Museums as Open and Closed Spaces: On Sanitization of History

In the times before the pandemic, throngs of museum guests lined up in front of artifacts, adjusting camera angles in search of exclusivity, and awaiting the right moment to pose with some of the world's masterpieces. Some of these photographs will later be cropped to give an illusion of a special access, and to project the prestige that accompanies proximity to these enduring artifacts. It is not surprising that some paintings, relics, and icons attract curiosities more than others. In the Louvre Museum in Paris, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa lured—and will continue to do so after the pandemic—thousands of museum guests, who daily surged in and out of what the museum refers to as “Salle d’Etats”, or simply as the Mona Lisa Room. But for months now, most museums have shut their doors, compensating this void with virtual tours, as the world speculates on the future of cultural tourism.

While the pandemic, with its legion of uncertainties, imposed restrictions on operational procedures among museums, it is the most recent of events, ignited by police brutality in the United States targeting citizens of African descent, that set fresh ethical standards likely to apply to the legitimacy of collections in some museums. In the first weeks of the global protests, in Bristol, anti-racism protesters toppled and plunged in the harbor the statue of the British Slave trader Edward Colston. City authorities later retrieved the statue that had towered over Bristol for 125 years. This singular event set into motion other protests and removal of statues, which some have likened to iconoclasm. Criticism of the “vandalism” has, to an extent, proceeded to compare these collective acts to the attacks on religious images and icons during the Reformation era in Europe, when some churches protested against cult worship in orthodox christianity and catholicism. Yet the act of toppling these statues is a confirmation of the power that these statues wield, and it is this iconoclastic statement that some likened to erasing history.

The toppling of these statues, and the call to redefine heroes of the last few centuries, relate to museums, especially art and ethnological museums, in multiple ways. Still, the actual act of iconoclasm, as some would categorise the statements made by anti-racism protesters, represents the most fundamental fear of all museums: destruction of artifacts. Among other eventualities, which no amount of insurance can recover, the most dreadful is of a museum in flames. What comes closest to this intense fear, in the last few years, is the fire incident at the historic Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral. As an historic site, this cathedral and, in extension, the statues that are in the process of deconstruction, perform similar cultural functions as museums. It is a commonplace observation that such statues, like museums, are some of the touristic attractions in most cities, and, when photographed, are tokens of memory and proof of trips to these locations.

But perhaps, the golden age of cultural tourism is forever changed or in stasis or even lost. As anti-racism movements continue to spark social consciousness, compelling an adjustment in views of what constitutes cultural artifacts, relation of cultural visitors to the sites of interests, whether in street art or in museum collections, will transform. Questions of ethical practice, acquisition, and historical context of the artifacts might begin to intrude into the consciousness of museum visitors, who constitute the bulk of cultural tourists. Here, the statues are elementally art-works, for they are products of a process that entails transfer of a mental image, through an artist’s gestures and actions, onto a surface or material. And when some of these works find their way into museums, or are erected within open space to immortalize heroes, it is not only the intention of the authorities that commissioned the work that come under scrutiny, but also the integrity of involved artists.

One way of perceiving the anti-racism interventions, which some liken to acts of vandalism, is to consider them as a critique of artistic processes involved, and so extend to the sacredness accorded to such artifacts. From this position, the question of artistic integrity arises, and further if all artistic gestures are configured to improve human conditions. For such statues are products of skilled sculptors, who lived in times when commonsense and collective values are, when judged by current standards, from hindsight, deplorable. No doubt that artifacts in museum collections are often cloaked in an almost sanctimonious atmosphere. The visitors are more than glad to gain access to these items, and to join the long list of those who have witnessed changes in human civilization. But these artifacts, which are regarded with uttermost solemnity, might be reminders of stains in human history.

