defenders, who fell from the trees ‘like nuts’.

After ten days of fierce fighting, the British burnt down the palace and looted the royal treasures: delicate ivory carvings and magnificent copper alloy sculptures and plaques – now known as the Benin Bronzes.

Felix Roth was a medical officer with the British Army, and described the astonishing sight of these riches, which he witnessed as he entered the king’s compound, where human sacrifices had been performed by the locals.

‘On a raised platform or altar, running the whole breadth of each side, beautiful idols were found. All of them were caked over with human blood, and by giving them a slight tap, crusts of blood would, as it were, fly off.

‘Lying about were big bronze heads, dozens in a row, with holes at the top, in which immense ivory tusks were fixed. The whole place reeked of blood.’

Outside, ‘all about the houses and streets are dead natives, some crucified and sacrificed on streets’; the smell was ‘awful’. It was a gruesome scene. Roth reflected: ‘I suppose there is not another place on the face of the globe so near civilisation where such butcheries are carried on with impunity.’

The city of Benin had been the head of a medieval African kingdom, founded in the tenth century, while the bronzes were made between the 13th and the 17th centuries, during two artistic golden ages.

Their principal objective was to glorify the Oba – the divine king – and show the history of his imperial power. They provide an insight into a brutal but sophisticated culture, showing battles, scenes of court life, and rituals involving warriors and royalty.

After the sacking of Benin, the bronzes were taken by the British to pay for the expedition. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office sold them off, and around 900 ended up in the world’s greatest museums, including the British Museum, which has one of the largest sets.

One of them, a bronze cockerel, ended up being a permanent fixture in the dining hall at Jesus College, Cambridge.

benin cockeral

And it is that particular artefact which is now at the centre of an almighty row. In a craven act, Jesus College has bowed to pressure from its students and removed the cockerel after protests that the sculpture is stolen property and celebrates a colonial past.

Click here to read on

 

Public event on Keeping Their Marbles

I will be in conversation with Professor Catherine Edwards, about Keeping Their Marbles on 19 April, 2016, 7-9pm, at Birkbeck University, London. 

The fabulous collections housed in the world’s most famous museums are trophies from an imperial age. Yet the huge crowds that each year visit the British Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris, or the Metropolitan in New York have little idea that many of the objects on display were acquired by coercion or theft.

Now the countries from which these treasures came would like them back. The Greek demand for the return of the Elgin Marbles is the tip of an iceberg that includes claims for the Benin Bronzes from Nigeria, sculpture from Turkey, scrolls and porcelain taken from the Chinese Summer Palace, textiles from Peru, the bust of Nefertiti, Native American sacred objects and Aboriginal human remains.

In Keeping Their Marbles, which has been hailed by John Carey, in the Sunday Times, as ‘an outstanding achievement, clear-headed, wide ranging and incisive’, Tiffany Jenkins tells the bloody story of how western museums came to acquire their objects. She investigates why repatriation claims have soared in recent decades and demonstrates how it is the guilt and insecurity of the museums themselves that have stoked the demands for return. Contrary to the arguments of campaigners, she shows that sending artefacts ‘back’ will not achieve the desired social change nor repair the wounds of history. She argues that no one culture owns culture and there is no one home for any object.

In conversation with Professor Catharine Edwards, Tiffany Jenkins will discuss issues she raises in her book and whether museums should keep their treasures.

Tiffany Jenkins is an author, academic, broadcaster and columnist. Her writing credits include The Scotsman, BBC Culture, the Guardian, the Financial Times and Spectator. Her previous book was Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: The Crisis of Cultural Authority. She has consulted widely in academia and museums on cultural policy.

Catharine Edwards is Professor of Classics and Ancient History at Birkbeck, University of London. She is the author of several books, including Death in Ancient Rome (Yale University Press, 2007), is a frequent contributor to BBC Radio 4 In Our Time, and presented the BBC TV series Mothers, Murderers and Mistresses: empresses of ancient Rome’ (2013).

Click here to book tickets and further information. 

The Western production & disposition of knowledge is the best way to research history & culture

For OUP on Who Owns Culture and the threats to the pursuit of knowledge 

The quiet corridors of great public museums have witnessed revolutionary breakthroughs in the understanding of the past, such as when French and English scholars at the British Museum cracked the Rosetta Stone, deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs, and no longer had to rely on classical writers to find out about ancient Egyptian civilisation.

But museums’ quest for knowledge is today under strain, amid angry debates over who owns culture. When it comes to requests from once colonised peoples, cultural institutions are timid. This is not a question of shipping back artefacts in museums to tribal groups in Australia, America, Canada, or New Zealand. Still, claims made by these groups are restricting what audiences can see – and what they can know.

