Inside Story

Other people’s objects

Adam Kuper’s survey of museums culminates in a plea for “cosmopolitan” institutions

Martha Macintyre Books 6 September 2023 2565 words

Art and artefacts: the Musée de L’Homme’s Picasso and Prehistory exhibition in Paris this year. Picasso was among the artists who embraced primitivisme. Teresa Suarez/EPA

As a child I used to spend an hour or two after dancing class wandering among the glass cases at the old Melbourne Museum, which is now entirely occupied by the State Library of Victoria. In the gallery above exhibits of animals and skeletons I was entranced by brilliantly coloured insects and mineral samples neatly arranged in rows under sloping glass. I marvelled at Phar Lap’s mounted hide, the model of the Welcome Stranger gold nugget, and a wonderful musical box that played when I pressed a button.

A large room downstairs housed Oceanic artefacts, including a carved wooden child’s coffin that especially struck me. Nearby, a diorama featured an Australian Aboriginal family: these were Australia’s Other People, carefully designed and composed to convey life in the precolonial era, frozen in time and space.

Melbourne’s museum was an eminently nineteenth-century institution, its tone and approach echoing counterparts in Britain, Europe and the United States of America. These museums are the subject of anthropologist Adam Kuper’s new book, The Museum of Other People, a bracingly idiosyncratic account of the materials they have collected and the controversies they have fuelled.

Kuper opens by tracing the history of ethnological and anthropological museums, documenting their colonial origins and the intellectual debates they have generated. The French were the pioneers, establishing the first public museums after the revolution to display objects seized from aristocrats’ palaces. The king’s large-scale cabinet des médailles, a sort of royal attic, crammed to overflowing with a jumble of ancient and exotic artefacts,” was transferred to the Royal Library in 1795, joining a multitude of other artefacts, sculptures and antiquities.

When Edme-François Jomard began work curating the cabinet materials in 1828, his ambitious plan for an ethnographic museum began to take shape. It was to be a collection that would be “scientific,” revealing “the history of the physical man and the moral man.” Didactic and teleological, it would reflect human progress and the “degree of civilisation” attained by people elsewhere in the world, with Paris as the zenith.

Jomard and his contemporaries were aware of the dramatic changes being wrought in previously isolated places by colonialism, trade and interaction with Europeans. His ideas about collections came to be known as “salvage anthropology” — an effort to preserve the items made prior to colonial intervention in non-European people’s lives.

Organising and presenting Other People’s artefacts in a museum posed the curatorial questions that dominate Kuper’s historical narrative. Jomard’s view, still relevant, was that ethnographic items should be arranged by their function in order to reveal how people outside Europe met the need for shelter, food, defence and other fundamentals. Geography was irrelevant for Jomard because the assemblages themselves rendered visible humanity’s trajectory from primitive to civilised.

Debates about taxonomy, categorisation and the heuristics of museum exhibitions have raged ever since. A competing schema was advanced by Philipp Franz Balthasar von Siebold, “a medical doctor, cosmopolitan adventurer and dealer in oriental antiquities,” when he made his case for an ethnographic museum in Leiden. He too stressed the need to exhibit artefacts that revealed human advancement from “savagery” to civilisation, but insisted that the taxonomic principle should be geographical, involving “the practical study of peoples” rather than the juxtaposition of items of similar genres from diverse cultures.

Siebold’s argument was complicated by its coincidence with debates about evolution and the emergence of theories of social change, some of them analogues of Darwinian ideas of species evolution in the natural world.

The British Museum’s ethnographic collection, meanwhile, began with the donation of a large, miscellaneous collection of artefacts by Sir Hans Sloane, who had made his fortune using slaves on his Jamaican plantations and treating wealthy patients in London. The collection was boosted by items brought back by sea captains, explorers and travellers; Joseph Banks oversaw the display of material gathered during James Cook’s Pacific voyages in the “Otaheiti or South Sea Room,” later adding items from West Africa, the Arctic, Mexico and Australia.

For many years ethnographic material was housed with the museum’s natural history collection. Between 1970 and 1997 a dedicated ethnographic museum, the Museum of Mankind, was curated by qualified anthropologists, its exhibitions stressing the social and historical contexts of items usually from a specific region. But the department was closed by the new director when the ethnology department moved back to the main building in Bloomsbury. Kuper deplores this decision and maintains that lumping all the ethnographic material together was a retrograde step, a reassertion of simplistic Enlightenment notions of human progress.

