Updated: Feb 3
The practices of devaluating others have gained subtlety and is further hushed by the campaign of hypocrite politicians and the activist voices of civil society. Museums’ sins are smaller than ever, but they still fail to do their part and may be reproached; their sin is more the one of omission. To be synchronised with problems of the present is to demonstrate willingness to contribute to their solutions. Museums are still monuments to the conquest of others. The recent projects of repatriation have been so encouraging. Art exhibitions on refugees and the similar suffering „rest” of the world is often intentional omission: a sort of avoidance by extracting it from its primary contexts an putting it into increasingly commercialized art domain.
“Devaluating others” is a chapter, an excerpt from the book „Eternity does not live here - glossary of museum sins”, Zagreb, 2012. The integral text on the theme is available at: https://www.mnemosophy.com/the-vault
Long have since passed the days when museums …. functioned like a zoo in which "primitive people" were exposed. In 1876, Carl Hagenbeck, the father of zoos and animal trading, put together a European travelling exhibition of live animals and "wild" people, Nubians in that particular case. That endeavour encouraged a collaborator to return to the Egyptian Sudan in search of more wild beasts and Nubians. In his Hamburg Tierpark, at another successful show, he had exposed an "Esquimaux" (Inuit) from Labrador. "Hagenbeck's exhibit of human beings, considered as "savages" in a "natural state," was the probable source of inspiration for Geoffroy de Saint-Hilaire's "human zoo" exhibition, in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris. In 1877 Saint-Hilaire organized two "ethnological exhibitions," presenting Nubians and Inuits to the public, thus succeeding to double the entrees of the zoo".
But that was the prime time for those attitudes which have since been abandoned, except in cases of intolerance and racism. Even when museum objects originate from other cultures and civilisations, attempts to understand them are usually made from the Occidental point of view. They are exposed entirely without context and represent cultures known to some extent by experts only; these objects are hardly more than strange, enigmatic aesthetic facts. Besides, taken in their expatriated reality, these objects are (though collected out of scientific interest) testimonies of colonial victories, spoils of wars and conquests and the consequences of looting distant disadvantaged cultures. A disregard for the original meaning of objects or for the appropriate methods of their display (contrary to the spirit of the culture they belong to) is a sign of ignorance and a domineering attitude that should be denounced by any public cultural institution, let alone museums, who are endowed with a humanist mission. Exhibiting the Royal drum, belonging to the Ankole tribe (South East Africa) is sacrilege: an entire generation may pass that wouldn’t have ever set eyes on it, important as it is, and yet it is exposed to the eyes of crowds of foreigners in a museum that acquired the object through distressing circumstances.