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Museums And Morality: Rogueish Or Wrong?

The guidelines for being a UK Huffington Post blogger suggest you write with a UK angle, which I didn't really do in my last blog. Sorry editors, but I'll play by the rules this time, sort of.

If anyone ever has the misfortune of conversing with me for any length of time, I will almost certainly have complimented something shiny you're wearing, told you I went to Durham and spoken extensively about museums, chances are I would have done all of this within the first 10 minutes. As much as I like shiny things and Durham, I love museums. Museums are to me what Tiffanies is to Holly Golightly or the lap of a millionaire is to Lorelei Lee. However, museums are complex entity's. They have a historical connection with colonialism, and the way artefacts are acquired by Britain is at times oddly reminiscent of stealing, and While thievery may have a rogueish appeal, it's not known for its virtue. While I may be at peak comfort at a museum, there is a slightly uncomfortable question at the heart of these institutions. How moral is it that museums like the British Museum have treasures from all over the world? is it fine that we took something precious from it's home? Should it have been left in it's context? This blog won't have the word count to fully discuss this issue, so instead I shall focus on the effect that having foreign artefacts in museums has on cultures. I will follow this up with other blogs which further explore the complex web that is this debate, something aching more to a series opposed to a standalone blog.

I believe museums to have a lot of -at times- untapped potential to champion change. Witnessing an artifacts from different cultures and reading about them is one step closer to experiencing that culture, and experiencing the culture helps us understand the culture. We live in a world which is simultaneously opening and closing, cultures are becoming integrated while also becoming more isolated, essentially boarders are decreasing, but hate crime is increasing. The world is in a weird state of flux, and I think it stems from asymmetric information. The opening occurs when cultures understand each other and begin to blend, the closing occurs when they do not and they instead isolate. Having a foreign artifact in a museum does two things, it cements it as belonging to a certain culture, and it teaches locals about another culture. I've heard people describe the display of another cultures artifact as stealing heritage, when I believe it to be securing that artifacts heritage. It plays into the idea that cultures aren't the same, they grow from a different seed, but despite this we are growing toward each other, like a forest. The artifact acts as definitive proof that the other culture has a past varying from ours, but it's placement in a foreign land shows that we still co-exist. Not only is this educational, it counters ethnocentrism, an ethnocentric bias against alternative brilliance by displaying alternative forms of thinking. Ultimately it shows new ways minds work and new histories which encourage an open mindedness always needed.

Let's look at it from the other side, if a new law passed and all artifacts had to be returned to their original context what would happen? Children would grow up less inclined to learn about other cultures and if we take this further, and the artifacts never left their cultures then global integration would be hindered while stagnation and segregation encouraged. While I support the view that keeping tradition and culture alive and distinct is important (and extreme blending of cultures is not my aim), I am thoroughly against the segregation, or the rejection of individuals to join a culture. The most famous foreign artifact, at least in Britain, is that of the Elgin Marbles. The magnificent friezes and pediments we took from Greece and won't give back. Greece has one of the best understood heritages of all time, it is rare to meet someone who doesn't know who Zues is. It may be coincidental, but I find it hard to believe that it's not in some way influenced by how we have such a rich piece of Greek history on our door step. That's not to say the Earl of Elgin was right to take the decorations, but it would daft to overlook the positives.

To take something from a culture isn't ideal, frankly it's impertinent (an accusation us Brits resent), and museums do have a history somewhat besmirched by this. However, I do believe that a system of acquiring foreign artifacts must be maintained. I would love a world in which artifacts are given from cultures to museums, a sort symbolic gesture to invite people to in, a shift towards cultures sharing information instead of it being looted from them.

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