Race and justice, decolonisation and restitution. Do museums have any place at all in our society?
The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, will open its 2022 public programme with Fingerprints, a new podcast tackling some of the most challenging subjects facing museums today.
Six episodes will follow objects over the centuries as they passed from their makers through the hands of monarchs, soldiers, thieves and merchants to archaeologists and museum curators.
As these invisible fingerprints add to the story of how they came to the Ashmolean, they raise just as many questions about the history of museums and the pressing issues of race and justice, decolonisation and restitution.
Across the series, 20 leading cultural thinkers, artists and activists will discuss what museums are for, what they might look like in the future, and whether they have any place in our society at all. Guests include Bénédicte Savoy, co-author of the Report on African Cultural Heritage, commissioned by Emmanuel Macron; Dan Hicks, of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum; and Simukai Chigudu, one of the founding members of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign.
The first episode, A Place for Questioning, dives straight into the debate, examining how western museums, and the Ashmolean especially, are entangled with the history of European imperialism. Xa Sturgis, the museum’s director, focuses on Powhatan’s Mantle, an Indigenous North American wall-hanging, and one of the Ashmolean’s most spectacular treasures. Part of the museum’s founding collection from the 1630s, it is thought to have been offered as a gift to James I by Wahunsenacawh, Chief of the Powhatan Tribes in present-day Virginia, US. It is now in the Ashmolean Story Gallery but even though the display is just a few years old, Sturgis explains there is an increasingly urgent problem:
“Powhatan’s Mantle is a completely unique artwork. There’s simply nothing else of its size, significance and importance that survives from the Algonquian-speaking people of the region from that time. But today, it’s displayed not in the context of those people who made it… but rather, of the white Europeans who collected it. For museums to evolve, for museums to engage directly with as many visitors as possible, we have to, I think, face some of these problems full on.”
Writer and museum sceptic Sumaya Kassim, describes the impact of colonial history on different museum visitors. She says: “My experience of museums is just a lot of loss and a lot of hurt; I experience museums as quite difficult and challenging… a lot people’s idea of empire really only happens in museums. And the fundamental experience for a lot of people of empire was of theft. And so you guys in the museum world symbolise something.”
The episode also features Laura van Broekhoeven, director of the Pitt Rivers, Oxford, a museum with deeply complex and controversial history but where staff are at the vanguard in new approaches to museum displays and restitution to source communities.
In following episodes, curators and guests look at a range of famous and emotive objects that raise further fascinating questions:
Episode 2: Oxford’s Benin Bronzes, an example of a live and fraught debate about ownership, empire and restitution
Episode 3: 200 Indian figurines which were displayed alongside living human beings in Victorian exhibitions to teach colonial officials about their subject peoples
Episode 4: a 4500 year old Sumerian statue found by a First World War Indian soldier of the British Army which bears the traces of violence and war and the clashing of empires
Episode 5: a pottery fragment from Knossos discovered by archaeologist Arthur Evans in his quest to prove that the ‘cradle of civilisation’ was in Europe, not Asia
Episode 6: the Arundel Marbles tell the story of British aristocrats’ passion for Classical antiquities that has left an imprint on buildings and monuments up and down the country.
Fingerprints launches on January 21, with a new episode each week until February 25. Listeners can stream or download the series for free wherever they get their podcasts or online at www.ashmolean.org/fingerprints and join the conversation on social media @AshmoleanMuseum.