Though the intrinsic value of artifacts supplants the uncertain conditions in which museums acquired their collections, it is the etymology of the term “museum” that is the trope for redefining the purpose of these sites today. A museum accordingly refers to a seat of the muses. But it was until the seventeenth century that the term assumed its current meaning, as a building that contains specimens, artworks, and rare objects. In “Preface to Plato”, Eric Havelock’s interpretation of the functions of muses is as follows: “They are not the daughters of inspiration or invention, but basically of memorisation. Their central role is not to create but to preserve.”1 But this preservation also involves a public dialog, and if assuming museums to be seats of muses, then they are estimately not only closed sites but also open spaces that permit the preservation of collective memory. Under this spotlight, statues of slave traders and bigots are rather reminders of an inglorious past, and preserves only a section of collective memory.

As regards the purpose of museums, in classical times, after a series of conquests, all those loots that were considered to be sacred were directly deposited in the temple. Margaret Miles writes about the fate of plunders and the conquered noting that Romans developed a system of distributing plunders. “A portion was usually dedicated to the gods”, she writes, “including significant captured statues of gods; the sale of captives of provided slaves that became ubiquitous in society; money helped fund the army and state treasury; and other statues, paintings, furniture, tapestries, and jewelry were eagerly sought by the wealthy.”2 Even today, most museums contain sacred objects plundered during the colonial era, and this accounts for the sacredness that is perhaps attributed to museums. But then it is incongruous if an object meant for veneration is confiscated and confined to a building in which the viewers have no clue of its true purpose. All that these objects perform, in return, is to demonstrate the elimination of one culture and replacement by a superior, universal substitute.

Still, one might ask, to what extent the anti-racism interventions, targeting problematic statues, relate to museums and their collections. What makes this inquiry relevant, specifically in the wake of both the pandemic and the global protests, is the fact of expanding the role of museums beyond the closed structures. Museums as platforms or spaces for preservation, are also molding collective memory and shaping the future. But what if these collective memories, as evident in most parts of the Global North—and including Latin America—barely fabricate history? For museums, these actions by protesters are innately iconoclastic, but they also afford museums the space for speculative thinking. Perhaps, major museums have, unintentionally, contributed to the festering in racial relations, in valorising those whose actions were integral in activating slavery, colonialism and imperialism. Contrary to the position that protesters are clamoring for historical erasure, their actions are demands for a reframing of history. The history of some museum objects, and even some of the statues, are in themselves rife with conscientious omissions, aiming at the sanitization of history.

These omissions can be disguised under philanthropy. For example, the British Slave trader Edward Colston was reputed as a philanthropist. Yet, philanthropy entails strategies of reconciliations practices. In classical times, some rulers often released captives together with their sacred objects. Margaret Miles cites the case of King Cyrus of Babylon, who released Jewish captives and facilitated restitution of sacred items to Jerusalem. Miles perceives this singular case as one in which “the winner takes all—unless, out of humanity, the conquerors are generous.”3 But these acts of generosity, of philanthropy, when applied to rare and sacred artifacts in private collections, today, they insinuate a tactic of tax exemption. Yet, in one way or another, some of these items donated to museums were acquired as plunders, and not too distinct from the looting by a section of protesters at the height of anti-racism protests.

Acts of looting did not end with the conquests at the peak of imperialism, or even during the second world war, but also appeared as recently as 2003, with the plunder of Baghdad Museum. It is then interesting that such shows as “Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011,” hosted at MoMA PS1 in New York City, omitted critical consideration of cultural property while making a case that the American intervention—or invasion—of Iraq affected American culture and politics. Of the two nations, the Gulf War, and even Operation Iraqi Freedom, led to looting of artifacts, destruction of statues, and disrupted iraqi culture more than the American culture. The lootings and interventions by protesters aroused such conversations, especially on historical artifacts, and which in return were triggered by social injustices meted on people of African descent in Europe, North America, and South America. Otherwise, these actions by the protesters can be considered as reactive measures by debt collectors, as people whose wealth and cultural artifacts were plundered, and who are here because they—most of industrialized nations—were there.