Return the Stolen Artifact, But Keep the Museum Label

I’ve been thinking about absence since last spring, when I visited a patch of churned dirt at Health Sciences Park in Memphis, Tennessee. A monument to the notoriously cruel Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate cavalry commander and first “Grand Wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan, stood there until 2017. The walkways around this now-empty focal point bore fading Black Lives Matter slogans. A tuft of weeds sprouted through the flaking paint of a raised fist. That some dispute had once raged here was clear. But there was no information about what it had been.

Since then, I’ve found myself making what I suppose you might call pilgrimages to the places where things used to be. In museums, artifacts can slip from view even more quietly. A new object goes up on an emptied pedestal or a case is rearranged to hide a gap. If I hurry, sometimes I’ll spot a clue: remnants of the tape that held the placard for a sculpture being prepared for repatriation back to Cambodia; a “case in process of installation” sign left behind when authorities seized an antiquity looted from a tomb in China.

These silences are loud, since museums know how to mark absence. Labels tell us what areas of display are the product of modern restoration. Displays leave empty spaces, sometimes with signage to tell us exactly which other museums are refusing to give back the artifacts that could go there. Recently, museums have even made commendable efforts to encourage visitors to consider the people and geographies that have been left out of traditional displays focused on White, Western, male artists. 

Some museums have chosen to explain the removals they had made for reasons including not wanting to display racial stereotypes, reconsidering “whose perspectives receive prominence in our collections,” and discovering that an object was created by someone pretending to represent a cultural tradition. I have also seen signs in the Denver Museum of Nature and Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) explaining that an empty slot in a case was once filled with an artifact restored to a Native American community. 

Of course, such signs are not enough. In January, the AMNH indefinitely closed two halls to consult with the tribes and nations whose sacred and possibly funerary artifacts were on display. On the day the new federal regulations that prompted that change were announced, I was in the museum on what turned out to be the final stretch of a grim scavenger hunt. After I investigated the museum’s collection of the remains of thousands of Indigenous people from around the world and profiled some of the descendants working to claim them, the museum announced a series of changes, including removing a dozen examples of human remains from display.

Every week or so since then, I paced a loop through the museum to spot the increasing number of small signs that appeared in cases. “The Museum will no longer display human remains,” each read. “We have removed those previously displayed here.” There is no accompanying description to help you know what was once there — or, more importantly, how the museum had come into possession, for example, of a burial bundle of an infant, or why it installed these remains in a case between plastic models of potatoes and llamas to illustrate the foodways of pre-contact Peru. 

Naming the wrongs of the past is hard, especially when the wrongs have not yet been entirely righted. Still, it is crucial. If we close ourselves off to the pain of the past, we will be numb to the joy of the future.

The Rubin Museum shared part of the difficult process of change last year when it removed a Nepali artifact from display after receiving a repatriation claim. The pedestal where a 16th-century copper mask of a deity remained empty for months as the museum worked with Nepali and American authorities to determine whether it had been stolen in 1995. As the case continued, visitors saw a new sign explaining the process, which the museum wrote it was sharing “as an important example of issues facing many cultural institutions today.”

This week, I woke up to photographs sent by colleagues in Nepal. The mask had reached Nepal, along with three other stolen artifacts, including another mask stolen from the same site. (There’s no evidence that any of the museums involved knew of these thefts, since the pieces came to them or their donors through the art market, including major auction house sales.) The objects were welcomed with worship and offerings. They will return to the communities that miss them, as have the two other pieces the Rubin returned to Nepal in 2022. 

Still looking at photographs of the ceremony, I got another message: the Rubin Museum announced that it will shut its doors in October. The museum will keep its collection of artifacts from the Himalayan region and will lend them out to other institutions. The museum says the decision is “absolutely not” related to recent repatriations, and has pledged to continue to research the ownership history of its objects so that it can “address all claims responsibly” for artifacts that are “documented as stolen or looted.”

The Rubin Museum of Art is slated to close permanently in October 2024. (photo Erin L. Thompson/Hyperallergic)

Look, I’m a cynic. The mask was “documented as stolen” because its caretakers happened to have snapshots of it in use during a ceremony and because they filed a police report when it went missing. But what about the sacred artifacts that may have been stolen from communities too intimidated to report a theft? Or those whose photographs weren’t taken — especially the tantric objects hidden to non-initiates? I’m in favor of the Rubin’s commitment, but when I visited the museum the day after it announced its closing, I saw that the sign about repatriation had vanished, with the mask’s old place filled with another sculpture.

I am well aware that labels, especially about controversial topics, are easy to misinterpret or even just ignore. And I know that silence is sometimes imposed from outside the community, like those in states trying to force all residents to maintain even monuments that symbolize the opposite of their liberal values. But I still hope that whenever we can, we will mark the changes we are making, slow and fitful as they are, as we decide whom to honor, whom to abhor, whom to study as “other” and whom to work with as equals. The dramatic, creative changes in some of our public monuments can serve as inspiration. 

That day in Memphis, I picked up one of the stones that seemed to scab over the site of the monument. I carried it with me as I went a little more than a mile to Elmwood Cemetery, where Forrest himself was buried in his family plot from his death in 1877 until 1904, when he and his wife were disinterred and moved to a new grave beneath the monument. After the monument came down, they were moved once again, and are now buried at the national headquarters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Along with the Forrest family plot, Elmwood Cemetery still holds the graves of over 1,000 Confederate soldiers. The magnolia trees planted to shade their resting place have grown unruly, their roots pushing once neat rows of tombstones all aslant. Even the base of the obelisk erected to honor the memory of the Confederate dead was crumbling. I set the stone from Health Sciences Park on its step, to show that I was still paying attention. 

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