Art show too male? At times, this cry makes no sense

Article in the Observer 

“Abstract expressionism,” wrote poet and curator Frank O’Hara, “is the art of serious men.” The bad boys of this great American art movement, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, shifted the centre of western art from Paris to the US in the 1940s and 1950s and, more precisely, to New York, where they were well known for drinking and brawling in the bohemian Cedar Tavern. Lee Krasner, the American abstract expressionist painter, and Jackson Pollock’s wife, rarely joined them. “I loathed the place,” she said. “The women were treated like cattle.”

Abstract expressionism moved art away from the figurative and explored darker sides of our nature, irrationality and vulnerability. The art is tremendous and of its time – monumental, paint-spattered pieces, an expression of individual freedom, much of it brash and bold. Were these artists serious? Without question. Men? Most definitely: too much so, apparently.

The first major survey of abstract expressionism since 1959, which has just opened at the Royal Academy, has been accused of displaying too much testosterone. Commentary developed on social media from early visitors asking: “Where were the women?” A prominent critic complained that there was “not enough work by the few female artists” and took issue with the exclusion of Hedda Sterne, an artist who appeared in a well-known 1951 Life magazine photograph of the movement’s major figures.

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But what exactly were they expecting? The telling word from the critic is “few”. There were not many women in the movement to be included in the first place: Hedda Sterne may have been in that photograph but she didn’t share the rough posturing of the others and she painted in a variety of styles. Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell, to name two women artists associated with the movement, are included in the show. But a significant a number of women painters are not on the walls because they never existed. They cannot be conjured out of thin air.

In these hypersensitive times, this sort of response to an exhibition should not surprise anyone. However, the question “But where are the women?” is one that won’t always produce useful answers or reassessments. It is also one that fails to appreciate that, in the past decade and more, there has seen a forceful attempt at gender rebalancing in exhibitions and collections.

At the forefront is the Tate. In the opening display at the new Switch House, half of the artists who are given solo displays are women, while, overall, 36% of the works on display are by female artists. There has been a healthy run of shows by female artists in the last couple of years, including those dedicated to Agnes Martin and Yayoi Kusama. Tate Modern is run by a brilliant woman – Frances Morris – who was instrumental in the shaping of the collection and helped to secure the giant metal spider by Louise Bourgeois for its opening in 2000.

It is an insult to be included on the basis of having a uterus rather than merit
But while some of this has brought fresh and exciting results, there are limitations to the attempts to shoehorn more women into the canon: not all of the art is strong enough. The Sonia Delaunay exhibition at Tate Modern last year was delightful and she has been somewhat overlooked; it was thus a break from the tried and tested. But her work didn’t justify the scale of the show.

No doubt there are plenty of below-par male artists who have received similar treatment, and received a temporary but unwarranted boost, but there is more to this feminist turn than a few extra hangs. There is a danger of art history being rewritten through the prism of gender rather than achievement and that is doing a disservice to art and our understanding of art history.

Take Denver Art Museum’s Women of Abstract Expressionism, the first show to focus on the topic, which ran through the summer. Ambitious and revealing, it showed the work of 12 female painters with pieces such as Helen Frankenthaler’s glorious green and peach coloured Jacob’s Ladder from 1957. But look a little closer and you will see that the women included are not exactly abstract expressionist artists.

this-is-cool

Of course, a membership card was not required, but much of the work featured seemed only loosely aligned: Frankenthaler did her own thing and developed her own techniques. The exhibition is guilty, then, of expanding the idea of the school precisely, it seems, to include the women.

While, no doubt, many involved in challenging the canon believe in the artists they champion, too often they talk about the sex of the artist, the problem of art history in ignoring them and, less often, the work. And what about the feminist cause? If anything, the rewriting of the artistic canon to include more women sets it back. It is an insult to be included on the basis of having a uterus rather than merit. Frankenthaler would have hated to be introduced as a “woman” artist.

Canons are flexible. They can and should be challenged and reshaped. But so often with feminist art history, what you see is a display of bad faith, a disregard for the achievement of great artists and a failure to understand why women often did not participate.

The first time the question “Why have there been no great women artists?” was thoroughly asked and answered was in 1973 and the questioner was the academic Linda Nochlin. “There are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cézanne, Picasso or Matisse, or even, in very recent times, for de Kooning or Warhol, any more than there are black America.”

Nochlin argued that this was mostly due to the fact that in the past women were second-class citizens. They were prevented, sometimes actively, but also by expectations and circumstances, from making art.

