Genocide, Colonialism, and Museums

 (c) Marvel Studios

(c) Marvel Studios

The Black Panther hype continues and I want to highlight one very important scene in the movie (minor spoilers ahead).

The reaction at the end of this video was mine. I nearly jumped up and applauded in the movie theater, but didn’t because I’m a decent person and didn’t want to ruin anyone else’s experience.

Here’s the thing, all of my fields have a dirty history. I have a BA in Archaeology, an MA in Anthropology, and I work as a museum curator. Our work is historically built on racism, colonialism, theft, and genocide. We were grave-robbers. We were colonists. We claimed it was our divine right to subjugate and oppress other cultures and take their things for our own education and study. We even took people, putting them in our human zoos to gawk at.

Doesn’t help that I’m white. But I’ll leave that for another day.

When I talk about we, I’m referring to those traditionally of my profession - the anthropologists and historians. As archaeologists we dug up African countrysides and left nothing but holes in the ground as we carted off their greatest treasures to our museums. As anthropologists we used human samples to make determinations about racial differences (which, to the surprise of no one, suggested that whites were the superior race). As curators, we put those relics from other nations behind glass and profited off them while those nations suffered.

I know after those paragraphs, I’ve lost half of my readers. So, to the remaining two who are still here, I want to tell you how we should move forward.

From here on, this is my opinion. It is not an opinion that Europeans and Americans profited off exploitation of other cultures. But I do have an opinion on how I believe museums should move forward.

 (c) Pixar

(c) Pixar

 

  1. Negotiate the return of items. It’s a lot of work to put items back in the hands of their rightful owners, but we’ve taken steps towards it in the past. NAGPRA has helped negotiate the return of Native American burial artifacts to the Native American tribes to which they belong. This process would involve reaching across the aisle to negotiate with other countries. It would be a long, drawn-out, diplomatic process, but it would facilitate new bonds and partnerships. But what about OUR museums? Won’t they be empty? In this beautiful day and age, there are items called replicas. It’s amazing what we can do nowadays. And, really, with 3-D printing, this could be a fantastic method of replacing returned items.

  2. Negotiate the proper transfer of ownership. Many of the places the Western World has ripped items from are still struggling from the legacy of that colonialism. In most cases, the Western World stole the items, did not pay a fair price for them, or took advantage of a less-privileged nation. So what do we do? We go back, and we decide how to handle this past. We can offer a fair and final price. We can accept these items as a gift or donation from another nation (if the nation offers the item as a gift) and label it as such. We can offer a donation for our continued use of the item. We could offer a percentage of the profits we make off the item. No matter which way it is decided to be placed in our care, we should be making amends and we should be consulting the peoples these items were taken from.

Yes, it is a complicated process. It will be painful acknowledging the dark past of anthropology. It will not be financially in our best interests. So why do it? Because it’s the right thing to do.

 (c) Disney

(c) Disney

(How much did you love Black Panther?)