Human bones, stolen art: Smithsonian tackles its ‘problem’ collections

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Last month, the Smithsonian deaccessioned 29 exquisite bronze sculptures from the Kingdom of Benin that were looted by the British military in 1897. The attack remains one of the most painful in the long history of colonialism and the return of the priceless objects has become a symbol of the global effort to push museums to face their ugly pasts.

The move was celebrated by Smithsonian leaders as the start of a new and more ethical era for the world’s largest complex of museums and research institutions, and it could have enormous influence on colleagues in the United States and around the world.

“The Smithsonian needs to lead morally as well as legally,” Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III said on June 13, at a public meeting following the Board of Regents vote to voluntary return the artifacts. “The Benin Bronzes are really the first example of that.”

Bunch was referring to a new collections policy that requires Smithsonian museums to collaborate with the communities represented by their holdings and to return or share ownership of items that might have been previously stolen or acquired under duress. It directs them to make their collections publicly accessible and to fully vet future acquisitions to prevent items with questionable provenance from entering the collection. It also focuses on the treatment of human remains, some of which are subject to federal law and represent most of the institution’s past repatriation work. The policy requires human remains “be treated with dignity and respect, as those once living, and not objectified as a scientific resource.”

“Ethical returns and restitution aren’t just about a transfer of ownership. It’s about a reevaluation of authority and our role as a museum,” said National Museum of African Art Director Ngaire Blankenberg, who advocated for the deaccessioning. “It is very important because it’s about really challenging museological practices, which in the past were really justifying a whole bunch of, like, crappy behavior.”

Why the Smithsonian is changing its approach to collecting, starting with the looted Benin treasures

But the 176-year-old institution’s roots in the 19th century, its 155 million-item collection and its unwieldy structure — siloed and bunkered with multiple leaders free to interpret the policy as they see fit — leave some in the museum world skeptical and pessimistic. Many look to the Smithsonian to forge a new path — one that fulfills the field’s 2020 pledges to increase diversity and root out racist practices — and they worry that the reality will fall short.

The Benin bronzes illustrate the challenges. As Smithsonian officials celebrated the deaccessioning of works held by its African Art museum, they ignored another 21 Benin sculptures in the collection of the National Museum of Natural History, including four — a commemorative head of a king, hip mask and two wall plaques that have been held by the Smithsonian since the 1960s — on view in its “African Voices” exhibition as recently as mid-May.

One floor above the African exhibit, which opened in 1999, the bones of Robert Kennicott, the famed Smithsonian explorer who once lived in the Castle, are on view. Nearby is an ancient copper plate of a birdman displayed as an example of creativity. The exhibit label notes the plate was from the Etowah mounds in Georgia, but it does not say that Smithsonian scientist John P. Rogan unearthed it in 1883 among “stone sepulchers containing the skeletal remains of several adults and children,” as detailed in the institution’s 2013 book, “The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects.”

Across the Mall, two 6th Century stone reliefs from the Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan, China are built into the walls of the Freer Gallery of Art, which opened in 1923. The gallery text identifies them as the first artworks purchased by the museum after the death of its founder, Charles Lang Freer, but it doesn’t say they were probably stolen from the remote cave.

And those are just some of the objects on view. The Smithsonian has thousands more items in storage, including medical collections of individuals who may not have consented to the use of their bodies for scientific research, objects dug up by American soldiers or seized by government officials, and more than 12,000 human remains.

“I had to chuckle … that the Smithsonian thinks they’re a leader in this. They are not,” said Tina Marie Osceola, an enrolled member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida and director of its Historic Preservation Office, which has been trying for 11 years to get the Natural History Museum to return of the remains of 1,400 ancestors. “They are the best bad example we have in the country.”

Ethical considerations have been part of the American Alliance of Museums’ guidelines for collection management since 2008, and museums including the Museum of Us in San Diego and the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine, are among the leaders in the field. While not the first, the Smithsonian’s actions still resonate.

“It sends a bat signal because it’s one of the biggest power structures in the field,” said Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, former director of the Abbe Museum, who now leads the Illinois State Museum.