That’s not an entirely satisfactory explanation; there have been some notable exclusions and convincing reassessments, such as with Georgia O’Keeffe (on show at Tate Modern until the end of October), whose work still commands less at auction than a comparative male artist. Then there’s the brooding and brilliant Artemisia Gentileschi, who has rightly been written back into art history.

But Nochlin was broadly right: when women were treated as unequal and barred from many art practices, of course there were fewer women artists. The shortage of great women artists in our galleries or art history isn’t a result of a conspiracy to write them out of history – they were not there in the first place.

How helpful is it for America to have a museum dedicated to African American culture?

this-one

Article in the Spectator. 

‘A fool’s errand’. That is how Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, wryly characterises the decade’s work it took him to get the museum built. It opens in Washington DC this weekend. A talented fundraiser, he and his team matched the $270 million from the federal government (Oprah Winfrey donated $21 million, Michael Jordan $5 million), and travelled the country sourcing artefacts. Most difficult of all has been convincing critics that such an institution — devoted as it is to the history of black America — is necessary and not divisive, that it will tell a story, not of one culture for that culture, but of America.

No Smithsonian museum had ever started life without a collection until this one did. After much persuasion, gathered inside the new building — a shimmering bronze-clad structure, designed by Tanzanian-born British architect David Adjaye, situated on the National Mall in the shadow of the Washington monument — will be historic artefacts that include a segregation-era railway car, significant objects from the great and the good — Muhammad Ali’s headgear and a brass-and-gold trumpet owned and played by Louis Armstrong — as well as items from ordinary citizens; the museum instituted a programme called Save Our African American Treasures, which helped people to identify objects of importance tucked away in their cupboards and attics. As a result of these efforts, there will be five floors of exhibits, and 3,000 objects on display: emotionally charged slave shackles, Nat Turner’s Bible, the American slave who led the slave rebellion of 1831, and a training plane operated during the second world war by the Tuskegee Airmen (the first black American military pilots) rising up to a platform, aside which a quote from the poet Langston Hughes states: ‘I, too, am America.’

When President Obama cuts the ribbon to the museum at the opening, before an estimated crowd of 20,000, he will mark the achievement of an ambition first set out more than a century ago. In 1915 black veterans of the Union Army, gathering to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the American Civil War’s end, organised a ‘colored citizens’ committee’ and proposed a national museum celebrating the African-American contributions to the country’s history. President Calvin Coolidge, ten years later, approved the construction of a building to serve as a ‘tribute to the Negro’s contributions to the achievements of America’, but plans faltered with the Great Depression.

After a fresh push in the 1970s, the proposal picked up new support. In the 1980s the Democrats John Lewis and Mickey Leland introduced legislation for a stand-alone African-American history museum within the Smithsonian Institution. They had little success; for 15 years, the bill met defeat. ‘Once Congress gives the go-ahead for African-Americans,’ Senator Jesse Helms, one opponent, warned in 1994, ‘how can Congress then say no to Hispanics, and the next group, and the next group after that?’ It wasn’t until 2003 that George Bush signed the bill authorising the national museum.

Much has changed since then. In 2003, the Museum of the American Indian opened on the Mall and in 2013 legislation was introduced into Congress to create a National Museum of the American Latino; though the project languished, the opening of the African American museum is generating new pressure for the cause. The past few years have also seen the rise of the protest movement Black Lives Matter. Never before has the politics of identity seemed so charged.

Bunch, a skilled political operator, neatly refutes Helm’s concern, echoed by others, that American history will fragment along racial lines when told through ethnically-specific museums: ‘This is not a black museum,’ he says of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. ‘This is a museum that uses one culture to understand what it means to be an American.’ You can’t understand America, he argues — the struggle for equality and the civil-rights movement, jazz and rock’n’roll, nor the progress of the first black American president — without understanding black America.

Bunch hopes to strike a balance between a narrative of progress and recognising the suffering of the past and how it continues today. In an essay for Smithsonian, he writes, ‘The museum needs to be a place that finds the right tension between moments of pain and stories of resiliency and uplift,’ and that, ‘I hope that the museum can play a small part in helping our nation grapple with its tortured racial past. And maybe even help us find a bit of reconciliation.’

