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On Exhibit

Can the Museum Survive?

From looted artifacts to rogue employees, a series of crises have beset some of the world’s most visited collections.

Visitors to a museum look at miniature museum exteriors

Museums, as the anthropologist Adam Kuper notes in his new book, The Museum of Other People, have never been more popular. There are more than 50,000 of them in existence across the globe. The Louvre, the world’s most popular museum, registered more than 10 million visitors in 2018, up by a quarter over the previous year. The 20 most visited museums in the United States hosted nearly 50 million visitors in 2019. The Covid-19 epidemic cut visitor numbers by over three-quarters, but they bounced back quickly once restrictions were lifted. In 2021, the turnover of the museum business in the United States reached $15.4 billion, up nearly 20 percent on the previous year.

And yet, museums are experiencing a rapidly spreading crisis, sparked to begin with by ever-louder demands for the restitution of treasures seized in the era of colonialism. The museums under most pressure are what Kuper terms “museums of other people”—ethnographic or cultural museums established specifically to cover non-European or non-Western cultures—but what he has to say has important implications for others with a wider, more general coverage, such as the British Museum in London or the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

The Museum of Other People: From Colonial Acquisitions to Cosmopolitan Exhibitions
by Adam Kuper
Pantheon Books, 432 pp., $35.00

Museums were mostly conceived in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, driven by a curiosity about other peoples and other parts of the world, signaled by the creation of learned societies of anthropology and ethnology as part of the new bourgeois public sphere, the spread of education, and the emerging belief that European and North American culture was superior to cultures in other parts of the world. Western collectors sallied forth into Africa, Asia, and Latin America, sending millions of objects back to the newly created public museums. For many nineteenth-century directors of ethnological museums, the obvious way to organize a collection was chronological, illustrating humankind’s progress from barbarism to civilization. The display would begin by showing artifacts from “primitive” or “savage” societies and proceed onward up to the “civilized” and the “advanced.” Thus bourgeois culture in Europe could convince itself of its superiority.

In the nineteenth-century United States, ethnographic interest focused particularly on Native American “Indians” whose culture was investigated by anthropologists during the long penetration of the West by white settlers. They confirmed the rightness of this internal colonization by concluding, in the words of Lewis Henry Morgan’s 1877 book, Ancient Society, that “savagery preceded barbarism in all the tribes of mankind as barbarism is known to have preceded civilization.” The Native Americans were fated to be assimilated or exterminated, their savage culture to be superseded by a more advanced one. By the late nineteenth century, the rise of “scientific” racism was inspiring collectors to amass large quantities of human skulls and other remains in the belief that these would illustrate crucial physical differences between the races. In 1987, it was reported that the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., held some 34,000 bones and skulls, 42.5 percent of which were American Indian, and a little less than 12 percent of which were Alaskan Native.

After World War II, most European institutions turned away from scientific racism, having seen its use in Nazi Germany as the basis for programs of mass sterilization and extermination. Anthropologists, not surprisingly, now agreed that “race” was a cultural construct, not a biological phenomenon. With the wave of decolonization that swept the globe in the postwar era, newly independent nations in Africa and elsewhere began to raise the demand for the restoration of the cultural artifacts taken from them by colonialism. These demands have mounted in recent years, both as activists have brought wider attention to the legacies of colonialism, and as research has identified growing quantities of cultural objects acquired under questionable circumstances. (One group has even begun to offer “stolen goods tours” of the British Museum.)

The first part of Kuper’s book goes through the process by which museums were founded, stocked, and arranged, and while those details are illuminating, it is in the book’s second half that he really gets to grip with today’s crises. How much of a threat do growing demands for the return of cultural objects pose to museums? Beyond particular items in its collections, is the universal museum itself a product of colonialism that expresses an implicit belief in the superiority of Western culture over Indigenous cultures in the areas the West came to control in the age of imperialism? Indeed—a question Kuper might have considered more—is the very idea of a museum outdated in the digital age?

