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Presenter: Kenan Malik
Producer: Ingrid Hassler
Editor: Nicola Meyrick
White City
201 Wood Lane
W12 7TS
020 8752 7279
Broadcast Date:
Repeat Date:
Tape Number:


Taking part in order of appearance:

Professor Jack Lohman
Director of the Museum of London
Baroness Young of Hornsey
Cultural Consultant and Former Head of
Cultural Policy for the Greater London
Michael Brown
Professor of Anthropology at Williams
College, Massachusetts, USA
Robert Foley
Professor of Human Evolution at Cambridge
Neil MacGregor
Director of the British Museum
Norman Palmer, Barrister and Professor of
the Law, Art and Cultural Property, University
College, London

Adam Kuper
Professor of Anthropology, Brunel University

MALIK: Museums used to be dusty

repositories of arcane artefacts. Today they are fast becoming sites of
conflict and controversy.
LOHMAN: I think its high time for museums to
behave morally towards their collections and towards the communities that
they serve.
YOUNG: The problem with some of those
collections is not just about the way in which theyre collected, its about
the motivation behind them. So if something is collected in order to, for
example, demonstrate to the superior Europeans the inferiority of Africans
or Indians or other peoples, then that is obviously highly problematic.
BROWN: The problem is that if you try and do
an exhibit that doesnt offend somebody, you end up with an exhibit thats
so uninteresting and insipid that its really of no use at all.
MALIK: Jack Lohman, director of the Museum
of London, cultural consultant Dame Lola Young and Michael Brown,
Professor of Anthropology at Williams College, Massachusetts. What does
it mean for museums to act morally? Should they become more socially
relevant by promoting the cultural aspirations of the communities they
serve? And is it right for museums to hold on to objects that belong to other
cultures? The great museums of the West are largely products of Empire.
In our more enlightened times, curators seem increasingly unsure what to
make of their own collections. Robert Foley, Professor of Human
Evolution at Cambridge University and former director of the Universitys
Duckworth museum.
FOLEY: I think theres certainly a crisis of
confidence in many museum people, in the communities that work
there; that museums have a particular image in relation to the places
from which much of their material has come and they feel that in a way
building relationships with emerging nations and communities is an
important way of trying to restore the notion of museums. I personally
think that museums, on the other hand, should not be ashamed of their
past. I think if we look at what we find in the British Museum or we
find in the great museums of Europe, we have saved there a history of
the world which might otherwise have easily have been lost and which
now acts to inform people in ways that can only be for the good.
MALIK: But did the British Museum save the

world or just plunder it? For many people, the critical question in judging a
museum is how it acquired its collections. Among the British Museums
most prized possessions are the Elgin Marbles and the Benin Bronzes. In
the early nineteenth century, the British ambassador to the Ottoman
Empire, Lord Elgin, removed some of the best statues and friezes from the
Parthenon in Athens and sold them to the British Museum. Nearly a
century later a punitive British expedition to Benin (in modern day Nigeria)
looted the nations greatest art treasures. Today there are vocal campaigns
for the Marbles and the Bronzes to be returned to Greece and to Nigeria.
Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, thinks, however, that
both are better displayed in London.
In the British Museum, you can
see how that Greek art emerges from a whole tradition of the Eastern
Mediterranean and then how it invigorates a different tradition in Rome,
India and the rest of Europe. In the British Museum, they are clearly
one of the great achievements of the whole of mankind. All great
works of art are the result of borrowing from other traditions.
MALIK: Would you say the same for the
display of the Benin Bronzes, for instance?
I would say very much the same of
the Benin Bronzes. They completely transformed the way people in
Europe thought about Africa. It was the presence of the Benin Bronzes
and that extraordinary sophistication of making, that made it completely
impossible for Europeans to go on thinking of Africa as not having its
own culture, and a very great culture. The circumstances of the taking
of the Benin Bronzes were violent, but if we look at what happened
when they arrived, it seems to me that from then on it was totally
MALIK: But isnt it unethical for museums to
cling on to items that were originally stolen? Not necessarily, Neil
MacGregor argues. The importance of the British Museum to the world
today, he suggests, outweighs the dubious provenance of some of its
The purpose of the British
Museum is to allow people to see that all the societies of the world and
all the cultures of the world are interconnected. Thats the one big
thing that the British Museum, better than any other museum in the
world probably, can allow you to do to see the oneness of humanity.
MALIK: Is that what you mean when you
describe the British Museum as a world museum?
Yes, the British Museum is in a
sense the memory of mankind, as Ben Okri said. The extraordinary
thing about it is that it was set up in 1753 to gather together things from
all over the world, but always to be held open free to people from
anywhere in the world. So from the beginning, this very idealistic
notion, if you like, of trustees holding for the entire world the means of
understanding the entire world.
MALIK: A cynic might suggest that world
museum is just a fancy phrase to allow the British Museum to cling on to
its treasures. After all, the museum may be free to anyone in the world but
most people in the world cant take advantage of its largesse. Yet its not
just rich tourists or white middle class Britons who benefit. Nearly a third
of Londoners are non-white and the fastest growing population is African.
In an age in which many museums are seeking to be socially inclusive,