This is probably why, although the museum will take the visitor through the history of slavery and the civil-rights movement to the present day, the first thing they will see is contemporary art, setting an optimistic tone — the work of three artists: a five-panel painting by Sam Gilliam, a sculpture made from tyres by Chakaia Booker and a ceiling sculpture by Richard Hunt. Rather than make a historical point, as art is often used to do in history museums, the work is included on the basis of artistic merit.

But there is no avoiding the fact that this museum has a difficult mandate: at a time of fractious debates over history, with the frequent assertion of the reality of racial difference by black and white activists for whom victimhood is a badge of pride, achieving closure, to mimic Bunch’s therapeutic language, seems wildly optimistic.

When the museum released 28,500 timed-entry passes for the opening weekend, they were gone within an hour. All the Saturday passes were taken in 14 minutes. Perhaps the next challenge facing Bunch is managing the weighty expectations of what one museum can achieve.

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.

OUP £25 pp368

Buy for £22.00, including p&p, from the Sunday Times Bookshop

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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

 

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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.

My Secret Life

On the Benefits of Secrecy. 

Article on Aeon.

header__The-Secret.-William-Frederick-Witherington-42-43183752At the heart of The Secret Garden, the much-loved children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, in which a disagreeable orphan is transformed into a flourishing young girl, lies the protective power of secrecy. In finding a garden that has been forgotten, which is overgrown and hidden, Mary finds an echo of her own neglected soul. As she tends it, weeding and planting and seeing the trees come back to life, her self-knowledge also begins to bud. Soon she is blooming, becoming plumper and stronger, the secret she nurtures having begun, in its turn, to nurture her. When Mary shares her secret garden with the sickly boy Colin, he too begins to grow, emotionally and physically. He reveals his ‘secret terrors’ to Mary, and in doing so overcomes them. Secrets in this novel are disclosed only once their protective shelter is no longer required.

It’s an enchanting story that gave me great comfort as a child. I loved the idea of having a secret place that I could share with one special friend. And I had plenty of opportunities to indulge this fantasy, because children’s literature is full of secret gangs, covert missions, secrets codes, hidden forests, passageways and compartments – all of them portals, like the wardrobe in the Narnia series – that introduce the young to the feel and functions of secrecy, its allure, value and dangers.

The word secrecy derives from the Latin secretum, which means to set apart, and from secernere, which means to separate, as with a sieve, which suggests that secrecy is a method of separating and dividing, placing something – or someone – out of the way. In Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation (1983), the Swedish-born philosopher Sissela Bok defines a secret neutrally, as deliberately blocked communication: ‘Anything can be a secret so long as it is kept intentionally hidden.’ Its content, Bok writes, might be less important than its use in differentiating ‘insiders’ – those in the know – from ‘outsiders’, and thus demarcating hierarchies.

That’s one reason why it is so pleasing to be asked: ‘Can you keep a secret?’ It means that the keeper has judged you worthy of being a trusted intimate, sharing in something exclusive. Being in on a secret is delicious, and difficult (it is tempting to tell, to show off), while being on the outside of a secret involves the painful discovery that you have not been chosen as a confidant.

Childhood is full of secrecy and secrets, many of them winkled out of an adult world that is closed to the young. Grown-ups deliberately hide from children things they wouldn’t understand, or knowledge that could be confusing or threatening, which is something children learn to mimic: they learn that keeping things back is often good. Not least, they learn, like Mary, that secrets confer a kind of power.

The Secret Garden was published in 1911. In today’s world, in which transparency rules, secrecy doesn’t command the same respectful treatment – even on the pages of children’s books. States, institutions and individuals who keep secrets are seen as having something to hide, which is by default suspicious; and whistle-blowers such as Julian Assange and Edward Snowden are hailed as popular heroes. Transparency in business and government is the new mantra, backed by a popular culture whose thrust is towards revelation and openness.

In this context of shifting attitudes towards secrets, ordinary, everyday secrecy is now a fraught terrain for children: do secrets help or hurt them? Enable them to grow, or hinder them?

Even in times that celebrated the benefits of secrecy, people have been alert to its potential toxic impact. In Modern Man in Search of a Soul(1933), the psychoanalyst Carl Jung warned that secrets ‘act like a psychic poison that alienates their possessor from the community’. At the same time, Jung recognised that holding secrets is part of the process of individuation:

In small doses this poison may be a priceless remedy, even an essential preliminary to the differentiation of the individual. This is so much the case that, even on a primitive level, man has felt an irresistible need to invent secrets; their possession saves him from dissolving in the unconsciousness of mere community life, and thus from a fatal psychic injury.