A classic example of the shape of disputes over looted cultural objects is provided by the thousands of intricately worked sculptures, busts, plaques, and reliefs known as the Benin Bronzes. They were comprehensively looted in 1897 by a British military force sent to punish the precolonial West African kingdom of Benin for its actions in massacring a trade expedition. The scale of the pillage was extraordinary. Back in Europe, the loot found its way into a host of major museums; 580 were collected for the Ethnological Museum in Berlin alone. Some 950 were acquired by the British Museum. Sold at rapidly escalating prices on the open market, many others found their way into smaller provincial museums in Europe, but the Metropolitan Museum in New York also acquired 160, mostly donated by private individuals over the decades.

The demand for their restitution seems unstoppable. Already museums in a number of European countries, including Britain, France, and Germany, have begun to return Benin Bronzes in their possession to the countries where they originated. Yet the moral balance sheet of their restitution was not without controversy. What, for example, was the moral right of the successors of the obas (or kings) of Benin to get back the bronzes? Defenders of the looting, beginning with the looters themselves, pointed out that they had engaged in human sacrifice on a considerable scale: As British forces approached in 1897, the oba of the day had hundreds of slaves and captives sacrificed to his ancestors, and, on arrival, the British troops literally had to wade through blood to reach their objective. Their commander reported from the town that “this place reeks of sacrifices and human blood, bodies in every state of decay, wells full of newly killed, crucified men on the fetish trees (which we have blown up), one sees men retching everywhere.”

Moreover, the precolonial kingdom of Benin practiced slavery, along with its neighboring states such as Asante, whose king boasted in 1824 that following a successful military expedition, he “brought more than 20,000 slaves to Coomassy,” or Kumasi, the capital town of Asante. “Some of these people,” he went on, “being bad men, I washed my stool in their blood for the fetische. But then some were good people, and these I sold or gave to my captains.” Along with another precolonial kingdom on the “Slave Coast” of West Africa, Dahomey, these powerful and well-organized states were a major center of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, supplying more than two million slaves to the British ships that brought them to the Americas. The present-day heirs of these states have apologized for their ancestors’ practice of owning and trading in slaves, and the current government of the Republic of Benin has opened a museum of slavery and is building what has been called a “theme park” with artifacts, including a slave ship, in the hope of bringing African American tourists to the area. Organizations that have been campaigning against restitution, such as Britain’s History Reclaimed, a conservative pressure group, have underlined the blood-tainted origins of the bronzes and argued that this invalidates any claim to moral superiority put forward by their original owners as a reason to get them back.

To add to such moral reservations, European museums sometimes argue that the restitution of cultural objects endangers those objects because there is no guarantee that they would be properly cared for. They can point, for example, to the political instability that is endemic in twenty-first-century West Africa, with its frequent military coups, uprisings, and jihadist incursions from the north. In 2012, Islamist extremists destroyed the majority of mausoleums in the Malian city of Timbuktu, all of them inscribed on the UNESCO list of world heritage sites, and as French troops approached the following year to restore order, the extremists torched a library housing irreplaceable manuscripts, some of them dating back to the thirteenth century. The national museum of Iraq was looted during the war of 2003, and the sweeping victories of the Taliban in Afghanistan left local mobs to pillage heritage sites and collections following the U.S. withdrawal. The global market for artworks, ancient cultural remains, and other cultural objects has been flooded with illegally acquired material as a result. Corruption in Nigeria and other countries has added to the toll: Writing in 2009, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah reported, “hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of art has been stolen from the museums of Nigeria alone, almost always with the complicity of insiders.” Nigerian Minister of Culture Walter Ofonagoro warned in 1996, “We are losing our cultural heritage at such an alarming rate that ... we may have no cultural artifacts to bequeath to our progeny.”

A further question raised by the issue of restitution is the identification of recipients. To whom should the restitution be made? Surprisingly often, competing claims are put forward. Native American societies are sometimes divided over the question of what to do with the human remains they receive from museum authorities: Should they inter them or (if custom dictated) incinerate them with due religious ceremony, or display them in an informative though suitably reverential manner? In West Africa, the issue of who had the right to the Benin Bronzes was hotly disputed. In January 2022, the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments announced it would in future deal with claims for them, but on March 23, 2023, Muhammadu Buhari, then president of Nigeria, declared the oba of Benin their exclusive owner. His decision was roundly condemned by the commission, which claimed it was impractical.

