Cultural Theft

the justifications of the powerful

I haven’t thought about this much recently, but a recent request on twitter by Kristie Lu Stout of CNN asking for opinions on whether or not cultural treasures belong in their country of origin got me going. These tweets are to be used for an upcoming live debate in Hong Kong on 15 May 2009.

For years during the early part of my career as photographer I traveled and did stories on remote regions of Indonesia, mostly in the eastern islands. Time and time again I saw cultural ‘artifacts’ disappear from villages, and over time I would watch how these fragile, isolated cultures would begin to lose their identity – sometimes accelerated by the intrusion of commercial enterprises and teeming ‘field personnel’, but more often than not by the simple fact that Asia’s explosive growth cannot but impinge on their world.

Please – this is not an issue of preserving remote, exotic cultures in aspic. At stake here, in reference to human civilization (which grows and changes constantly, hopefully for the best), is the right and opportunity for people to actually develop and improve from within their own cultures. By this 21st century one assumes that we have gotten somewhat beyond anachronistic, colonial attitudes of superiority based on mere material supremacy. Indeed the tides and fortunes of various civilizations in the world repeatedly show us that this attitude, so common to any society in the past is long overdue for the scrapheap.

We have learned that economically the rich cannot survive without helping the poor, that our fates are intertwined beyond imagining. What is it that makes it so difficult for us to understand that this relationship extends to culture – even ‘human enlightenment’ as a whole? It is of course perfectly possible that some beliefs are lesser than others – but even so it is clear that each and every culture has a right to decide how, when, and why they should change or preserve.

The argument of “preserving artifacts that otherwise would have been lost or destroyed” in another country is fraught with false assumptions. One is that a “modern”, more financially and technically endowed foreign institution is ultimately vindicated because the end has justified the means. The ‘end’ is the preservation of the artifact. But nobody talks about the fact that the heirs of that culture have been deprived of their right.

Then there is the argument that it would have been lost to them anyway: imagine if one would argue that a wayward son would have lost his fortune anyway, “so let’s take his money and do something else with it so it isn’t wasted”. How do you think that would go down in a legal court? It certainly wouldn’t be cut and dried. Contingent to that argument (at least the more thoughtful would say this): “and it is preserved for them too…” But it has completely lost its context, and it still doesn’t make up for the fact that the culture has been robbed.

Recently in Indonesia there was a murky case where some items from a royal museum in Java disappeared: the acquisition was defended by the foreign (Dutch) party in question as he said that it was “sold to him” fair and square by one of the heirs. Legally it has been challenged (forgive me I have lost track of this case, not sure where it stands today). Yet the means to obtain this were so sneaky, involving clandestine photography, falsehoods etc, that one wonders why it had to be so if the transaction were so clearly legal?

Coming back to my journeys through remoter Indonesia. I spent much time with various priests, story tellers, and other practitioners of traditional culture in these regions. They lived and breathed it. They were masters of their own culture. Then slowly, sometimes more rapidly, as things began to modernize, and as their beliefs were scoffed at, things began to disappear. The disappearances of sacred objects – funerary and other ritualistic things – seemed to accelerate the ‘aculturisation’. Then finally, a sad point from which there was nowhere else to go other than to become second class citizens of the world – if they were lucky they could become exotica, if not just simple cultural oblivion.

It is a complex issue, I would agree. However those who have more power, money, technical ability and skill at their fingertips should be thinking more of working with these countries, with the various peoples to solve these issues on site rather than stacking items in the basement of a Brussels, Leyden, London, or Paris museum. The recent spat over the word “primitive” at a certain museum in Paris simply points to the natural unease that people feel when a collective conscience starts to nag. Perhaps the dislike of the word primitive arose because somewhere deep inside their hearts they felt that it is primitive to rob a culture of its expressions and then display it, zoo-like, for others to see?

How about we leave the Victorian age once and for all? The whole point of museums is to educate, to broaden horizons. If their displays are acquired through insensitive and barbaric means, what does this say about human progress? Regarding this it is always interesting for me to see the interaction between the ‘field operators’, who sometimes act like wanna-be Indiana Joneses, and the snobbier collectors etc. There is a hierarchical social ladder, starting with the local grave robber right up to the highly educated curator. In it are all the usual tensions, ambitions, and so forth.

Then there are even stranger cases of intellectual cultural theft: e.g. Japanese trademarking Indonesian double-ikat weaving designs from Tenganan, Bali and so forth that have been handed down from generation to generation. How does one countenance, let alone legally justify such blatant acts as this?

Why not help set up proper facilities in the countries of origin, and borrow collections to travel and show, as has been done to some extent with Egypt?

Think of all the basement space you could free up in Leyden….

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