Many of the prestigious collections in European, American and British museums include items that were unequivocally war booty. Napoleon Bonaparte “elevated looting to a patriotic duty,” says Kuper, parading seized treasures through Paris, and items from campaigns in Italy and Egypt remain in French museums to this day. The British Museum houses hundreds of items from the Summer Palace of the Qing Dynasty, looted and razed in 1860, as well as Benin bronzes carried off by the British troops who defeated the king of Edo (now part of Nigeria) in 1897.

The appropriation of property was perceived as a natural right. Conquest and pillage characterised colonial wars, and the victors took home the spoils. Some of them, but by no means all, ended up in museums — the Parthenon marbles being but one controversial example. Colonial administrators, missionaries and traders often donated items they had been given, or had taken possession of, in contexts that are now judged unethical.

In fact, the colonial origins of major collections colour perceptions to the point where it is wrongly assumed that most were misappropriated. When a member of the panel of experts advising the Humboldt Forum in Berlin resigned in 2018 because of delays in determining provenance, she said she wanted to know “how much blood is dripping from a work of art.” In fact, the majority of items in European museums were bought or exchanged in arrangements that suited both parties.

By far the most controversial items in these museums’ collections are human skeletons and body parts. The rationales for their initial collection varied, but medical science, archaeological research and the ethnological study of racial variation account for most of the vast numbers of bones that museums and universities still hold. Displays of bizarre or grotesque items — shrunken heads and scalps, for example — were drawcards that confirmed racist ideas about the barbarity of the colonised. Graves were desecrated, mortuaries raided and macabre installations of skulls set up to illustrate human diversity and evolution.

As recently as 1993 Vienna’s ethnographic museum displayed skulls in a sequence that reflected Nazi racial “science” — beginning with australopithecine, progressing through chimpanzees to “Bushman,” and implying that the latter were less “evolved” as humans than homo sapiens from Europe. Although the exhibition was removed after protests, many museums have large numbers of human bones in storage. They now pose serious dilemmas for museum curators, for indigenous people whose ancestors’ remains were taken, and for governments.

Kuper examines the complex moral and practical problems of restitution and repatriation. Few would oppose the return of bones and human remains for respectful burial, but the question isn’t straightforward. Some cultures favour cremation or exposure, and some have paid no respect at all to ancestral remains. In many cultures, in fact, burial was introduced by colonial administrations (often on grounds of hygiene) and reinforced by missionaries. To whom should trophy skulls by returned? To those who killed and decapitated their enemy, then decorated or shrunk them? To the vanquished? How would they be identified?

Kuper doesn’t shy away from contentious issues. He is alert to the ironies that pervade claims of provenance, identification, reclamation and protection. Items collected as examples of “primitive” culture, such as the masks of Dogon in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are now considered “works of art” and command high prices in international auctions. In the first decade of the twentieth century, French artists, including Picasso, Vlaminck and Gauguin, entranced by carved masks from Africa and Oceania, enthusiastically embraced “Primitivisme” as a way of distinguishing themselves from their bourgeois forebears. Thus, paradoxically, the primitive became synonymous with modernism.

The ambiguous relationship between “art” and the artefacts made by non-Europeans continued in France with the construction of the Musée du Quai Branly — Jacques Chirac, which now houses treasures previously held by the Musée de L’Homme and other French ethnographic museums. The anthropologist Maurice Godelier, a member of the planning committee, proposed that it should be a “postcolonial museum that set artefacts in the context of their production,” but that view was rejected in favour of displays that emphasised aesthetic qualities.

Similarly, the Humboldt Forum in Germany and the National Museum of Denmark abandoned ethnographic display for twenty-first-century European aestheticisation. But Kuper is dismissive of the art/artefact distinction: “So what is primitive art? The stuff that isn’t in a museum of anthropology.”

Assumptions about the heritage or cultural value of artefacts to contemporary descendants are similarly fraught. Muslim generals from northern Nigeria, who disliked pagan antiquities, deprived museums of funding. Some former colonies lack buildings or storage space, and their governments are reluctant to fund museums. Many people in Africa and the Pacific are devout evangelical Christians who regard carved totems or statues as evidence of satanic worship in their benighted past.

In 1991 when I showed photos of Papua New Guinean artefacts held in the British Museum to the descendants of their producers in Misima, people were delighted. They marvelled that they still existed. When I asked whether they wanted them back, there was general agreement that if they were returned they would deteriorate and be eaten by termites. They were happy for them to be kept safe in England, and proud that the craftsmanship of their forebears could be seen by others. In 2013, though, the speaker in Papua New Guinea’s parliament ordered the destruction of the ten-metre totem pole and nineteen masks that decorated its Grand Hall on the grounds that they were “ungodly.”

When the Smithsonian decided to revamp its African gallery, it set up an advisory committee comprising Americans of African descent, Africans and scholars of Africa. Members had such major disagreements about which image of Africa should be projected that four separate sections were set up to accommodate them.