'Ancient Indian Art', by. CC0 Public domain via Pixabay.
‘Ancient Indian Art’, by Norm Bosworth. CC0 Public domain via Pixabay.

In America, Canada, Australasia, and even parts of Europe, since the 1990s, indigenous people have been granted extensive control over art and artefacts in museums. Museum policies mandate the active involvement of ‘source communities’– sincere laypeople from the relevant cultural group – in decisions about exhibitions, research and the care of objects. An unfortunate elision is made between someone’s ethnicity and their authority to speak definitively about cultural artefacts, which excludes those who do not share that ethnicity, despite their expertise.

It has meant the disappearance from public display of important material. Artefacts are segregated and access to them limited if they are sacred or have ceremonial status. In British Columbia, rattles and masks made by the Coast Salish peoples of the Pacific Northwest have been moved to restricted areas of museum storerooms. Female museum staff have been asked to stop handling certain medicinal objects originating among Northern Plains Indians, as they originally were for men. The National Museum of Australia in Canberra keeps ‘secret sacred’ Aboriginal objects segregated from the rest of the collection; only certain tribal members may see them, via strictly controlled levels of security — even the director may not be permitted to know the contents of the storage. And in museums across Britain, you will rarely find on show tjurunga from Australia, objects given to young men as they reach adulthood, because they are deemed sacred and are held instead in storage. Female researchers are discouraged from even examining them.

Indigenous Australia: enduring civilization’, an exhibition held at the British Museum last year was informed by the same principles. British Museum staff visited Aboriginal people, Torres Strait Islanders, and indigenous art and cultural centers across Australia to discuss objects from the museum’s collections and how to exhibit them. Museum professionals assure me that this sort of consultation tells us more about the objects. And it’s true that people who may be close to the original manufacture and use of an artefact will reveal a significant amount about its creation, use and meanings. But that is different to granting a measure of control to people on the basis of their apparent cultural roots, which is what appears to have happened.

The consultations for ‘Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation’ resulted in the identification of the central messages for the exhibition content; objects for display; an initially selected artefact not being shown; and another displayed in a particular way, in line with community wishes.

Removing artefacts that were once on display is an increasingly common practice in museums with indigenous collections, one celebrated by the anthropologist Ruth Phillips, as rendering objects “invisible” and as a “grand refusal of key Western traditions for the production and disposition of knowledge.”

But if museums no longer offer universal access to their collections, and if the right to interpret material culture is granted only to those with what is deemed the approved ethnicity then the museum is no longer an institution in the service of open inquiry. Scholarship cannot thrive if limits are placed on who can investigate the past, or if lines of investigation are shut down. The Western traditions for the production and disposition of knowledge, so disparaged by Ms Phillips, are the best way to research history and culture. Indeed, surrendering the authority to curate an exhibition to communities on the basis of their identity hinders the understanding of the very people it claims to help, because the effect is to make if impossible to research historical—and current—indigenous life. And it is an approach that does nothing to address the political and economic problems faced by indigenous populations.

The encroachment of liberal guilt into curatorial decisions is undermining the traditional purpose of the museum; a secular institution in the service of historical inquiry. It risks transforming our great institutions into places where understanding the past is conditioned by present-day political and therapeutic criteria. And yet it should be the role of a museum to open up the past to everyone.

See more here. 

Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums – And Why They Should Stay There

Keeping Their Marbles is available for order from the Sunday TimesAmazonWaterstones, and OUP.

KTM spine

The fabulous collections housed in the world’s most famous museums are trophies from an imperial age. Yet the huge crowds that each year visit the British Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris, or the Metropolitan in New York have little idea that many of the objects on display were acquired by coercion or theft.

Now the countries from which these treasures came would like them back. The Greek demand for the return of the Elgin Marbles is the tip of an iceberg that includes claims for the Benin Bronzes from Nigeria, sculpture from Turkey, scrolls and porcelain taken from the Chinese Summer Palace, textiles from Peru, the bust of Nefertiti, Native American sacred objects and Aboriginal human remains.

In Keeping Their Marbles, Tiffany Jenkins tells the bloody story of how western museums came to acquire these objects. She investigates why repatriation claims have soared in recent decades and demonstrates how it is the guilt and insecurity of the museums themselves that have stoked the demands for return. Contrary to the arguments of campaigners, she shows that sending artefacts back will not achieve the desired social change nor repair the wounds of history.

Instead, this ground-breaking book makes the case for museums as centres of knowledge, demonstrating that no object has a single home and no one culture owns culture.