In the meantime, the Restitution Study Group, an African American nonprofit organization, went to court to prevent the Smithsonian from sending its Benin Bronzes back to Nigeria, pointing out that some of them were made from brass bracelets presented to the oba and others by slave traders in exchange for slaves and then melted down to make the bronzes. So, the group argued, the descendants of these enslaved people surely had a strong moral interest in these extremely valuable artifacts.

Few such objections to restitution have proved convincing. Arguments that the museums shouldn’t return artifacts to societies such as Asante or Benin because of violence in their histories do not make much sense when one considers the scale of brutality and plunder inflicted by Western powers over the same period. Asante was a slaveholding society, to be sure, but then so, too, were the European powers, in their Caribbean possessions, and the United States.

Nor have European states been models of peace and stability over the past centuries and decades. True, the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 obligated states that were victorious in war to respect the cultures of the countries they defeated. But in World War II, the Nazis in particular ran roughshod over the conventions, even though Germany had been a signatory to them. In the summer of 1941, invading German troops, for example, occupied and destroyed much of the novelist Leo Tolstoy’s house at Yasnaya Polyana, while the composer Tchaikovsky’s home was wrecked as German soldiers drove muddy motorbikes over the musical manuscripts littering the floor. Millions of cultural objects were looted by the Germans during the war, some of them carried off for never-realized display in Hitler’s planned Germanic museum in Linz; yet more were appropriated by the victorious Red Army as “trophy art,” which is still exhibited in uncatalogued galleries in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum.

At the beginning of the Balkan Wars of the late twentieth century, in 1992, Serb forces razed the Bosnian National Library in Sarajevo to the ground. More recently, UNESCO has reported that Russia’s war against Ukraine had resulted in damage to 126 religious sites, 148 buildings of historical and/or artistic interest, 30 museums, 19 monuments, 13 libraries, and an archive by January 2024. And it’s not just war that has imperiled artifacts either: In 2023, the British Museum discovered that up to 1,500 items in its care, including gold, glass, and jewelry, had been stolen in what its chair, George Osborne, described as an “inside job”; the museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, took responsibility for failing to detect the thefts and was forced to resign. Governments have added their bit by misconceived policies designed to save space and resources. The U.K. Ministry of Justice, for instance, is now proposing to destroy millions of historic wills after digitizing them, but the dangers of this policy were starkly laid bare by a massive cyberattack on the British Library in October 2023 that left huge numbers of items still unavailable to readers.

After more than a century in which millions of people across the globe were killed in wars fought between European, American, and Asian armies, destruction and ruin on an unprecedented scale, and torture and suffering of an indescribably horrific nature inflicted on millions, it is difficult, to put it no more strongly than that, for museum directors in London, Paris, or New York to refuse to restore stolen objects on the basis of the supposed moral inferiority of the non-Europeans who want them back, or the danger that they might be destroyed. In the end, what counts above all else is the moral claim for the restitution of stolen goods based on original ownership. If the claimants have a moral right to have their possessions returned, then the question of how they, in their turn, got them, and what they intend to do with them once they have recovered them, is not really relevant.

There are threats to the “museum of other people” beyond the rising tide of demands for restitution. Such exhibitions might have been educational for the societies in which the museums were based at a time when travel overseas or to far-flung parts of the globe was impossible except for a tiny minority of intrepid explorers, missionaries, and traders, but the invention of photography in the 1820s soon began to satisfy the curiosity of Europeans and Americans about other peoples. Cinema and television further undermined the claims of museums to provide exclusive knowledge about other parts of the world. By the middle of the twentieth century, you could vicariously experience life in a tribal village in New Guinea or the Amazon basin without moving from your armchair at home. Who needs to visit a museum to discover what a totem pole looks like, or an igloo, or a pagoda, or an Easter Island statue? If you’re not satisfied with what you see on television, then cheap air travel enables you, even if your income is modest, to go and see for yourself, in situ, surely a superior experience to that of looking at objects in a glass case. On the face of it, we no longer need the “museum of other people” to tell us what other people were like, or how they lived.

