Tuesday 16 August 2016 7:30pm
Tiffany Jenkins Discusses the Repatriation of the Elgin Marbles
It’s one of those issues on which it might seem pretty easy to have the right dinner-party opinion: the Elgin (or Parthenon) Marbles were unjustly looted; the Greeks want them back; only a distinctly old-fashioned British imperialist, perhaps with a Colonel Mustard moustache, would think differently. But academic and writer Tiffany Jenkins, who shares few obvious characteristics with that venerable board game character, has sought to persuade the Book Festival that fashionable views on the repatriation of significant objects might be less progressive than they seem.
Attempting to correct the sins of imperialism, argued the eloquent author of Keeping Their Marbles, is “appropriating the past in the wrong way.” Jenkins’s position is that pressure upon museums to “give back” objects acquired throughout their histories not only risks emptying them, but politicises their role unduly - and overlooks the extremely complex backstories of the objects themselves. How, after all, can we assign one particular nation ownership of an object, when that nation might itself be a recent construct?
Insisting on the specific Greekness of the Elgin Marbles – as the then Greek Culture Minister Melina Mercouri did when she campaigned for their return in the 1970s – ignores centuries of invasions, of redrawn boundaries and of cultural and racial mixing. “It burdens museums with a responsibility to effect change rather than to pursue knowledge,” Jenkins said. “People are giving up on effecting change in the real world, and looking to the culture to do it for them.”
Not only the Elgin Marbles are covered in Jenkins’s argument. She began her talk with the example of the Benin bronzes, gorgeous metal plaques and sculptures that were commissioned by the king of modern-day Nigeria and removed from there by the British in 1897 in order to help fund their mission to assert colonial control. The Bronzes are now dispersed in museums around the world, including the British Museum and National Museum of Scotland. Which, thinks Jenkins, is as it should be. “They do belong here,” she said, “even if they were acquired in circumstances unpalatable to us now.” The Benin bronzes raised awareness of the artistic sophistication of supposedly primitive cultures; and in the museum context, their violent history and connections to colonial power struggles can be brought out into the open rather than concealed under the pretence of healing. “Better to try to understand imperialism,” she said, “than to condemn it to make ourselves feel good.”
Jenkins also identifies a censorious, overly politicised approach to history in efforts by indigenous groups in Australia and America to have sacred objects removed from public view and returned to tribes. “Who wants these things back?” she queried. “On what authority? Its tribal elders entrenching something that is politically backward.”
The idea of cultural belonging and of origins as the source of identity is much-trumpeted today – but Jenkins encouraged her audience to treat it with suspicion. “Culture is fluid,” she said. “It changes. It’s very hard to tell where one culture starts and another ends.” As for returning things to their homes – there's a chance we should regard that notion with the same scepticism we would now apply to that of people being sent home. “I question the idea that there is a home for an object. There are many homes.”