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Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums... and Why They Should Stay There

July 2017 (121.3)

Book Review

Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums... and Why They Should Stay There

By Tiffany Jenkins. Pp. ix + 369, figs. 17. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2016. $34.95. ISBN 978-0-19-965759-9 (cloth).

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Jenkins’ book is bound to raise hackles with many in the museum industry as well as others whose claims for the repatriation of objects in museum collections overseas she rejects. The book, the title of which aptly summarizes the content, is strident in tone and, in the context of the dominant discourse of the “New Museology” and of current museum practice, is perhaps deliberately provocative.

The views Jenkins presents are straightforward enough. She thinks that objects acquired from abroad by (mostly) European and American museums in the past, in questionable circumstances, are best kept where they are: “Ancient objects sometimes belong in museums, often far away from their creation and discovery, where they can be cared for, studied, and shown to the world” (123). She stresses the cultural and scientific benefits that have come from (mostly western) museums possessing these objects. For example, the Benin Bronzes (looted during an “imperial rampage” [138] by the British in 1897) allegedly “transformed the way Europeans saw Africa” and inspired Picasso, while the flood of Chinese objects—the 1.5 million items looted from the Peking Summer Palace in 1860—stimulated further western interest in Chinese art and fashions (138–42, 148). 

This is a simplistic picture of the impact of foreign objects on Europeans, with the bronzes and their makers regarded as “primitive” (see P. Wood, Western Art and the Wider World [Chichester, England 2013] 166) yet also inspiring a few artists, and we might wonder why European benefit trumps the claims of others anyway. Logically, reference to past benefits does not seem sufficient to deny present or future repatriation claims per se. Future benefits in terms of research and public access would likely continue to accrue if objects were returned (in many cases), and scholarship, too, is not restricted to such centers as London and New York. To suggest the Greeks could not or would not care for their marbles properly is patronizing and paternalistic. It seems that major museums in certain countries are here regarded as the best permanent venues for the care, study, and viewing of objects primarily because they already possess the objects in question. A similar neocolonialist undercurrent is apparent throughout the book.

For Jenkins, as for others such as James Cuno (president of the J. Paul Getty Trust) and Neil MacGregor (former director of the British Museum), the collections of universal or encyclopedic museums are the common heritage of all, transcending claims of national ownership of particular objects; such museums situate objects in a “wider, richer framework of relationships” where along with other objects “they provoke questions, illustrate relationships, and take on an elevated meaning” (123). In other words, the ends justify, or at least excuse, the means of acquisition, and objects are, in this view, more meaningful and valuable in such collections than outside them. But the “universal museum argument” has many critics, who have rightly pointed out that the self-proclaimed importance of universal museums does not and should not give them automatic immunity from claims for return (e.g., N.G.W. Curtis, “Universal Museums, Museum Objects and Repatriation: The Tangled Stories of Things,” Museum Management and Curatorship 21 [2006] 117–27). From an archaeological perspective, it can also be said that context means seeing objects in association with other finds and details from their point of origin, not removing them into collections of different objects; archaeologists hold it as axiomatic that much information and meaning comes from context.

Jenkins’ central argument is that “the negative cloud surrounding museum institutions is as damaging to their work as are the specific claims for the return of ancient treasures” (181). She writes of an atmosphere of postcolonial guilt over the acquisition of some objects and a culture of hand wringing among museum professionals, which itself stimulates more claims for repatriation (323). But what Jenkins sees as a “negative cloud” others would see as a culture of openness to debate on historical relations and the ownership, meaning, uses, and control of tangible cultural heritage in the present, a debate in which historical wrongs can be faced head on and shared between claimants, museums, and the public. Equally subjective is her assertion that claims for repatriation are damaging. Which stakeholder is damaged? Who would suffer if the Parthenon marbles were returned? According to a Museums Association poll of 2012, most British people approve of their return (73%)—so not the British public. Tourists do not visit only London, they also visit Greece, and more might visit the latter if the marbles were there to be seen; scholarship, too, is international. Admitting some claims for return need not mean the wholesale emptying of collections (which some might predict), especially, as Jenkins notes, because many items were obtained in perfectly respectable ways (150).

In Jenkins’ view, rightly, museums are not responsible for past wrongs, even if they have benefited from them; but she also thinks that trying to atone or make reparations for dubious activities in the past goes beyond what museums should do (274–89) and suggests, with exaggerated gesture, that museums “will not bring about world peace” (323). She argues that we should focus on the objects as they are and where they are now and how they can be of benefit. The argument is weak, though, in that it never answers the question of why the present location of objects remains the best place for them, why they cannot function the same elsewhere, where they might have an important meaning for local people. Repatriation can be one means of promoting positive and deeper relationships between museums and communities that claim objects; it need not be “damaging” (see Curtis [2006]; P. Bienkowski, “A Critique of Museum Restitution and Repatriation Practices,” in C. McCarthy and H.R. Leahy, eds., The International Handbooks of Museum Studies. Vol. 4, Museum Practice [Chichester, England 2015] 431–53). Museums are well placed to play a role in modern “soft” diplomacy precisely because of the international nature of collections, of audiences, and of scholars, without this being a distraction from what they do or an added burden.