In controlled doses, then, secrets remain necessary for a child’s development. Secrecy can overtly serve personal interest, as when children keep information from others to avoid punishment, like concealing that they didn’t eat their broccoli. But secrecy also serves more fundamental purposes: it contributes to the formation of our inner awareness and autonomy; it creates a space for the imagination; and, as well as being a weapon of exclusion, it is an essential tool of friendship.

Children are not born with the ability to keep a secret. They grapple with employing secrecy gradually. In a series of studies in Germany and Australia conducted in the 1980s and ’90s, the psychologists Elisabeth Flitner, Alan Watson and Renate Valtin all found that the concept of secrecy undergoes major changes in children between the ages of five and 12. With the younger children, the researchers venture, it aids the formation of a sense of self.

The games children play from an early age – peekaboo, treasure hunt, hide and seek – are based on secrecy and, crucially, exposure. Kids love hiding games but they also struggle not to give themselves away. My five-year-old niece screams: ‘I am here’ before I’ve reached the count of six in hide and seek. One reason, suggests the Dutch-born phenomenologist Max van Manen in Childhood’s Secrets (1996), is that young children have trouble with the idea that they are not there. Hiding teaches them the more complex idea that, although you cannot be seen, you still exist, after which comes the successful closeting away, from adults, for hours, in secret camps, constructed at home or in the garden, which allows them to create and control their own environment, aiding the development of independence.

Practically every child reading Enid Blyton wants to be a member of the Secret Seven, the gang of boys and girls with a clandestine meeting place accessed by a secret password (spoiler alert, it’s ‘Tiddlywinks’, delivered in a whisper). Peter, the leader of the Secret Seven, has a mother who respects secrets and does not probe them. As in the story ‘The Secret of Old Mill’ (1948):

‘What is it?’

Peter and Janet looked at one another.

‘Well,’ said Peter, at last, ‘it’s a secret really, Mummy.’

‘Then, of course, I won’t ask any questions,’ said Mummy at once. That was always so nice of her – she never made the children tell her anything if they didn’t want to.

Secret places and passwords are byways that allow children to construct their own physical and mental arenas and patrol their borders, loosening themselves, slowly – safely – from the constant supervision of adults.

At five or six, children understand the concept of a secret but find one hard to keep. They’ll blurt out their knowledge of a surprise party or birthday present. While they can just about keep the information to themselves, the strain is obvious: if you wish to, you could easily wheedle it out of them. The next stage is to keep something to oneself with no one knowing. The 19th-century French psychologist Pierre Janet argued that the child’s discovery of secrecy is a significant event because it heralds the birth of an inner world. When a child realises that thoughts and ideas can be kept within and are not accessible to others, they understand that there is a demarcation between their world, which is inner, and that which is outer.

In his memoir Father and Son (1907), the English poet Edmund Gosse describes such an experience as an exhilarating awakening. He had broken a lead pipe, part of the garden fountain, and is waiting in fear for what he assumes is the inevitable discovery (his father was keen to find and punish the culprit), until it dawns on him that he is safe, as someone else is suspected:

There was a secret in this world and it belonged to me and to a somebody who lived in the same body with me. There were two of us, and we could talk with one another… it was in this dual form that the sense of my individuality now suddenly descended upon me.

Edmund realised that he knew something that his father – omniscient, until that moment – did not, which forced upon him an awareness of his own independent and conscious self. In keeping something from a parent and other family members, children experience the separating power of secrecy, which can be deeply unsettling: they are placed at a distance from those important to them, which can be isolating and lonely. But as Edmund found, it also means you can talk to yourself. Secret journals and diaries play a part in this, too. On the blank pages of a notebook, for their eyes only, children can record their honest thoughts and feelings.

Nothing is worse than the false friend who discloses a confidence

The German sociologist Georg Simmel was one of the first modern scholars to examine secrecy, and his salient observations in ‘The Sociology of Secrecy and of the Secret Societies’ (1906) still stand. He believed secrecy was one of the ‘greatest achievements of humanity’. Why? Because secrets create a more complicated life experience. Once people can keep secrets, he observed, they can live in two worlds. Secrets allow us to think thoughts that we are not obliged to act upon, or can nurture us until we do act. They create space for reflection and possibility; allow us to imagine life differently.

