Cultural ownership and responsibility is not just a fad

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Who owns a cultural object? Who has the right to determine cultural values? And how can public institutions best exercise cultural responsibility?

Lionel ShriverIt's a timely set of questions as we consider the implications of the National Gallery of Australia's return of ancient Indian sculptures. Or the British Museum's refusal to return Indigenous objects. Or American author Lionel Shriver's (pictured) rejection of minority cultural identities while hoping that the social rejection of cultural appropriation is a 'passing fad'. Each of these events unleashes complex, painful consequences that can undermine cultural value or cultural safety.

Like many museums around the world who constantly negotiate colonial appropriations and contemporary deceptions, the National Gallery of Australia has been troubled in recent years by the problem of provenance.

In 2014, the NGA's $5m Shiva Nataraja was found to have been stolen, and former director Ron Radford strenuously defended the institution's due diligence processes. Earlier this year, two further objects, Goddess Pratyangira and Worshippers of the Buddha, have been identified as part of a smuggling operation, their documentation falsified and the conditions of their creation disputed.

'This new evidence means the NGA cannot legally or ethically retain these works,' director of the National Gallery of Australia, Gerard Vaughan, told the ABC. 'Returning them to India is unquestionably the right thing to do.'

In each case, an object acquired on the basis of its cultural value has been found to have no such value. And while public institutions exist to uphold such values, determining those values is a complex matter — as is the right to determine them.

Vaughan's statement of a clear ethical position makes a stark contrast to the position taken by the most infamous of the world's public institutions in this regard: the British Museum. As Gary Foley reminded a full house at the Greek Centre last year, the British Museum still has many significant Australian Indigenous works and cultural objects, including the skull of Bidjigal warrior Pemulwuy.

When Foley and the Dja Dja Wurrung evoked the right to repatriate rare works of Victorian Aboriginal bark art on loan to Melbourne Museum in 2003, the Victorian government changed the law, allowing the works to return to the British Museum.

 

"Telling stories that are not ours to tell denies people the platform, the voice and the right to tell their own stories. Exhibiting objects that are not ours to show denies people the possibility, the place and the right to present their own histories."

 

In addressing a Greek audience, Foley was keen to mobilise activism that would align the return of Aboriginal cultural objects with the most high-profile of the British Museum's questionable acquisitions: the Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles, named for the British Lord who sawed the artworks off the pediment of the Parthenon for his own personal collection, then subsequently sold them to the British government.

On the ethics of its ownership of such icons of Greek history, the position of the British Museum is unambiguous: the institution sees no challenge to its right to tell Greece's story. 'The Trustees are convinced that the current division allows different and complementary stories to be told about the surviving sculptures, highlighting their significance within world culture and affirming the place of Ancient Greece among the great cultures of the world.'

That statement on the Museum's website gives a British account of how Lord Elgin came to be in possession of the marbles, quotes no Greek sources, and then ends with a reading list which includes only British works published by Oxford University Press or by the British Museum themselves.

Nor does the British Museum's historical account acknowledge its own impacts on other nations as crucial to the story of cultural acquisition: reducing the destructive impact of invasion, looting and colonisation to 'Europe's complex history' is unacceptable in 2016.

The British Museum has been obliged to become 'the most generous lender in the world', as they describe themselves, precisely because they refuse to acknowledge the right to cultural ownership. 'The Trustees are convinced' because they need only convince themselves.

That right, of course, is a complex proposition: the ownership of a cultural object may remain in dispute, while in practice the object remains in the possession of that problematic institution. What about cultural values themselves? Who has the right to stake a claim on cultural identity?

In recent weeks, Australian audiences have been disappointed and offended by American writer Lionel Shriver's appearance at two writers festivals. In Melbourne, she rejected the right of LGBTQIA people to see their gender as cultural identity, asserting that gender was a matter of biology alone. In Brisbane, she rejected the ethics of only telling the stories you have the right to tell, and hoped that 'the concept of "cultural appropriation'" is a passing fad'.

In response to the Brisbane Writers Festival talk, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who walked out of it, wrote: 'Cultural appropriation is a 'thing', because of our histories. The history of colonisation, where everything was taken from a people, the world over. Land, wealth, dignity… and now identity is to be taken as well? In making light of the need to hold onto any vestige of identity, Shriver completely disregards not only history, but current reality.' On the impacts of that reality, this reproof of Maxine Beneba Clarke to Shriver reads like a punch to the gut.

There is a great deal at stake in these questions of cultural ownership and cultural authority. Telling stories that are not ours to tell denies people the platform, the voice and the right to tell their own stories. Exhibiting objects that are not ours to show denies people the possibility, the place and the right to present their own histories.

