Who Owns the Past? The Oriental Institute and Beyond
Author: Caglayan Bal
Program of Study: Humanities, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
Western museums, as modern “cabinets of curiosity”, are legitimized spaces of colonialism and can end historical injustice only through repatriation.
Transcript follows after references.
About the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. (n.d.). Retrieved September 14, 2020, from https://oi.uchicago.edu/
Hunt, T. (2019, June 29). Should museums return their colonial artefacts?. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2019/jun/29/should-museums-return-their-colonial-artefacts
Museum of Every Day Life. (n.d.). A Meditation on Encyclopedias and the Obsession of Collecting. https://museumofeverydaylife.org/wp-content/uploads/Meditation-on-Encyclopedias.pdf
Stanford University. (n.d.). Buying, selling, owning the past. https://news.stanford.edu/news/multi/features/heritage/
Woldeyes, Y. G. (2019, May 15). Repatriation: why Western museums should return African artefacts?. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/repatriation-why-western-museums-should-return-african-artefacts-117061
Worley, Z. (2019, November 18). After Eight Decades at OI, Ancient Tablets Return to Iran. The Chicago Maroon. https://www.chicagomaroon.com/article/2019/11/19/eight-decades-oi-ancient-tablets-return-iran/
Retrieved September 14, 2020, from https://www-news.uchicago.edu/releases/03/oi/photos.html
The J by texasradiofish (c) copyright 2020 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/texasradiofish/61420 Ft: ElRon XChile, Admiral Bob
(transcript was provided by student and is unedited)
Welcome to the ELI’s Finding Chicago Global Perspectives Podcast Series for AEPP 2020! I’m your host, Caglayan Bal, and I’m currently enrolled in the University of Chicago’s Division of Humanities. Today we will be exploring the topic of the ownership of the past and the colonial narrative in Western museums.
In one of the AEPP classes, we were listening to a presentation on Lincoln Park that is a neighborhood located in Chicago, and the presenter also gave some information about the famous zoo within the neighborhood. Then, we started to discuss the functions of zoos and animal well-being. Some people in the class were in favor of zoos, and others were completely against them. I also argued that animals such as polar bears, tigers, monkeys, and snakes belong to a different natural environment and they should not be kept hundreds of miles away from their homeland.
It reminded me of my visit to the university campus in early March. I was very excited about my visit to the archaeological museum of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago that is home to a large number of archaeological artifacts from various countries located in the Near East. According to the information on the institute’s website, it was founded in 1919 to study ancient civilizations of the Middle East. The collection of the museum mostly consists of archaeological finds from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Iran, Syria, Palestine, and Anatolia that were collected through expeditions during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Currently, the institute displays unique examples of archaeological artifacts from orthostates and large sculptures to pottery, ornaments, and figurines.
It’s true that archaeological artifacts are not living creatures like animals kept in zoos. However, these artifacts are also hundreds of miles away from their homeland and that means they are also isolated from their natural and cultural landscape. Then, I wondered if there are any initiatives about returning archaeological and historical artifacts to the country origin, as some people try for animals kept in zoos. And after that, I started to research the subject and during my research, I have encountered an article written by Zeff Worley in The Chicago Maroon. According to the article, Iran asked the Oriental Institute to return 1,800 ancient Persian tablets on loan since the 1930s. After negotiations, the institute repatriated those artifacts to Iran in 2019. This article caught my attention and encouraged me to read more about the topic and I have seen that there are many countries asked other Western museums for repatriation. However, not all of those Western museums were willing to collaborate as the Oriental Institute did and I have realized that this is a rather controversial issue traced back to Western colonialism.
Recently, countries including Greece and Italy from Europe and Nigeria and Egypt from Africa have asked western museums to return artifacts that were originally excavated in those countries. The majority of artifacts displayed in western museums were looted during Western colonialism. For this reason, the problem has both legal and ethical aspects, and suggested solutions are either keeping them in Western museums or repatriating them to the country of origin, but dialogs are far from reaching a common ground. However, the value of artifacts is beyond their beauty and beyond the concept of possession. Archaeological and historical artifacts are tangible products of cultures and belong to communities that produce them.
The advocates of repatriation claim that keeping such looted artifacts in Western museums is a continuation of the colonial behavior and therefore, these artifacts should be sent to the country of origin to end the injustice. On the other hand, others in favor of museums argue that museums are conservers of humanity’s cultural assets and these artifacts are safer in Western museums. However, in an article by Stanford University, Lynn Meskell describes that argument as the elite behavior of the wealthy Western societies and she adds that artifacts can only be displaced from their original context under intentional destructions.
As Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes states in his article in The Conversation, after the UN’s declaration on the rights of indigenous people in 2007, African countries have tightened the noose on Western museums by asking for the repatriation. For example, Nigeria requested from many European museums for the return of 4,000 bronze sculptures that were stolen by the Britain troops following the invasion of the Kingdom of Benin in 1897. Although the British Museum denied the request, according to an article by Tristram Hunt in The Guardian, with the French President Macron’s attempts in 2018 to make amends for the impacts of the colonialism, other western museums in Britain, the Netherlands, and Brussels have agreed on sending African artifacts back.
The value of artifacts can only be understood within their cultural contexts. However, the article in The Conversation goes on to say, most of the artifacts are not accompanied with their original history and what is worse, as reiterated in the article by The Museum of Everyday Life, these artifacts are isolated from their original context and their narrative is rewritten by Europeans and therefore, that feeds the stereotypical Western narrative. Moreover, cultural assets are a fundamental part of the cultural identity of communities. For instance, the article in The Conversation continues with asserting that the display of thousands of Africans’ skulls reminds us of racism and colonial interests. Moreover, the article also states that although museums argue these artifacts belong to whole humanity, in most cases, communities living in the countries of origin cannot visit their cultural heritage. Repatriation seems to be the only way to address this historical injustice. These collections are essential elements of cultural expressions of the community and therefore, these communities should have a voice in the supervision of their own cultural heritage.
Thanks for listening to the ELI’s Finding Chicago Global Perspectives Podcast Series for AEPP 2020. I’m your host Caglayan Bal and hope you enjoyed my talk. If you want to learn more about the topic, visit the provided websites, and visit the Oriental Institute in the University of Chicago’s campus. Goodbye!
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