The policy reflects the evolution of the museum field. Members of the International Council of Museums have spent three years fiercely debating a definition of museums that would include language reflecting the field’s focus on human rights and knowledge-sharing. The social and racial justice movement that swept the country after the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis have accelerated efforts to address perceived racism and helped to fuel the public pressure to return colonial-era artworks stolen from colonized countries. UNESCO announced in May that Greek and British officials have agreed to formal talks about the Parthenon marbles, perhaps the most high-profile example of issue of ethical returns. The pieces that had been part of the Parthenon in Athens were acquired by British diplomat Lord Elgin and have been in London for more than 200 years. The Greeks have long demanded their return.

The momentum has caused a steady stream of repatriations and returns. Last week alone, the Smithsonian held a ceremony with Australian officials to repatriate the remains of indigenous peoples, while dozens of looted antiquities recovered in an American criminal investigation were sent from New York to Rome to be displayed in the newly opened Museum of Rescued Art.

“Maybe museums want to get off their high horses. We are a perspective. Giving people a voice is important,” said Suzanne Hale, registrar/collections manager at the Colorado State University Museum who chaired AAM’s Collections Stewardship Committee from 2015 to 2017.

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The Smithsonian’s first update to its collections policy in 20 years was adopted in April after a year of discussion. It outlines principles of ethical returns and shared stewardship and gives each museum six months to create plans for their application. The African Art Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian are among the front-runners in this practice. Chase Robinson, director of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sacker Gallery, which hold collections from Tibet, Cambodia, the Middle East and other areas that have benefited from recent repatriations, suggested a reporter check back “in a year’s time, or even better, 18 months.” Kirk Johnson, director of the Natural History Museum, said simply, “You’re never going to finish it.”

Newer units, like the American Indian Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, were founded on these precepts; older ones will have to catch up, said Anthea Hartig, director of the National Museum of American History. “What is new is the entire Smithsonian are now holding themselves to these same standards,” she said.

Museum leaders applaud this approach, saying ethical actions are determined by specific details.

“We shouldn’t expect uniformity, because what is right in one situation might be different in another,” said Tracy Ireland, professor of cultural heritage at the University of Canberra in Australia and co-editor of the 2015 book, “The Ethics of Cultural Heritage.” “There’s a uniformity of process, but certainly not a uniformity of action.”

The updated policy does not require its museums to systemically review their collections, said Undersecretary for Museums and Culture Kevin Gover. Instead, staff will respond to requests and consider the ethical implications of works they encounter as part of their daily tasks. There have been no requests since policy was announced in April, and Gover predicted it will affect only a small percentage of its holdings.

“Our entire business is not going to be about ethical returns. There is a limitation to our capacity,” he said.

“We’re not going to be able to provide a lot of new money to museums to do this,” Gover added. “We have two new museums to build and that’s going to require a lot of attention.”

The lack of a mandate, funded or not, is a problem, critics say.

“You don’t know what you have but you’re going to say already that you don’t have much to give back? That’s weird,” said Erin L. Thompson, author and professor at John Jay College in New York who serves on the advisory committee for the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign. “Not providing a budget means it is not going to happen.”

A complete review would be a powerful gesture, Ireland said, even as she acknowledged the burden on staff and budget that it would cause. Without it, the Smithsonian remains in control.

“It means they are still in charge of the narrative,” Ireland said. “[A review] is important for source communities who simply do not know what’s in these collections, what’s missing, what has been buried away. Real ethical action puts the power back in the hands of the communities.”

‘There’s no tag that says “stolen” ’

Even without the requirement, Blankenberg plans to review and publicly share information about the National Museum of African Art’s nearly 12,000-piece collection, one of the Smithsonian’s smallest. Full transparency has to be the foundation of the effort to share authority, she said.

“The [Benin] bronzes are sort of easy in a way because it was one expedition in 1897 and everyone knew they were looted,” Blankenberg said. “But there’s so many ways that we could unethically have things in our collection. There’s unfortunately no tag that says ‘stolen.’ ”

U.S. museums are trying to return hundreds of looted Benin treasures

A systematic review of the Natural History Museum’s holdings would be a challenge. With about 147 million items, it is the world’s largest natural history collection and represents more than 90 percent of all Smithsonian holdings, covering archaeology, ethnology, art and science. Its size and diversity create competing priorities, which Johnson cited as one reason he did not remove its Benins until May 18, six months after Blankenberg made international headlines by removing her museum’s works and one day after The Post inquired about them. The museum has not had a curator of African art and ethnology since August of 2019, when Mary Jo Arnoldi retired after 35 years.