When Vaughan expresses what is 'unquestionably the right thing to do', he acknowledges his cultural responsibility. To remain in possession of objects acquired unethically would undermine both the authority of his institution, and the integrity of an Australian culture that respects cultural ownership. It's an ethics that both the British Museum and Shriver would do well to observe.

 


Esther AnatolitisWriter and curator Esther Anatolitis is director of Regional Arts Victoria and an advocate for the arts. She tweets @_esther

Topic tags: Esther Anatolitis, Lionel Shriver, British Museum, National Gallery of Australia

 

 

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I'd tiptoe carefully here with 'stories that are not ours to tell.' I see what's meant, I respect that, I would hope and expect that telling stories in another cultural context than your own would be done with reverence and care; but who owns stories? What happens to imagination and literature if we can only draw between defined lines? Can I not a write a novel with a Maori voice? Can I note imagine a gay character and have her speak at length? Am I confined to hetero Irish Catholic? I think that's silly. This is a dangerous and so easily misbegotten idea, that stories are owned. Is Paul Kelly a thief to write so beautifully in and of your First People? Or does his art celebrate and deepen and extend and perpetuate the ancient cultures of his native land? I think that if a culture's stories and language and myths and songs are not shared and open to all comers, they'll die out, no?
Brian Doyle | 05 October 2016


Well said, Brian. I, for one, was not not 'disappointed and offended' by Shriver's talks. I thought she made excellent points. As Brian Doyle said, what happens to imagination and literature if we only speak of ourselves?
Anthony McMahon | 05 October 2016


Well said Brian.
Russ | 05 October 2016


The last sentence in Brian Doyle's comment raises an interesting question. When one considers the wanton destruction of Aboriginal culture in the wake of British colonisation and the loss of identity in generations of Aboriginal Australians, did the preservation of artefacts from yesteryear not preserve the culture and aid its resurrection? Had the relics of ancient cultures not been preserved by those who in another time and place thought that they were worth preserving, the world would eventually know nothing of them. There is a certain "constructed culture" of dubious intent in the demands for artefacts to be removed from those who preserved them for all the world to admire and learn from.
john frawley | 05 October 2016


There is assigning ant difference between sharing culture (or anything) and having it stolen ... Worse, it is not ok to declare that this item is something that belongs to someone other than its creator, by another person who has not directly contributed to its significance... If those people aRe alive and can speak for themselves and their communities. How much history is written from a particular perspective that denies or suppresses any other narrative? It is the lack of mutuality in these relationships that do the damage ...
Mary tehan | 05 October 2016


The Elgin Marbles were 'obtained' in an age where Britain didn't give a damn about public opinion in other places. Greece was hardly in a position to do much. 'Cultural rape'? Probably. Should Britain return the Marbles? As someone of British origin whose ancestors were involved in the colonising process - but had nothing to do with the theft of the Marbles - I'd say 'Yes' emphatically. I respect Gary Foley but he wouldn't carry much weight in London. Sad that. He should. There will, hopefully, come a stage where Britain may be shamed into returning the Marbles. We can but hope.
Edward Fido | 05 October 2016


Thank you, Esther - a sensitive, informed article that confronts issues of deep moral complexity, eschewing dogmatism and over-simplification, despite the responses of some commentators.
Anne | 06 October 2016


"In recent weeks, Australian audiences have been disappointed and offended by American writer Lionel Shriver's appearance at two writers festivals. In Melbourne, she rejected the right of LGBTQIA people to see their gender as cultural identity, asserting that gender was a matter of biology alone. In Brisbane, she rejected the ethics of only telling the stories you have the right to tell, and hoped that 'the concept of "cultural appropriation'" is a passing fad'." Why is it that when you are born with testicles but wish to identify as a woman, you can, but if you are born white but wish to identify with coloureds, you can't? Jesus asked which was easier to do, to say to someone that his sins were forgiven or to tell him to rise up and walk. If a man paralysed by his psychology can be raised by re-creation into womanhood by dint of intellect and imagination (of the subject as well as of the medical experts he/she consults), why can't a white Lionel Shriver by dint of intellect and imagination re-create the experience of a coloured woman or man?
Roy Chen Yee | 06 October 2016


No, just no. The ability to tell stories that are not our own is what connects human beings to one another. I will not be denied the right to write about people who're unlike me. You DO NOT get to tell me what I should and shouldn't write at all. Period. The End. There are no compromises here.
Masika | 06 October 2016


It's been all quiet on the cultural appropriation front since 'Elena Ferrante' was found to have done quite a good job of representing the lives of females she was not.
Roy Chen Yee | 19 October 2016


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