“We think of museums as places of objects. In fact, they are places of ideas about nature. Ideas give rise to the objects created by humans. Ideas are the principal means by which humans interact with objects in museums. Too often our different ideas lead to conflict rather to understanding. Our ideas about objects change over time as our knowledge and attitudes about them change and our research techniques improve. Changing ideas are controversial because they contradict what we have previously believed”
~ (Boyd, 1990).
Upon searching for an article/s, I came across an interesting video on YouTube that talked about musuem controversies, as well as mentioning Encyclopedic (comprehensive) Museums for example the British Museum and the Smithsonian, as well as others. This is not a term that I’ve ever heard about. It refers to museums who have artifacts from cultures all over the world. The question: Should museums repatriate these artifacts back to countries and their cultures that they belong too? This is not a new statement. It is one that I’ve heard numerous times. The museums stances are that these collections allow the visiting public to compare and contrast other civilizations throughout history, and to educate the public as a whole on humanity across the board. Boyd (1990) explains that “In some instances, the simple display of an object can be controversial. When exhibits go beyond the “wonder” of the object standing alone and are designed to inform and stimulate visitor learning, they consciously invite controversy-as they should (p.185. para.3).
It appears that everyone these days are discussing illegally obtained artifacts and the returning of property to its rightful owners. This raises ethical and legal issues as well. In addition, DNA sampling and whose property belongs to what culture. It is a sensitive topic that requires dignity, respect, and transparency. It does beg another question: If multiple groups claim said ownership of artifact/s or to a collection: Who decides, the eventual outcome?
PBS had an interesting special as well, where a particular tribal delegation went to Europe to view their ancestral artifacts. Most of these tribes have never seen their cultural materials displayed in this context. We need to examine the context in which all artifacts were obtained with regard to the earlier days of archaeological expeditions and anthropological research, accidental discovery on private land by its owner/s, individuals who have bought illegally or legally, traded, and/or exchange agreements between institutions and/or wealthy benefactors, etc., during a time where laws were either non-existent and/or with very limited restrictions in place. We could spend a lifetime discussing all the associated topics tied to museum artifacts and their resulting collections. Boyd (1990, p.185, para. 3) avers, “In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, museums were at the forefront of challenging our accepted ideas about the world.
Moreover, attitudes and perspectives have changed overtime with more and more populations being open to the preservation of their cultural artifacts. I do know that some tribal entities do not have the facilities or funding in place to preserve their cultural materials and have entrusted local college museums to preserving their artifacts. On the other-hand, there are more and more tribes who are actively engaged in constructing a curation faculty for their material culture. I discovered this during a training session, awhile back with several midwestern tribes. A speaker brought this up, but did not go in-depth on the topic.
Another article goes on to say that museums should have a plan in place, to be transparent, and to create an educational framework that explains a curator’s choice of exhibit, even though it may bring about controversy (Wall, 2019, p.1, para. 3). Wall continues, “Museums are not neutral and generally have institutional biases that reflect Western colonial power imbalances, we must as museum practitioners acknowledge that fact and incorporate the voices of those that were historically silenced” (Wall, p.1, para. 3). Although, she makes this statement, I disagree, not all Western museums reflect colonial imbalances. Most have in the past but are moving away from this topic. I believe that more and more museums are making those silenced voices heard throughout their exhibitions.
I’m reminded of a conversation that I had with a Biology Professor, mentor and friend. He has so many stories to tell from his life and the people that he has met throughout his long career. He told me a story about a battle with a tribe in northern Wyoming. He stated that battles are typically one-side, and that history usually has the successor of a battle relaying a completely different historical account of the ensuing encounter. Western accounts provide written accounts to glorify a victor of an encounter. I do not remember if this was an encounter with the U.S. Calvary or settlers. Tribal accounts are told through oral documentations from generation to generation. However, this does not negate their account/s of an encounter either. What bothers me about past Western written accounts is that people believe them over Indigenous oral accounts. This is usually reflected in old exhibitions of the past, and there lies another controversy. My question is stated above: however, I do realize this is an old question that has been recycled throughout-time and can be an in-depth one as well.
Boyd, W.L. (1990). Museums as Centers of Controversy. Daedalus, Vol. 128. No. 3, America’s, Museums. pp.185-228. Pub. MIT Press. Retrieved April 19, 2021 from https://www.jstor.org/stable/20027572?seq=1
Fota, A. (2019 Mar). What’s wrong with this diorama? You can read all about it. New York Times. Retrieved April 10, 2021 from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/20/arts/design/natural-history-museum-diorama.html
Katz, B. (2019, Mar).The F.B.I is trying to return thousands of stolen artifacts, including Native American burial remains.Retrieved April 10, 2021 from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/fbi-trying-return-thousands-stolen-artifacts-including-native-american-remains-amassed-indiana-collector-180971604/
Wall, A.S. (2019 Mar). How should museums deal with controversy? Musuem Studies at Tufts, University. Retrieved April 10, 2021 from http://sites.tufts.edu/museumstudents/2019/03/19/how-should-museums-deal-with-controversy/