In Waterstones Gower Street the attendees were all eager to hear Adam Kuper, Professor of Anthropology at LSE explain the crises that museums are facing and ways that museums can be reformed for the 21st century through his new book ‘The Museum of Other People’
The Museum of Other People, as Kuper calls it, relates to museums that have their origins in colonisation; their artefacts have been acquired through the hinderance and destruction of local and cultural ways of life in largely Asia and Africa. He details how the items stolen then became the private collections of wealthy, white European men until put on display for the public to view, and see something Other. Objects that once held cultural and even spiritual value became items by which white Europeans may deem themselves to be more civilised, and less primitive, than the societies to which these artefacts truly belonged to.
With this history, museums have become contested spaces in recent times, Kuper explains, seen as monuments of colonialism. With demands of reparations, museums must now decide what to do with the millions of objects they have both on display, and tucked away in archives. A white man hailing from South Africa, Kuper admits he has been challenged on this subject by those who demand reparations, being asked, ‘Who are you to talk about our belongings?’ With this subject so entwined in identity politics, he questions: who really knows about these objects? There is a battle between expertise and local knowledge; curators who have dedicated themselves to research versus those who are a part of the culture linked with the artefacts. Kuper, perhaps controversially, argues that museums should at least be allowed some credit for preserving and taking care of the items. But this credit arguably feels undeserved, given how the artefacts wound up in museums in the first place.
Evidently then, the current mode of museums is outdated – but what would a museum for the 21st century even look like?
Kuper calls for international museums to co-operate and share artefacts, arguing that value is added not by hoarding, but by circulation. To truly acknowledge colonial histories, museums must not simply apologize and keep the items for themselves, but must share what they have. Kuper advocates for museums that are like, ‘lending libraries…collaborative travelling exhibitions,’ where visitors can constantly learn new history and museums deny themselves total ownership of a specific set of artefacts. It is true that many museums cling onto expensive permanent exhibitions that have not changed much since arriving at the museum. The highly debated Parthenon sculptures, for example, have been on permanent display in the British Museum since 1817. Kuper argues that exhibitions like these need to be cut back in favour for more temporary exhibitions, lest they grow stale. On temporary exhibitions, Kuper jokes, ‘Even temporary exhibitions can be terrible! … But at least they’re temporary!’’
Kuper’s book, The Museum of Other People, holds every notable European museum accountable as he delves into the histories of the collectors who started them, marking their shameful acquisitions as distinctly colonial. He traces the changing attitudes of curators and public alike towards these histories and suggests a new type of museum that may hope to reconcile their barbarous pasts.
edited by Holly Cornall