Simmel also argued that secrecy was essential in forming and sustaining relationships. It’s an important insight, further developed by Flitner, Watson and Valtin, whose research shows that, for older children, secrecy is tied to norms of friendship. The six- to 10-year-olds they studied expressed uncertainty about divulging a secret, especially about a friend. By 12, a promise not to tell is binding. Children at this age need to be part of a group, to connect with non-adult peers, and secrecy is a way to forge these intense relationships.

Secrets are a currency that is spent creating inclusion and exclusion. But confiding in someone is also an expression of trust – and a requirement of intimacy, which is why sharing a secret is so precarious: you open yourself up and make yourself vulnerable, offering the keeper an opportunity for manipulation and coercion. They might reveal your secret! With secrets, loyalty is affirmed, and outsiders pushed away. Nothing is worse than the false friend who discloses a confidence. The problem is not so much what they reveal – the boy you fancy; that you bunked off maths – but their betrayal.

While many secrets in a child’s life are relatively harmless in content – the knowledge of a garden, a gang’s meeting place, who broke the lead pipe from the fountain – secrecy can hide serious wrongs, and keeping a secret can be a terrible burden. Children often try to keep personal problems – a fight with a mate, bullying, an abusive teacher, an alcoholic parent – from adults and friends, in order to try to manage their own affairs, protect loved ones, or not be labelled a ‘grass’. But the secret can be too big for them to cope with. As well as ensuring the wrong continues, festering unchecked, keeping such secrets causes great distress.

Worse still, secrecy can protect those doing harm. Abusive adults exploit and manipulate a child’s impulse to respect the authority of elders, forcing them to be silent about a serious ill that should be exposed and eliminated. It is hard for children when an adult asks them to keep something to themselves, when one parent requests that their son or daughter withhold information from the other parent, which splits loyalties. The tension between being compelled to keep something quiet and wanting to divulge it can cause great emotional upset. Dark secrets eat away at the holder.

In Secrets (2002), Jacqueline Wilson updates Burnett’s secret garden and Blyton’s Secret Seven for modern readers. Her novel navigates well the advantages of secrecy, as well its dangers. Almost every character has a good secret that protects them, or a bad one that demands revealing. Treasure and India, the young girls at the centre of the story, come from different social backgrounds. Treasure lives in grotty public housing; India, in a fancy house with a neurotic mother and a father who is an embezzler and a drunk. Each girl is friendless and out of favour with her parents, who are flawed, selfish and unhappy.

After meeting accidentally, Treasure and India become firm friends. It is a relationship known to no one else. ‘I’ve got my secret, my special new friend Treasure,’ India writes in her ‘deadly secret’ diary. The secret friendship shelters them – as did the secret garden for Mary – from family troubles, and brings them great happiness.

Keeping a secret exerts a physical toll, weighing people down: secrets are burdens that impact negatively on body and mind

Then one day, Treasure’s step-dad Terry whips her with his belt, and she runs away. It the not first time he has abused her, Treasure confides to India (previously ‘he left bruise marks all round my neck’), revealing also that her mother knows about these acts of violence but has told no one. Taking a drastic step to protect her, India hides Treasure in the attic of her house.

But keeping Treasure secret causes everyone anguish. Treasure is cut off from the rest of her family, especially her Nan, who is desperately worried. What starts out as a secret sleepover, soon becomes like a secret prison. While India feels important at first, it doesn’t take long for her to feel powerless and alone. Though hiding Treasure is intended to provide refuge, the children are not capable of coping without grown-ups: they are too young. Resolution comes when India is forced to disclose Treasure’s whereabouts to the adults and explain her flight. Once Terry is exposed, he is cast out, and both girls return to their respective families, close intimates.

As adults, there are times when we need to emulate Peter’s mother in the Secret Seven, and not probe children’s secrets. Other times, we need to be more like Treasure’s Nan. She is the most sympathetic and trustworthy grown-up, and gets the last word, spelling out the moral of the story: some things cannot be ‘hidden indefinitely’; once everything is forced out into the open it can be resolved. The psychological dividends of releasing a heavy secret is something of which the American psychologist Michael Slepian would approve. In a paper published in 2012, Slepian and his fellow researchers suggest that keeping a secret exerts a physical toll, weighing people down: secrets are experienced as burdens, they say, that impact negatively on the body and the mind.

But since we know that learning to navigate the power of secrecy is essential to becoming an autonomous individual – a person among others, involved in meaningful and lasting relationships – perhaps children need to be able to administer small amounts of secrecy in their lives. They need room to experiment with secret-keeping, without being weighed down by secrets too large or too grave to bear. Every child needs a little secrecy.

 

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.