Culture knows no borders, the Scotsman

Concerns that cultural appropriation is racist miss the point

In the aftermath of the colonial conquest and exploratory expeditions of the late 19th century, thousands of African artefacts began to arrive in Europe’s museums, attracting considerable interest from Pablo Picasso, Henri Mattisse and André Derain. The artists spent hours in the Trocadero Museum of Ethnology – the first museum in Paris dedicated to anthropology – peering at masks and sculptures from what seemed to be a distant and faraway land.

DM

The encounters the artists had with the African art was fruitful. The attention paid had creative results. Picasso’s work changed radically, almost immediately, as evident in his 1907 painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. With its five naked women, some wearing African masks, with limbs that look like shards of glass, the work was a significant departure from the traditional composition and perspective in painting. Picasso then entered his African period. African art, arriving when it did, helped to revolutionise his painting and that of many other artists, giving shape to the movement Primitivism, which saw Paul Gauguin adapt Tahitian motifs, the abstract squares of Cubism, and modernism.

Throughout human history, different groups coming together, for whatever reason – even in war – and catching a glimpse of the other, have ended up influencing each other. Mostly it’s for the better; sometimes it’s for the worse. If we did not eye each other up, listening in and looking at what the other is doing, there would be no substantive change in art, or in society for that matter. It’s one of the ways that culture progresses. When another culture does something good, you try it out too, often adding something new. Without influences from elsewhere, things would remain the same. With no Jackie Wilson there would be Elvis Presley. Without black American music there would be no Rolling Stones.

Yet we are too often told, by a new kind of gatekeeper, one schooled in post-colonial studies, that it is wrong to be influenced by other cultures in this way. Those who complain are not worried, especially, about plagiarism, which can be a problem, but that one identity is influenced by another. Because this, they say, is a kind of racism. Instead of being open to different cultures,we are told, in shrill, self-righteous tones, that no-one has a right to borrow, appropriate, or be inspired by others who are not of their kind, that cultural influence should be stopped at the borders of nations and tribes. The cultural output of different identities should be kept separate, these critics and campaigners say.

In July, protesters were outraged at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for hosting Kimono Wednesdays, a promotional activity designed to advertise Monet’s painting La Japonaise, a portrait of the painter’s wife Camille, who is dressed in a kimono. Visitors were encouraged to try on kimonos in front of the painting and imitate Camille’s pose. Incensed, and armed with Palestinian American literary theorist Edward Said’s book Orientalism, which argues that knowing the orient was part of the project of dominating it, protesters turned out to complain about the “exotification” of Asian people. One banner read: “Try on the kimono, learn what it’s like to be a racist imperialist !!!today!!!”

Rather than reply, that trying on a kimono is a far cry from racism, that it was just intended as a bit of fun, that most of the great art work on display at the museum is a product of cultural exchange, of trying on another culture’s clothing, if you like, the museum went on the defensive. It announced it would change the programme, that the kimonos would no longer be available to wear, and that instead, visitors may “touch and engage with” them. Instead of pointing out the multiple influences on La Japonaise – it is likely that Monet was poking fun at the fashion for Japanese art and its impact on European art in the late 19th century, and that Japan was also a colonial power – the museum cravenly promised to schedule additional talks by its educational staff to provide context, “as well as an opportunity to engage in culturally sensitive discourse”. A pathetic response, really. Wearing a kimono in front of a painting was a naff idea, certainly; but not a racist one.

Elsewhere, some argue that white people’s appropriation of hip-hop is wrong because of the culture’s roots in the black American experience. More recently, accusations of racism have focused on, would you believe, a hairstyle, when the US actress Amandla Stenberg lambasted the TV star Kylie Jenner for sporting cornrows, a style usually associated with black women, though those of a certain age may remember the actress Bo Derek giving them a go.

“When u appropriate black features and culture but fail to use ur position of power to help black Americans by directing attention towards ur wigs instead of police brutality or racism #whitegirlsdoitbetter,” Stenberg wrote. Her response is a desperate displacement activity, one that misunderstands the nature and importance of cultural exchange, and avoids tackling serious discrimination and inequality.

Besides, cultural exchange can have a positive impact on how difference is understood. When the Benin Bronzes – brass plaques and reliefs made in the 16th century, in what is modern day Nigeria – arrived in Europe in the early 20th century, the reaction to them was confused. Scholars were amazed that the people of Benin, a race, in the words of British Museum curator Charles Hercules Read, “ so entirely barbarous” could have made such elegant and technically accomplished art works. The Benin Bronzes forced a moderate reassessment of the African people.

Culture – high, low, and the everyday – has always been mongrel; it’s always been hybrid. It bears the imprint of other times and people, crosses history and geography, and contributes to the creation of something new. We should say no to self-imposed cultural immigration controls. Culture should know no borders.

