Keeping their Marbles

by Tiffany Jenkins, OUP 2016, Hc 368 pages, ISBN 978-0199657599 (£25.00).

Losing your marbles is an English expression for losing your mind, or going crazy; so Tiffany Jenkins reverses the expression to encapsulate her general message in the book while referring at the same time to the question of the Elgin Marbles (the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum).  Her line is that museums should do their best to counter the current arguments about repatriation of objects and to argue their side of the story that it would be best to retain controversial objects in the places where they have ended up.  The main examples she discusses are the Benin bronzes, the Parthenon sculptures, objects looted from the summer palace in China and Native American objects.  For the classicist the main focus will be on the pieces from the Parthenon in Athens which are now in London, and here the author takes the unfashionable view that a universalist or encyclopaedic museum, as the British Museum claims to be, is justified in keeping objects from a wide range of origins and eras to display next to each other to demonstrate links and make contrasts in a global context.  This is the argument that the museum itself puts forward.  She argues this in two parts.  In the second half of the book the sociological questions are examined in chapters dealing first with the internal arguments within the museums where professionals working for the institutions themselves put forward proposals for restitution and repatriation; then the question of who owns culture is examined along with national identity and the part that repatriation of objects can play in developing it; the contrast is then set out between identity museums, where one particular culture claims ownership of objects and decides how they should be displayed and interpreted, and a universalist or encyclopaedic museum, where a wide range of objects is displayed in a culturally neutral way; and finally she deals with the idea of atonement where dominant cultures attempt to make up for past colonial or imperial behaviour by repatriation, and finally she deals with the ethically difficult question of human remains  which form part of  a museum collection.  Jenkins is not much impressed with identity museums, arguing that they can narrow down scientific and cultural research, restricting the range of interpretation and even access to certain sacred objects in some cases.  She points also to the difficulty of determining the national identity of certain objects which were created in an era earlier than the existence of the modern state now claiming them.    

This part of the book is vigorously argued with a wide range of examples from many different regions and cultures.  It is preceded by an historical overview of the rise of museum culture from the early collections and deals with the way certain collections of objects were acquired (even looted) in the first place.  This part is less successful as it tries to summarise too much in a short space and leads the author into some errors: she runs together the two William Hamiltons (the ambassador and collector of Greek vases and the secretary to Lord Elgin) and is often vague with dates and chronologies.  There are also rather too many slips of spelling and dating than one would expect from a book published by Oxford University Press.   

The British Museum recently put on an exhibition about Indigenous Australia.  Objects were loaned from Australia and native Aboriginal representatives advised on the curating of the exhibition.  The British Museum has some objects from Australia which date from the 18th century and the expeditions of Captain Cook, including a wooden shield left behind on the shore at the first landing of the British.  The indigenous Australians generally argue for the repatriation of such native objects, but when they saw these objects in the BM for the first time they are reported to have said they were pleased to see their objects displayed there alongside objects from many other cultures and accorded the same status.  They were used to seeing their own objects in Australia as part of their own culture but this was the first time they had seen equal respect given to their culture in a world context.  Therefore, they agreed that it was appropriate that they stay in London to form part of an encyclopaedic collection.  The future for the museums of the world may lie in such a system of partage, where different cultures share their expertise and the responsibility for the discovery of, research into and display of historical and cultural objects.  Agreements to be flexible over ownership and as a consequence greater willingness to loan objects and to mount travelling exhibitions may go a long way to make the wonders of the past safely available to as many people as possible.


John Bulwer