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Ethnography, Restitution and Contention

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In October's Book Club, I asked if Cynthia Saltzman's Plunder (2021) could add Italian heritage—seized under the duress of Napoleonic treaties—to the conversation on restitution. In December's club, I turn to Clémentine Deliss's The Metabolic Museum (2020) to dig deeper into ethnographic collections, including the restitution of colonial-era heritage and artefacts. (As a shorthand for ethnographic museums, think of European and Western museums that marry Enlightenment taxonomies and displays with anthropology on non-European/Western cultures).

Using her arrival (2010) and departure (2015) dates as the Director of Frankfurt’s ethnographic Weltkulturen Museum as a framework, Deliss’s pocket memoir-cum-manifesto by Hatje Cantz covers a lot of territory within a short page count.

In thematic chapters (e.g. The Consequences of Remediation, The Archival Underbelly, and Models of a Museum-University) the curator-academic interweaves anecdotes from her time at the Weltkulturen with the broader challenges of decoloniality, which the museum sector faces today. [A good summary of decoloniality can be read on The College of William & Mary (W&M) website, itself a colonial institution founded in 1693 on the land of the Powhatan people.]

Specifically, but not exclusively, targeting the ethnographic museum, Deliss’s book is one of many in recent years to drive conversation on the subject of the restitution, remediation, and repatriation of cultural objects to their home countries and/or communities. (Dan Hicks' The Brutish Museums is another recent example).

Colourful writing, and juxtapositions of striking words, combine to make Deliss's position on these subjects (other literature in the field calls the subject a “debate”) unambiguous, and at times emotive. For instance, museums are a "monitoring environment" (p. 14), "object prisons" (p. 88), "intellectual plantations" (p. 29); and collections are "toxic witnesses to genocidal practices" (p. 15) and "creolized exquisite corpses" (p. 79).

For this Book Club, I want to briefly write about one of Deliss’s main concerns—on decolonialism and epistemology—which could be useful for students, as well as any visitor to a display of non-indigenous indigenous cultures. We might consider the "non-indigenous indigenous" as indigenous heritage ('art and 'artefacts' doesn't cover it for reasons outlined below) that is othered and displaced outside its home country/community, whether it's Nigerian art in Nantucket, or Japanese art in Jutland.

To give an anecdotal account of the non-indigenous indigenous, I once spent an afternoon at the Museo Egizio in Turin. Beforehand, I visited the Museo National del Cinema and ascended the towering Mole Antonelliana, which provided panoramic views of the city. As seen in Figure 1, I saw snow-crowned Alps surround the Piedmont capital, and this impressive, expansive, and unique vista remained in my mind when I later entered the dark, enclosed, and, at times, subterranean Egyptian Museum. The museum, which houses more than 30,000 artefacts (some of which you can see in Figures 2–4), is undeniably impressive, but also anachronistic and incongruous within this very North Italian, Alpine city.

View of Turin

Figure 1. View of Turin. Photo by Henry Martin, 26.03.2018

Museo Egizio

Figure 2. Museo Egizio. Photo by Henry Martin, 26.03.2018

Museo Egizio

Figure 3. Museo Egizio. Photo by Henry Martin, 26.03.2018

Museo Egizio

Figure 4. Museo Egizio. Photo by Henry Martin, 26.03.2018

Deliss, and many others, might also label this museum's collections as contentious, a key term in the literature on restitution. There are many reasons why objects can be contentious (and their contexts of contention differ) but in a nutshell, most items in ethnographic museums have incomplete biographies (known in the art world as provenance) and were taken* from their home countries during military campaigns (in the case of items in the Museo Egizio) or Colonial rule; both of which were (and are) inherently violent and racist. The objects then, are inextricable from a history of violence and, in many cases the rigid and imprisoned figures in museums (see Figures 2–4) correspond to the enslaved and disappeared bodies of their makers. This simple fact and metaphor are hidden in plain sight within, and by the disciplines of, anthropology, art history, and academia, with their prima facie objectivity. Once these simple facts are acknowledged it is impossible to un-see the serial number/label, like a noose, around the neck of the brown bodies in Figure 3, and impossible to ignore the subjects of restitution and remediation.

