Keeping Their Marbles: How the treasures of the past ended up in museums ... and why they should stay there
Oxford University Press, $29.95 pb, 383 pp, 9780198817185
There are cases in which it seems, on the face of it, unambiguously right to restore stolen or misappropriated cultural objects to their original setting or at least to their last known address: we can think of the lamentable looting of museums and archaeological sites during the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and the riots of the pitifully misnamed Arab Spring. And yet because their original sites may still be extremely insecure, some such artefacts are best preserved in the safekeeping of Western institutions until stability returns to their homelands.
There are other instances in which the collection and removal of artefacts, especially tribal ones, have certainly saved them from destruction: the Aboriginal items lent to the National Museum of Australia by the British Museum for the Encounters exhibition (2015–16) were collected by missionaries and travellers from the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth centuries, and would otherwise have been discarded and allowed to perish. Unless one is committed to the idea of tribal cultures existing in a prehistoric present without past or future, continually repeating and remaking and re-enacting, preserving examples of their arts and crafts seems commendable.