Randy Salzman: Removing relics vs. preserving history

Roundup: Talking About History

[Randy Salzman is a freelance writer and former journalism professor.]

It took trips to opposite corners of the globe to settle my opinion as to whether museums' collections represented the "preservation" or "theft" of other cultures' artifacts.
In Australia, the Melbourne Museum broadcasts this debate through a video featuring actors playing two 19th-century historical figures - a museum curator and an Aboriginal chieftain. Baldwin Spencer, who collected 5,000 objects from indigenous Aboriginals, argued that anthropology preserved history. Irrapwe, an Arrernte leader known as "King Charley," argued it was theft of culture.

Since Aboriginal law differentiates between men's and women's knowledge and prohibits entire races from even seeing their cultural icons, I left Australia secure that native cultures should reserve the absolute right to control their artifacts.

But after having recently spent months in Oxford and London museums, I'm changing my mind.

Many great works of art and history wouldn't exist today if Europeans, especially the British, weren't unstoppable collectors. Should the world be deprived of the Rosetta Stone, or Raphael's Madonna, or the frieze on the Parthenon because the progeny of their originators weren't as fascinated as early English collectors?

Over centuries, furthermore, the Visigoths and Vandals mangled much beauty from Roman life. In the Spanish Civil War, communists destroyed most of their country's Catholic splendor. Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro eliminated the glory of Peru. Gold and silver throughout the world is melted as fashion changes and, just before 9/11, the Taliban dynamited the great Buddha statues in Afghanistan.

Today, the world's best preserved Grecian ruins are in London's British Museum. At the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, the concept that "Those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it" became obvious. Sixty years before the Scopes Trial, the museum previewed the question about "intelligent design" that Kansas and other states are grappling with today.

In 1860, Thomas Huxley, a loyal defender of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, debated Archbishop Samuel Wilberforce over "The Origin of the Species." (Mr. Wilberforce agreed with many of the day's leading biologists that God commanded and nature followed.) The best line was uttered by a woman who wasn't even allowed to attend: "Descended from an ape? Let us hope that it's not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known."

In the nearby Pitt Rivers Museum, curators exhibit by theme, not nationality or region. The museum showcases such things as the methods of firemaking from all cultures, bagpipes from around the world, bark clothing from seven or eight civilizations, and the methods of headshrinking from three continents.

The tiny, dark museum demonstrates brilliantly that mankind is one big - but rarely happy - family. The items crammed into each museum case and the graying, handwritten signage describing them illustrate, with splendid subtlety, how we all share the same needs and desires....

If it weren't for collectors' and curators' love of history and culture, I'm afraid all of us the world over (whether Aboriginal or not) would be losing ours.

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