[*For taken, insert any of the following words: looted, stolen, smuggled, circulated, bought (legally, though often under duress, and for small sums), exchanged, damaged, lost, destroyed etc. etc.].

And so, a great task lies ahead for museums to address their foundations and their history, and the way in which power and control manifest in how the works are arranged, described, categorised, presented, stored, withheld from view, restituted, circulated, remediated, etc.

It is not always enough, nor always possible, for all contentious objects to travel to their home countries or communities (both of which may no longer exist); an example here, of repatriation. There are, however, other ways that forms of restitution and remediation can take place. One example might be to have a restitution curator/manager (ideally from a country of origin important to the bulk of the collection) employed in a museum, whose responsibility it is to educate fellow staff and visitors on this subject area. Another approach may be to assign intellectual property rights and income (e.g. from image licences) to the home country or community.

The remediation technique (approach? method?) that Deliss focuses on in is remediation in the form of contemporary knowledge production. For Deliss, the organisation and categorisation of heritage, and the very ethnos in ethnography, is racist, reductive, stifling; not to mention misleading. It only serves one vision; that of the collector-curator and institution; it is a Western organising construct that bears no relation to the intended uses or meanings of the items in their original states, sites, and intended hands.

She writes:

Museum collections are idiosyncratic composites. They reflect the egos of scientists and historians, the foibles of curators and artists, and the political desires of museum directors to compete for new gifts and rare acquisitions. (p. 63)

The collections, then, have nothing to do with the objects themselves; those objects being somewhat interchangeable with each other. They are, like the stuffed lions and elephants in Natural History Museums, hunting trophies, but subsumed into the categories of 'art' and 'artefacts'. The civilising Western monologue on art and artefacts (it's not really a dialogue that the owners of the objects were involved in) was a semantic and linguistic turn that disguises the bloodshed and displacement that paved the way for the journey of these items through trade routes and slave routes; slaves being sometimes the more disposable cargo on board. In short, we continue to predominantly present (and "understand" and interpret) these objects from a spatial, temporal, and epistemologically Eurocentric position, but have the freedom to remediate the objects and build new meanings and relationships between the objects, institutions, audiences, and across cultures.

On this point, Deliss is inspired by Paul Rabinow’s concept of remediation, a methodology where tools, terms, concepts and forms from traditional practices are utilised in new ways, not for the sake of nostalgia and tradition, but to form, as Deliss writes, “new assemblages … taxonomic transgressions” (p. 31). Manifest examples of this could be 1. remove objects from vitrines 2. juxtapose objects and 3. invite others (e.g. artists, lawyers, students etc.) to respond to the objects. On this last point, Deliss is reflective:

Is critical and creative remediation even possible? Can one heal the past with contemporary interpretations of these artifacts and are these new meanings powerful enough to implode the normativity of ethnographic identifications?” (p. 87).

If reanimated through contemporary heteroclite assemblages that deconstruct their initial source-centric classifications, they can infer alternative narratives and interpretations that both collide and collude with one another, as if their reappraisal had the potential to spam the canon. [...] To hoard them is to handicap their energy as “epistemic objects” able to weave new nodes of contact into the texture of human relations. (p. 63)

She is, however, equally wary about adverse ramifications.

One danger is simply that the collection becomes the artistic means for a new practice, so that the collection is just subjugated to the logic of contemporary practice. (p. 67).

And so, tackling pre-existing "knowledge" on these objects, and create new forms of knowledge, are both complicated methods of remediation. If dangers or setbacks exist, these should not (and this is my opinion; though maybe Deliss might share it) dissuade museums from venturing into restorative projects and actions. The embarrassment and real danger is that no changes will be forthcoming at all, and the balance of power remains tilted in favour of the museums and cultures who extend, rather than potentially address their colonial footprints.

This project will be years in the making. The sheer quantity of items in museums around the world makes it so. It will not be feasible to return heritage en masse. No such reverse migrations can never undo what has already been done. There will be no redemption for the collective conscious of ex-Colonial powers and countries. But maybe hundreds of years in the future, the practices of restitution and remediation are widespread and genuinely restorative, and our collective descendants will think more kindly of us.


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