In some places, Jenkins plays a rhetorical blame game. The ancient Athenians and the Beninese were morally questionable (287): she claims incorrectly that the Parthenon was an imperialist monument built by slaves and dubiously that Benin gained its wealth from the slave trade (A. Burford, “The Builders of the Parthenon,” in G.T.W. Hooker, ed., Parthenos and Parthenon. GaR Suppl. 10 [Oxford 1963] 23–35; J.D. Graham, “The Slave Trade, Depopulation and Human Sacrifice in Benin History,” Cahiers d’études africaines 5 [1965] 317–34). Following the infamous British accounts of the city, Benin was a barbarous and bloodthirsty place and therefore deserved to be sacked and despoiled (140). The imputation is almost that these factors make retention of the marbles and bronzes more acceptable–especially when we appreciate the benefits of possession for the population of the wider world.

In terms of “national” (when the term is anachronistic) claims of putative descent groups, it is true that Greece is not ancient Athens, and Nigeria is not Benin, but, despite that, is it so easy to dismiss the claims of self-consciously descendent people (214–15)? We could at least consider that modern Greece and Greeks are more related to ancient Athens than to London and the English, and that the Parthenon marbles are more important to Greeks than to the English. Emotional claims, which cut no ice with Jenkins, must carry some weight; many English people feel some kind of hard-to-define connection with Stonehenge, though the monument long predates the existence of England, and such an attachment is therefore “irrational.” A principle of redress, making restitution for perceived past wrongs and their results as part of present day relationships is suggested by some and relates to a distinction between legal and moral title (R. Vernon, Historical Redress: Must We Pay for the Past? [London 2012]; C. Woodhead, “The Changing Tide of Title to Cultural Heritage Objects in UK Museums,” International Journal of Cultural Property 22 [2015] 229–57).

Another part of Jenkins’ argument is the claim that too much is now expected of museums in terms of their social role. Noting that museums have long been seen to have a “civilizing” mission, she sees their purpose and future as much more strictly object- and research-centered: “to research and display what artefacts can tell us about past human civilizations” (62–5, 323). She does suggest that the general public should also be at the center of museums’ purpose, but to succeed in this aim will involve a degree of social outreach and (at least in part) a socially oriented mission, unless we are content for museums to remain largely the haunts of the able-bodied white middle classes; it is not sufficient to observe that free museums are accessible to all when research clearly demonstrates that some groups are or feel, for whatever reason, marginalized or that museums are irrelevant to them. Museums cannot solve all social problems—nobody would claim they could or should—but they can, realistically, address some of them within a reasonable scope, those connected with accessibility, inclusion, and relevance, for example. 

Not discussed but relevant to Jenkins’ arguments is the notion of displaying replicas, which could allow originals to be returned with less “damage.” New technology allows detailed scanning and reproduction of objects. One could ask why the British Museum needs to keep its original Parthenon marbles or Benin bronzes when researchers and visitors could engage with high-quality replicas or virtual versions. Replicas have already played a significant role in research, including replicas of the Greek marbles (see S.M. Foster and N.G.W. Curtis, “The Thing About Replicas: Why Historic Replicas Matter,” EJA 19 [2016] 122–48). This raises many other issues and questions, however, that are outside the scope of this review.

All in all, Jenkins’ arguments are bold and contentious but not convincing as presented. The book contains a lot of interesting detail, for example about the history of collecting and of the formation of the major museums in the four chapters of part 1, while part 2 delves more deeply into the author’s views but on the whole seems disjointed, with arguments tagged on to narratives. She presents with relish the removal and looting of objects and stresses the benefits that possession brought about, then insists that there is no moral obligation of museums to confront these difficult histories—the “grubby stories,” as she puts it disparagingly, with which we are now preoccupied (323). There is even an ill-judged joke in which she observes that it is probably too late to return the empress of China’s stolen dog, “Looty,” which was given to Queen Victoria (149).

If anything, Jenkins’ book convinces me that the issue of claims for the return of objects is something best approached on a case-by-case basis, that museums do have a role in soft diplomacy with communities that suffered due to past imperialism and that the efforts at building better relationships between museums and other groups are worthy. It certainly will make the reader think about how continued possession (imagined as custodianship for the people of the world) of contested objects by former “powers” can remain justified in the present and the sense of superiority inherent in such a view. The aura of negativity and the danger and threats to museums that Jenkins identifies seem to be straw men; of far greater concern are issues of funding and of illicit trade in artifacts.

Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with Jenkins’ views, the book will be an interesting read for a wide audience interested in cultural heritage, including museum professionals and others. Selections from the book would make good seminar readings for museum and heritage students to respond to and should stimulate plenty of lively debate.

Guy D. Middleton
School of History, Classics and Archaeology
Newcastle University

Book Review of Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums... and Why They Should Stay There, by Tiffany Jenkins

Reviewed by Guy D. Middleton

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 3 (July 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1213.Middleton

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