The colonial origins of ethnographic museums ensure they can be variously interpreted as the patrimony of the victorious nations, the lost cultural heritage of the colonised or, more neutrally, evidence of human diversity, ingenuity and achievement. Kuper quotes French president Emmanuel Macron’s response to the question of repatriation: “African heritage cannot be held prisoner by European museums.” But curators of French museums were more cautious: Stéphane Martin, director of the Musée du Quai Branly, countered by saying that “museums should not be held hostage to the painful history of colonialism.” Certainly, like statues honouring slave traders and colonial dignitaries, museums bear heavy symbolic loads.

Returning artefacts to their places of origin is also beset by more practical problems. Museums in many postcolonial states have been robbed, sometimes by those who are responsible for the collections. Rightful owners are not always clearly identifiable: small kingdoms have been subsumed into larger nations, for example, and are now disenfranchised minorities. Kuper describes how Nigerian politicians “routinely visited the national museum” to select gifts for foreign dignitaries. In the 1970s, just as the director of antiquities was mounting his case for the return of Benin bronzes, the head of state, General Yakubu Gowon, presented Queen Elizabeth with one such object from the national museum, which now resides in Windsor Castle.

At the same time, indigenous people in the United States, Canada and Australia remain adamant that many items in museums should be returned and placed under their custodianship. As postcolonial research increasingly acknowledges and documents European invasions, massacres, suppression of cultures, and destruction of the worlds that inspired art and technology, so museum holdings gain symbolic political meaning. When so much has been destroyed, objects in museums are both the remnants and the tangible representations of a culture that once thrived. In reclaiming them, indigenous people are asserting their continued integrity and identity.

Kuper sympathises with museums’ predicaments. Drawing on the observations of curators of major museums in Europe and the United States in interviews and other sources, he illuminates the immense problems surrounding exhibitions.

Museums rarely display even 10 per cent of their holdings. Geography, chronology, function and material still inform most exhibitions and sometimes unintentionally reinforce archaic ideologies of social evolution. Anthropologists and archaeologists have long abandoned terms such as “primitive” and “savage,” and race is now considered a social construct, but notions of racial essentialism and social evolution are deeply entrenched in the public consciousness. As the furore surrounding Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu demonstrated, the idea that hunting and gathering is “inferior” and less “civilised” than farming pervades Australia’s understanding of its Indigenous people. These ideas die hard.

Impressive in its scholarly breadth, The Museum of Other People is written for a general reader, full of stories, arguments and thought-provoking commentary. In its final sections, which deal with contemporary museums, Kuper abandons impartiality and presents his opinions vigorously. He defends anthropological expertise and favours exhibitions that concentrate on material from specific, regionally defined cultures. He is sceptical about the reliance on indigenous knowledge as the primary basis for identification and repatriation. On the issue of “scholarship vs. insider knowledge” he asks: “Can only the Native speak with authority about the Native? And if so, which Native should be elected to speak?” He offers several examples where indigenous expertise has proven false, such as Huichol shamans’ misidentification of artefacts from Mexico held in the Berlin ethnographic museum.

Kuper is also highly critical of the epistemic relativism that characterises approaches by academics and activists who argue for the decolonisation of knowledge. He remains committed to the necessity of anthropological curation and scathingly dismisses the uncritical embrace of identity politics in exhibitions. He concludes with a plea for a “cosmopolitan museum” that “will make room for challenging perspectives and contrasting points of view, so long as these are backed by research rather than appeals to mystical insight or to the authority of identity.”

Kuper’s ideal museum strikes me as an impossibility. Even as curators strive to divest their displays of colonial representations and introduce comparisons and diversity, museums remain imbued with their history. Thinking back to my childhood experiences in the old Melbourne Museum, I wonder about that child’s coffin. How had it been obtained? Was it even a coffin? Now, as an anthropologist, I suspect that it was simply a storage container, for food or precious objects. Polynesians wrapped bodies in mats for burial.

Did I simply imagine it was a coffin? If so, my childish attribution testified to the sorts of things that often characterised museum collections — items redolent of the macabre, the alien and the dead. Shrunken heads, sarcophagi, mummies and bones.

Contemporary museum exhibitions already incorporate many of the ideas that Kuper presents as “cosmopolitan.” Bones and shrunken heads have been consigned to storage facilities or sent home. But the political battles continue over restitution, and over the decolonisation of places that once attested to distinctions between “Other People” and “Civilised People.” •

The Museum of Other People: From Colonial Acquisitions to Cosmopolitan Exhibitions
By Adam Kuper | Profile Books | $49.99 | 432 pages