The Injustice at Dumbarton Oaks

The Society gathered for its first Merrick Season Debate to consider Resolved: Museums should not display ill-gotten artifacts. Making her induction, Ms. Ann Ludtke (MSB ’18) of Connecticut keynoted on the affirmation with Mr. Alden Fletcher (SFS ’17) of Vermont. Making his induction, Mr. Garrett Hinck (SFS ’18) of Texas keynoted on the negation with Mr. Mac Dinneen (COL ’15).

Ms. Ludtke opened the debate by pointing to the ultimate purpose of a museum – education of the masses, a purpose failed by the display of ill-gotten artifacts. The presence of the Egyptian Rosetta Stone in the British Museum painted an inaccurate history of continued European dominance, echoing the age-old sentiment that “history is written by the winners.” And the display of Native American artifacts with no research on their origins offered us an incomplete history out of a fear of return and a superiority complex of knowing enough. Thus, Ms. Ludtke demanded from museums “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

Having duly thanked the “special” Ms. Ludtke, Mr. Hinck traced the itinerary of the Horses of Saint Mark all across Europe. Asking the question “who owns these horses?” he asserted that “no modern country can claim an exclusive ownership of an artifact” because it belongs to us all as a human heritage. The calls for repatriation in modern Greece and Turkey only reflect a cultural nationalism that attempts to legitimize political regimes by connecting them with the past. Stressing free public access and cultural cooperation, Mr. Hinck urged us to tell “a human story with each and every culture represented.”

Opening with John Keats’ “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles,” Mr. Fletcher borrowed true eloquence to demonstrate that “art begets art.” He reminded us that the appropriation of Parthenon marbles “caused a bit of a stir” even in 1816. And when the uneven distribution of art and culture decided between imperial powers perpetuated and remained till today, we should address it by acknowledging the illegitimacy of ill-gotten artifacts. To prevent art from being stolen and to restore faith in poorer nations, museums should be built on “legitimate and not bloody foundations.”

After mourning over all the hearts stolen by our two lovely inductees, Mr. Dinneen shared with us his impromptu trip to the nearby Dumbarton Oaks in pursuit of some ill-gotten 6th century Byzantine silverware — though he ended up learning that “people were already living in Americas before Columbus” for free. “Imperialist capitalist pig dogs” no longer existed, he claimed, with the rigorous museum standards and ongoing diplomatic negotiations for repatriation today. But as a matter of fact, “far more people will see the art in Britain,” begetting the second greatest artifact of all – knowledge — across arbitrary borders and the greatest artifact of all – love. “Art is a heaven from misfortune for mankind” and gift shops are the only source of evil in museums. (But I do love your pin, Mr. Dinneen!)

Ms. Burke quickly pointed out that England and France are not some “magical neutral place of culture.” Though invented, culture is important to people’s identities and needs to be respected. But looking beyond “fantastic tragic tales” of artifacts, Ms. Kurek countered that the cloudy history is made up of conquest and plundering where “victors erase stories”. With so many murky claims and all the legal work, it’s not worth it to “take learning from people”. But people from every country should have the chance to gain artistic inspiration from art just as John Keats, Mr. Mazzara contested. And if Egypt can keep the God from “Indiana Jones” in its museum, how much money it can make! But with Pompeii falling apart in Italy, Mr. Greco did not trust countries like Egypt to have enough money to keep art in proper condition. Only qualified museums should preserve art for all our posterity.

Vice President Thanki tried to redirect the debate from a discussion of protection deals back to the purpose of museums in education. She would hate to see Indian art taken away and displayed without being “fully genuinely understood”. Singing a song about choice, Ms. Egan then brought us to Ireland, where its independent-minded people successfully repatriated their Celtic Gold from Britain. But Britain should really be held “accountable for stealing what’s not theirs” and mark the artifact as stolen in its museum. A patriot, Mr. Musgrave sympathized with the devastating feeling people have when seeing their own countries’ artifacts displayed elsewhere.  But to Mr. Eisen, these people were just “deeply invested in their subjects.” Sharing the same place does not justify a “cultural right” to artifacts.