Elgin Marbles Are Not Political Pawns

“A HIGHLY provocative, unfortunate and very rude gesture”, is how David Hill, from the campaign to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece, described, on the Today programme, the loan of one of the sculptures to the State Hermitage Museum in Russia.

Article in the Scotsman

Russia today

It’s not often news about old marble hits the headlines, but these 2,500-year-old sculptures, taken by the Scot, Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine, are exceptional – the greatest works of art in human history.

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, has just sent one of the sculptures to Russia, on a temporary basis, following a request from the Hermitage to mark the 250th anniversary of its foundation. In so doing, he has dramatically changed the terms of the dispute. But not, I suspect, for the better.

The sculpture, unveiled today in St Petersburg after being transported from London in total secrecy, is of Ilissos, a Greek river god; a marble figure of an athletic young man, just over life-sized, drawing himself up on to a bank, from the west pediment of the Parthenon. He is unclothed, except for a piece of drapery falling over his left side, so artfully carved that the cloth appears to turn into water running across his arm.

He has been sent in the services of soft power. Neil MacGregor said: “The politics of both museums have been that the more chilly the politics between governments, the more important the relationship between museums.”

Like the pandas in Edinburgh Zoo, it is thought this marble, naked, male torso will work wonders for world peace, that it will warm what could be a new Cold War between Russia and the West. It is a daring move. None of the Elgin Marbles have left Britain since they arrived on its shores some 200 years ago. Many, of course, think that if they were to go anywhere, it should be Greece.

I am firmly in the “they should stay” camp. The present situation – where half the remaining sculptures are in Athens, and the rest are in London – means the Marbles can be seen and understood in both Athens, in the Acropolis Museum, close to where they were created, as well as in London, where they can be seen in relation to an encyclopaedic collection – beside artefacts from multiple human civilisations – aiding an understanding of the influence that the sculptures and the ideal of ancient Athens have had on many other cultures.

But this act of cultural diplomacy has made me wonder about the thinking today behind the purpose of the British Museum and other museums like it.

The loan of this sculpture is a political move. It does not benefit knowledge. The Hermitage is a towering museum, but the sculpture has not been sent – at some risk – some 1,300 miles because it will be situated in any particular, meaningful way. I have no doubt it will impress, and that it will look dramatically different against the largely Roman sculptures in St Petersburg, but it seems to be primarily about the gesture of the act and is therefore unlikely to shed further light on the Parthenon or on ancient Athens. Rather, it appears to serve the interests of the British Museum, in the short term, by making it out to be an essential player in international relations.

In the long term, this does not benefit museums. It continues their transformation from being centres of research and enlightenment into political instruments. MacGregor says of the sculpture that it is a “stone ambassador of the Greek golden age and European ideals”. It is hoped that the piece, perhaps somehow representing the birth of democracy, may improve the situation in Russia. But this is a little forced and rather hopeful. It follows on from another loan, in 2011, of the Cyrus Cylinder, to the National Museum of Iran, similarly justified with the aim of creating tolerance and improving relations. An overall strategy which imposes a particular meaning and purpose on precious artefacts, one that burdens them with a responsibility to facilitate harmony.

The loan of Ilissos will in no way improve the relationship between the Russia and the West. Objects, however remarkable, cannot achieve such things. Soft power can soften difficult relations, but only when done quietly and in conjunction with other measures. This is no such case: it is all far too explicit. And these overstated arguments for what museums and their artefacts can do endorses a simplified approach to international relations. Conflicts of national interest and historical troubles are reduced to acts of misunderstanding that museums can demystify and help resolve. It could backfire in the long run, as too much will be expected of museums and their treasures, whilst at the same time the core role they should perform – research and dissemination – is undervalued.

Besides, loans put these great and unique works at risk. The British Museum is acclaimed as the most generous lending collection in the world. More than 5,000 objects travelled to 335 venues in the UK and internationally in 2013-14. I doubt that sending works of art all over the world, in this frenetic, legitimacy-seeking fashion, is wise.

The problem is that all sides in this battle increasingly advance an instrumental role for museums and artefacts. Those arguing the Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece suggest doing so would aid tourism and affirm the identity of the Greek people. Those arguing that the Marbles should stay in London now argue they can melt frosty relations between nations. We hear less and less about the sculptures at the heart of the dispute and the people that created them.

Despite all the fuss about the Marbles, we are forgetting to think about them for what they are: antiquity. They have become the pawns of wider social, cultural and political tussles amidst which their significance is lost.

The debate over museums and their artefacts is too much about us; what culture can do for us today. It is not enough about the object or its past.