some curators believe that cultural objects from around the world should be
used to attract groups such as African-Caribbeans or Asians - that might
otherwise walk right past their doors. Lola Young was until recently head
of cultural policy for the Greater London Authority. Does she agree with
this approach?
YOUNG: Its important for diaspora peoples
from wherever can see those objects in their newly adopted homelands. I
dont have a problem with that. Where I have a problem is when the
objects and artefacts themselves arent treated with appropriate respect. If
we look, for example, at the so-called Hottentot Venus, Sara Baartman,
who came to Europe in about 1810 - when she died in Paris in 1815, her
body was subsequently put on display in the Musee de LHomme and was
on display until the middle of the twentieth century, until the late twentieth
century actually, despite many requests for her remains to be returned.
They were finally returned to South Africa to the Khoikhoi tribe in 2002,
and this was after some negotiation between Jacques Chirac and Nelson
Mandela. There is a symbolic value attached to the Hottentot Venus
because she was held up to be something that was completely anomalous,
sub-human, and that attitude towards Africans from Europeans became
literally embodied in her body both alive and dead.
MALIK: Exhibits such as the Hottentot Venus
may be a thing of the past. But Western museums still hold tens of
thousands of human remains skulls, skeletons, bones. And even more
than artefacts, such remains generate anger and controversy, and demands
for their return and reburial - as the Museum of Londons Jack Lohman
experienced first hand when he was living in South Africa.
LOHMAN: I think I went through one of the
most dramatic periods of my life living in South Africa. I was looking
after the South African Museum, which is the oldest museum in Africa.
It has seven hundred and eighty-eight human remains in boxes and I
remember one day I had a delegation of thirty people storm into my
office and say to me we are not leaving your office until you release
the human remains in the museum. And we began a process of
returning these various trophies, if you like, back to their communities.
It was a very dramatic moment. It really influences, makes me think
very hard about what we keep in museums. Im not sure whether
museums should be mass graves.
MALIK: The debate about human remains has
been especially fierce in America, Australia and New Zealand, where guilt
about the treatment of indigenous peoples Native Americans, Aborigines
and Maoris runs deep. Museums in these countries have thrown open
their storage rooms, and returned thousands of bones to source
communities for burial. In Britain the government-appointed Working
Group on Human Remains recently published its report on what to do with
the remains held by English museums. Its chairman is barrister Norman
Palmer, Professor of Law, Art and Cultural Property at London University.
PALMER: We to a large extent base our
recommendations on the need to treat indigenous people in the same way
or a truly analogous way to that in which other people are treated. Under
English law certain people have the overriding right to the delivery up of
members of their family for burial. Those are the personal representatives.
This is an absolute right by law and no counter argument for example the
scientific value of research can be allowed by law to defeat that right.
The Department of Health has recently recommended and incorporated in
the Human Tissue Bill the overriding principle of consent as the
cornerstone for the continued retention of human remains by hospitals and
kindred institutions. And in the report, what we are saying is what