More than this, the rise of identity politics in the early twenty-first century has helped foster the belief that it is morally wrong for one society or culture to say what others were like. Instead, it is arguably preferable for Indigenous cultures themselves to tell the world what they are like, and how they live. By doing so, they can wrest their story back into their own hands and begin to correct the legacies of colonization. Difficulties can arise, however, as Kuper notes, when museums fail to couple their missions with rigorous scientific methods. The National Museum of the American Indian, inaugurated in Washington, D.C., in 2004, was conceived as a showcase for Native American culture, yet critics commented that it lacked depth. The resulting displays were, the playwright and filmmaker James Lujan complained, “an exercise in cultural propaganda that emphasizes the positive, glosses over the negative,” and provides a “depth of understanding” that “is little more than what we would get from stopping at a tribal community center or gift shop.” Many of the displays were chaotically organized and difficult to negotiate. Captions were frequently banal and uninformative (“Native Americans of the past consider many places holy,” read one in the Washington museum). No wonder the museum was almost empty when I went there a few years ago, in contrast to the well-organized and informative National Museum of African American History and Culture, a stone’s throw away.

At one museum, Kuper adds, the process of “decolonizing” meant inviting diviners to use religious rituals to identify objects for repatriation. In 2005, a group of Huichol shamans from Mexico was invited to inspect a number of artifacts in the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. The shamans unhesitatingly identified as Huichol several objects that were not. In this case, the museum’s attempt to engage with Huichol culture did little to improve public understanding of its collections. It made a clumsy gesture and showed a loss of faith in the best resources that it has to offer the public: its body of curatorial expertise, and its ability to attract and engage with quality research that could have truly aided in restitution.

Over the past few decades, not least as a result of these developments, the ethnographic museum, the “museum of other people,” has gradually been changing into another kind of museum altogether. To see what has been happening, we need look no further than the Benin Bronzes themselves. From the point of view of museums, the key characteristic of the Benin Bronzes nowadays is the fact that they are regarded not as evidence of “other peoples,” but as works of art. This is the end result of what Kuper describes as “the long-running competition between the art world and the anthropologists,” which, he concludes, has been won by the art historians. Museum directors from the Metropolitan Museum in New York to the recently established Humboldt Forum in Berlin now agree, as Kuper puts it: “This stuff is the business of art historians, not anthropologists.”

Still, Kuper notes, “art museums do not explore what these artifacts mean to the people who make and use them.” For this, a different kind of museum is needed: “a genuinely cosmopolitan museum, one that transcends ethnic and national identities, makes comparisons, draws out connections.” Above all, he argues, we need museums that are “informed by rigorous, critical, independent scholarship.” Museums could, for example, display artifacts from around the world that have been loaned or exchanged, rather than looted. Future exhibitions should surely be informed by the best scholarship in the field, drawing on work from a range of countries and approaches. Deals like the one struck by the Ethnological Museum in Berlin for the repatriation of more than 500 Benin Bronzes perhaps point the way forward: Two-thirds of the bronzes will return to Nigeria, while the remaining third will be displayed in Berlin on loan.

Museums surely have a future. The numinous power of a genuine cultural object is far greater than anything a mere photograph or reproduction can convey. Not long ago, while in New York, I visited the Museum of Modern Art and made my way to Van Gogh’s Starry Night. A large crowd of mostly young people was gathered in front of this wonderful, iconic, endlessly reproduced painting. Everyone there was clearly thrilled to see the actual artwork. And yet no one was looking at it. Almost all of them had their backs turned to it. They were wielding their cell phones and taking selfies with the picture in the background—a ritual that onlookers might bemoan, though nonetheless one that depended above all on the presence of an original.