Culture

The Museums Lose Their Nerve

Review: Tiffany Jenkins, ‘Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums—And Why They Should Stay There'

Elgiin Marbles
Elgiin Marbles / Wikimedia Commons

You’ve surely seen them, that collection of Ancient Greek sculptures in London called the Elgin Marbles. Forming about half of the original carvings that Phidias did for the Acropolis in the fifth century B.C., they were removed while Athens was under Ottoman control in the early 1800s by the English envoy, the Earl of Elgin. Even in Elgin’s time, possession of the marbles was a contentious issue, and the squabbles have grown worse in recent decades. The national museums of Greece are demanding them back, while the British Museum wavers back and forth about whether or not the works should stay in England.

To the British sociologist and provocateur Tiffany Jenkins, the controversy over the Elgin Marbles forms a powerful image—the telling synecdoche, the key example—for all the troubles that beset museums these days. In her new book, Keeping Their Marbles, she argues that a diffidence and doubt has overcome too many museums in the West. A sense of high moral purpose once drove the creation and expansion of museums, but few curators seem to have that sense any more.

In other words, Jenkins insists, we are witnessing a loss of the initial intention for collecting and displaying the past. And into the resulting vacuum, other concerns have rushed. Our collections must be child-friendly. Our displays must be anti-elitist. Our programs must offend no interest group. Our museums must abase themselves for how they obtained their holdings, and they must announce their own doubts about the importance of what they hold. "Since the latter half of the twentieth century," she writes, "museums have faced a crisis of conscience and confidence, . . . a focus of a relentless critique, castigated for historical wrongs and current social ills."

So, for example, in the summer of 2014, the Swedish national museum began to send to Peru the ancient Andean textiles that had resided in Gothenburg since their discovery in South America in the 1930s. Despite its history as a former Spanish colony, and the large percentage of European descendants among its current people, Peru has insisted in recent decades that it is the successor and heir of the ancient peoples of the Andes—and it has advanced the claim quite successfully, with the world of museum-keepers unable to pose any strong self-belief against the moral assertions of historical right. In 2011, Yale University gave to Peru hundreds of items it had obtained from early excavations of Machu Picchu. In June 2014, Argentina followed suit, stripping its national museums and shipping to Peru more than 3,800 pre-Incan items.

Meanwhile, the Met in New York has sent back to Egypt some of the relics of Tutankhamen, just as the Germans have returned to Turkey a Hittite sphinx—despite the fact that modern Egyptians and modern Turks are only distantly related to the peoples who once lived on their land. In the case of the Turks, the current residents are actually the conquerors of the earlier residents. To whom and how ought reparations be made?

Tiffany Jenkins demands that we take this point seriously. At first glance, the Benin Bronzes seem to offer a compelling case for restoration. Benin City was sacked by British soldiers in 1897, and the royal collection of bronze sculpture was confiscated and sent to Europe. Further expeditions vacuumed up so much of the remaining African art that museums in modern Nigeria hold around 50 artworks from the old Benin kingdom, while more than 2,000 such items are found in European collections.

And yet, Jenkins notes, if amends must be made for European imperialism, what amends should be made for the slave-trading state that was old Benin? The Parthenon was built, at least in part, as an expression of power by the Athenian hegemony—and why should Britain have to regret its past misdeeds, but not the Greeks?

Jenkins refuses to join those who celebrate Britain’s imperial history, and Keeping Their Marbles is quite open, even ghoulish, about the often bloody actions that bought the world’s historical treasures to Europe. She pulls no punches, for example, in her account of the looting of China’s Summer Palace by European troops in 1860 (ordered by Lord Elgin, son of the earl who denuded the Parthenon). Jenkins, however, traces the form of the modern museum as it developed from the Renaissance fad for "Curio Cabinets." And she argues that the great Western institutions are what we might call horizontal museums: They stretch across history and geography to provide context and cross-cultural insight.

Keeping Their Marbles saves its greatest scorn for what we might call the vertical museums that narrow themselves to a particular cultural setting—especially when they are institutions of social activism, masquerading as museums. In Jenkins’s view, if a museum takes social change as its purpose, it has ceased to be a museum. And when it dictates, as some Native American displays do, that only men or only tribal elders can see certain pieces, the museum has abandoned its own best reason for existence.

Part of the cause of all this is the credentializing of museum workers. As the job of running museums became more and more professionalized, demanding as credentials an ever-increasing set of graduate degrees from academic programs, the leadership of European and American museums found itself caught by academic training in a postmodern, post-colonial, post-metaphysical mindset—a mindset at war with the initial purposes of the museum. And this credentializing has left modern museums few intellectual resources with which to defend their own existence. When Peru demanded the return of Andean textiles, it quoted against Sweden the apologetic, anti-imperialist, even anti-archaeological material that the Swedish museums themselves had posted as tourist guides for their collections.

It was different, once upon a time. By the early Victorian era, Jenkins claims, the self-proclaimed purposes of museums were highly egalitarian. Far from celebrating nationalism or serving as bastions of elitism, institutions such as the British Museum were determined to display the actual course of history and art, for the edification of all and the elevation of the working classes. Jenkins seems not to notice that this was a social purpose, as much of its time as the social-justice claims are of the current moment in the history of museums.

Still, she writes, displays of the past ought not to be hijacked simply to use them as weapons in the turmoils of the present. "Consider what energy and ideas are diverted away from imagining a better future when those who would have fought for it are now so distracted by finding the cause of present problems predominantly in the past."

Keeping Their Marbles is a little scattershot, a little wordy, and a little unconvincing. But Tiffany Jenkins is worth reading, nonetheless. The title of her book uses the Elgin Marbles as the telling synecdoche, the key example, for the great failure of nerve in modern museums. And that seems right—just as we might extend her thought one step further: The current problems of museums are themselves a telling synecdoche, a key example, for much beyond the display of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. The great failure of nerve infects the world outside the museums’ doors, as well.