argument is there for treating indigenous peoples differently when their

remains are in museums rather than in hospitals. What we propose is a
fairly limited extension of the consent principle to those people who
qualify under their own culture as family. So that if people have within
their own community and this would be the community from which the
remains emanated in the first place a relationship or responsibility
towards the remains, which was akin to that under their own culture of
close family or direct genealogical descendents then we would say they
too should have the right to say what should happen to their family. We
are not so insular as to believe that our way is the only way.
MALIK: Most people would understand if
museums had to release human remains to close relatives. But does it make
sense to insist that bones thousands of years old are off-limits for study or
display because a particular culture views even remote ancestors as close
kin? In any case who exactly are indigenous groups? And how do we
know what they want? Michael Brown, Professor of Anthropology at
Williams College, Massachusetts, and author of Who Owns Native
BROWN: Where indigenous peoples have
formally recognized political organizations that are recognized by the state
and are authorized to develop policies, then thats the group that one deals
with, those are the organizations that one deals with. Now internal to the
community, of course, there may be great debates about whether elected
political leaders or even traditional authorities of one sort or another have
the power and the authority to make those decisions in particular contexts.
Even the question of who is indigenous gets extremely vexed as indigenous
peoples inter-marry with non-native communities. I mean right now
American Indians have the highest rate of out marriage of any ethnic group
in the United States, so over time it becomes increasingly difficult to define
who is an American Indian. And thats a problem that people are wrestling
with in North America, theyre starting to wrestle with it in Australia, and
thats going to be the next battleground: trying to determine who qualifies
as indigenous in the first place.

MALIK: Indeed, some anthropologists argue,

indigenous people are not just difficult to define, theyre a Western
invention. Adam Kuper, Professor of Anthropology at Brunel University.
KUPER: These are the people who in the 19th
century were described by anthropologists as so- called primitive people.
Hunters and gatherers living in far flung parts of the world they were
seen as being somehow at the bottom of the evolutionary chain. Today, a
hundred and fifty years later, after anthropology has completely
deconstructed these notions of hunter gatherers, of primitives, of racial
exclusivity, all these Victorian notions are being reconstituted with the
support of NGOs, the World Bank, the United Nations in order to construct
a new category, the indigenous peoples of the world, who are identical it
turns out to these primitive peoples. And they are thought to have some
sort of stable culture which dates back before colonialism, which must be
somehow reconstructed, handed back to these people. Its phony
ethnography; its mambo jumbo anthropology.
MALIK: Mumbo jumbo anthropology it may
be, but it has captured the imagination of many in the West. So much so
that even when there are no claimants to bones or artefacts, museums insist
on burying them. You might think that a government would only bother
setting up a Working Group on Human Remains, and consider changing
the law, if theres a real issue to address. Think again. There have only

ever been thirty-one claims for the return of human remains held in British
museums. But some curators just want to do the moral thing. Jack Lohman
of the Museum of London.
LOHMAN: Thanks to a very generous grant from
the Wellcome Trust, we are researching the plague pits. The greater part of
the sample is male. The majority have come from local monasteries,
generations of monks, etcetera. So obviously monks do play around, but
the majority wont have had ancestors as such and, therefore, to try and
track down ancestors would be you know a very difficult task and probably
a very expensive task and would involve DNA testing, etcetera, of the
whole of London probably.
Weve got you know huge amounts of material, but theres not enough
information about them. Ive got nine curators of human remains in the
museum - more curators than possibly any other national museum in
Europe working on human remains and possibly any other university
department. Were examining those. When weve finished, we plan to put
them ideally in a catacomb where they can be sealed up.
MALIK: Is that not just for your benefit and
nobody elses? After all, no ones claiming those bones, so is it not a way
of assuaging your moral guilt, if you like, about those bones?
LOHMAN: If you have collections of
who gave their life to the church,
them in sacred ground and not keep
I think culture is a sort of human
to whom those objects or artefacts
human rights.

male monks
I think theres a moral obligation to place
them in the museum.
right and, therefore, giving those cultures
belong to, I think is part of restoring

MALIK: But surely museums have a

responsibility not just to the dead but also to the living. And part of that
responsibility is to use the dead to elicit knowledge that might benefit the
living. Cambridge Universitys Robert Foley is one of the worlds foremost
researchers into ancient human remains.
FOLEY: Theyre an absolutely fundamental
source of information about human history, especially global human
history. One example is the way in which we now think of humans as
having evolved in Africa probably about a hundred and fifty to two
hundred thousand years ago; and of course because theyre the bodies
of people that lived, they tell us about their life, their death, their
diseases, whether they were healthy, whether they died in combat and
so on. I think there are examples where human remains have been used
for medical advances various research done into orthopaedic surgery,
obviously a lot of work done in forensics, in the ability to identify
people and so on. So there is a utility to it, but I think its wrong to say
that that is the primary driving force. It is in no doubt that this sort of
work is basically curiosity driven in the sense were looking for
knowledge for its own sake. The ideas we have today and the questions
we want to ask are entirely different. Fifty years ago we werent
thinking about an African origin. Fifty years ago, we were thinking in
terms say of racial categories. We dont think in that way now. So new
questions come up and we need to re-examine material with those new
ideas in mind. The absence of the material will mean in a way that our
ideas become fossilised.
MALIK: But there are tens of thousands of
bones in museums. Do scientists really need them all of them? Michael
Brown of Williams College.
BROWN: There have been studies done of