Mr. William Blanchette (COL ’18) supplied us with a human story – Germany once took artifacts from Africa on the historically false basis of “safeguard of culture.” But searching for “free and uninhibited history,” Mr. Jawad Pullin (COL ’18) studied the Cold War through secret recordings at the JFK museum in Boston (a city reputedly better than Vermont). Mr. Wang then struck against our “society of the spectacles,” exclaiming that culture cannot be displayed to the masses unless it is ready. Otherwise we can never have the “Capital-T Truth.” Mr. Kendrick reiterated the concept of ownership, which belongs not to the local people who ignored artifacts but to the archaeologists who discovered them and made shady deals to acquire them with no real alternatives.

Mr. Edgar recalled his trip to a small and unknown New Orleans museum, where he experienced the power of art within its context and within reach of a small but valuable local community. He further argued that art should not be aggregated in museums of the rich but should be spread out. But Chancellor DiMisa refuted his argument by proposing a cost-benefit analysis on education from the perspective of museum curators. Does the benefit of collecting the “best of all the different artifacts of the world” for more people to see outweigh the cost of not fully experiencing your own culture? His answer was a solid yes.

But all has changed with the internet, so Ms. Coccia said, we don’t need to “hold on to someone else’s culture” for education. Ill-gotten objects in modern museums are like Curiosity Cabinets, in which western imperialists constructed their “microcosm of the world” with “treasures from the New World” – The more valuable they are to the local culture, the more control you have over the world. This sense of entitlement is no respect of history and culture.

But the rational Ms. Christensen reminded us of the historical context when “it was okay” to acquire artifacts from conquered nations, for both Europeans and non-Europeans. She further directed our attention to the word “display,” calling it a “travesty” to hide artifacts away from public eyes and discourse.  But unpersuaded by historical hypotheses, Mr. Wilson insisted that “where you live does matter to the vast majority of mankind!” Far from hiding things away from cultural exchange, the affirmation is simply requesting their things back to display at home, because living history should not be preserved in one sanitized capital of the world.

Referencing China’s Cultural Revolution that destroyed countless artifacts, Mr. Mouch noted that we can better preserve artifacts by keeping them out of unstable regions controlled by dictators in today’s world. But for Mr. Quinn, that only justifies a temporary safekeeping. He stressed the economic benefits from tourism unfairly reaped by countries in possession of ill-gotten artifacts. “I’ll not be a slave to history and neither should you,” Sgt. Willis responded, refusing to be held accountable for someone else’s injustices. He asked us to “accept things as they are” for more people’s benefits and refrain from emotional cultural competition. From a marketing brand perspective, Mr. Naft advised museums to build a brand image by displaying no ill-gotten objects (with no Asterisk of course, however obsessed the Society is with this mark) and generating revenues in a right way.

With the confession “I too am Irish,” Mr. Dinneen stepped upon the podium to reflect on English slaughters and reminded President Whelan of the blood on his hand from a keynote last semester. But crossing “petty national boundaries,” we should see the return of artifacts not so simply as “pressing a button” or “if I cannot have it, then you cannot have it.” Self-defined as an artist, he too wished to be remembered in history, perhaps at the museum Dumbarton Oaks. But petty nationalism, he warned us, should be cast into the darkness because “they were no good to us then”.

Mr. Fletcher defined the affirmation as a stand of daring, of trepidation, of the creation of a better world without “ill-gotten artifacts” despite the difficult process involved. “We can try at least, if nothing else,” he said. Accusing the negation of historical revisionism, he believed that “theft transcends time and space” and that we are “living the fruits of this country’s imperialism.” It is time to repair these damages as a humbler society and reshape the world based on a new principal.

Attacking the blatant nationalism in his mentor’s speech, Mr. Hinck brought up his unanswered question “What repatriation will accomplish?” He further pointed to the power of displaying artifacts from the world in one place, not as a spectacle, but as a recognition of their global significance. After paying tribute to the great DiMisa Clan (Huzzah!), Ms. Ludtke sought to resolve conflicts. The status “unresolved” implied by all ill-gotten artifacts badly represents the country and the museum displaying them. “For the love of God,” she asked the floor to affirm and put artifacts under “proper light.”

The Society then voted to award Merrick points to the five most eloquent speakers tonight:

  • Mr. Wilson – 1 point
  • Ms. Christensen – 2 points
  • Mr. Edgar – 3 points
  • Ms. Coccia – 4 points
  • Mr. Dinneen – 5 points

Finally, with a vote of 30-1-29, this resolution was affirmed! And most importantly, Congratulations to an excellent pair of inductees and to all the Merrick points’ awardees!


Xinlan Hu

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