“It’s a topic of growing interest and one of the many things we’re tracking,” Johnson✓ said, noting that Nigeria is still developing the capacity to accept returns. The museum hopes to bring any of its Benin works connected to the British raid to the Board of Regents for deaccessioning at its next meeting in October. “The intention remains the same and the outcome is going to be the same.”

The Natural History Museum falls short of its colleagues at the National Museum of the American Indian in the repatriation of Native American remains, critics say.

“If you want to run the Smithsonian Institution where different players can do whatever the hell they want, then there’s your policy. But if you truly believe in repatriation, and working with origin and native communities, and building relationships with these communities, you have to be consistent throughout the institution. You can’t allow for that individuality,” said Association of American Indian Affairs chief executive Shannon O’Loughlin, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

Without uniform requirements, tribal leaders see no reason the Natural History Museum will change.

“The NMAI’s true intent is to work with the tribes. The NMNH’s is not,” Osceola, the Seminole historic preservation officer, said. “The NMNH has a long history of treating the ancestors as if they belong them, as specimens in a lab and nothing more. They work very hard to make it as difficult as possible for tribes. The NMAI does not do that.”

“This is a war for our ancestors, and you don’t go into a war trusting the enemy,” Osceola said.

Johnson said he understands the frustration about what he called a complicated process, but he expressed surprise that the tribal leaders described the museum’s work as actively oppositional.

“That is not how we see it at all,” he said. “We feel we are working really hard to do the right thing. I’m looking forward to having more conversations with them to understand the pain points.”

He also said he has reached out to the American Indian Museum. “What do they do that’s different? If they are getting high marks and we are not, I want to know what those differences are.”

Since federal law began requiring the return of Native American remains in 1989, the museum has made available for repatriation about 6,600 human remains and is working on the return of 2,000 more (including the Seminole request). There are still another 10,000 in its care that could be claimed, officials said.

Repatriation is time consuming and difficult because some parts of the collection lack complete documentation and because there is only a small staff to handle the many requests, Johnson said. The museum recently completed an international repatriation involving the remains of people indigenous to Australia, an effort not mandated by law, Johnson said.

There are many other areas of concern. American soldiers that were part of General John J. Pershing’s “punitive expedition” in Mexico in 1916 illegally excavated hundreds of items and shipped them to the Washington institution. And there’s the skeleton of Kennicott, who died in 1866 of mysterious causes, which remains on view despite the new policy explicitly stating that human remains not be “objectified as a scientific resource.” Kennicott’s descendants donated his remains, Johnson said.

“There’s really nothing wrong with having human remains in museums and on display because it’s a big part of who we are,” Johnson said. “Just showing a skeleton isn’t an unethical thing.”

Gover did not express an opinion about whether the display violates the intentionally ambiguous ethical guidelines.

“We’ll see what Natural History decides to do,” he said. “It’s not a surprise that they are going to have different attitudes. Again, I don’t validate one belief over the other. It’s a great conversation to have.”

‘How do we be inclusive?’

It will take years, maybe even decades, to measure the effects of the new approach, but already there are small signs of change.

The National Portrait Gallery is focused on language justice and how it describes those depicted in its art and it is exploring ways to share authority with communities by asking their opinions.

“Are the categories sexist, ableist, racist?” National Portrait Gallery Director Kim Sajet asked. “How can we be respectful of communities that have been hurt and continue to be hurt? How do we be inclusive?”

The American History Museum postponed a planned exhibition of its collection of Gullah baskets from South Carolina to have time to examine its past curatorial work on these objects and to improve their future interpretation.

“We can take the time to reconnect with the community in South Carolina and learn how did these baskets come into being. Who were the artists? What were their names? That’s ongoing work,” director Hartig said.

The Freer/Sackler has been doing provenance research and sharing its findings in gallery exhibits, public programs and online articles. But even these stories only go so far. Facts about the acquisition of the cave temple reliefs, for example, are outlined in the gallery, and more details are in a lengthy blog post. But neither mentions that “very early in the 20th century, the Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan suffered extensive damage and theft,” as the museum’s online provenance states. Maybe, in 12 or 18 months, that information will be more widely shared.


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