the percentage of human remains held by US museums that have ever

been studied by anybody and its a shockingly low percentage. You
know well under a quarter of them have ever been catalogued in the
most elementary way, and were talking about as many as two hundred
thousand individuals represented in these collections at the national
level. So the question that Indians ask is well if these bones are so darn
important to you, why is it that you havent done anything with them
for the past hundred years?
MALIK: What worries scientists, though, is
that bones that might be vital to research may be lost forever. Robert
FOLEY: If the Palmer Report in all its
recommendations was implemented, I think it would have a major
impact on our research. The onus would be on us as the holders of
collections to as it were go out and find either biological descendents or
cultural descendents or related groups or national or local institutions,
which might want that material back. That would be a vast
undertaking, which I think would absolutely devastate the resources
that most collections have available to them.
PALMER: The report says nothing of the
kind. The report says that in certain circumstances museums should
have an obligation to identify those people who are sufficiently closely
related to the remains to be entitled to request them back. It makes it
perfectly plain in the notes to recommendation 15 that identify means
respond to a claim and try to verify whether that claim is justified or
MALIK: Norman Palmer. Whoever is
right in this and even members of the Working Group disagree on
the implications of the report the final decision rests with the
government. Its just published a Consultation Paper asking for
responses to the Palmer Report but there is as yet no indication of
its own views on the matter.
And its not just bones that scientists fear losing. Artefacts too are
disappearing as museums accede to the demands of indigenous groups.
Harvard Universitys Peabody Museum deliberately allowed a historic
set of photographs to disintegrate because the Navajo tribe objected to
non-tribal members viewing the rituals they depicted. There are other
ways, too, in which objects are being lost, as anthropologist Michael
Brown points out.
BROWN: Well, its deeply problematic.
Certainly when objects are returned to Indian tribes through the
repatriation process, the tribes are free to do what they like with these
objects and in some cases tribes have made it absolutely clear that their
intention is to reintegrate them into ongoing rituals until such time as
the objects are essentially worn out and discarded. So in that sense, I
guess, there is a destruction of objects and of information associated
with it.
MALIK: So what?, you might say. Its
their culture, their artefacts, they can destroy them if they want to. For
too long, argues Lola Young, Western nations have exploited nonWestern peoples. Its time we got used to the idea that we cant do what
we like with other peoples cultures, whether these consist of bones,
artefacts or even symbols.
YOUNG: If we look at the Olympic Games
in Australia, in Sydney, it was very clear that the Australian authorities
wanted to promote Australia as a country that had come to terms with

its past and opened its arms, as it were, to diversity. Now the extent to
which some of the Aboriginal people feel that that is actually the case
and how that actually pans out on a day-to-day basis for them is another
question altogether. So I think that thats absolutely legitimate that that
group of people should then say well we want to have some sort of
control over how were portrayed and how our symbols and our
symbolism are used.
MALIK: In one current court case in
Australia, Aborigines are demanding that the national airline Quantas
stop using the kangaroo logo as its an Aboriginal symbol. In another
case, they are seeking copyright over all photographs and paintings of
the Australian landscape, which they say is central to their spiritual life.
Where will this end? Must the British government approve every
production of King Lear and Othello? Should only Jamaicans be
allowed to play reggae? Professor Adam Kuper of Brunel University.
KUPER: The notion of ownership is certainly
meaningful and one could own objects which you might describe as
cultural objects because you had made them or youd designed them or
youd bought them. But to claim some sort of ownership on the grounds of
descent from a group of people who might in the distant past once have
invented those objects, seems to me to be bizarre, seems to me absolutely
impossible. Are we going to, as English people, ask others to pay a
copyright fee when they play cricket? Its ridiculous.
MALIK: Ridiculous it may be, but cultural
bureaucrats seem hooked on the idea. UNESCO has suggested that each
indigenous people must retain permanent control over all elements of its
own heritage, including songs, stories, scientific knowledge and
artworks. It has even suggested the setting up of folklore protection
boards. UNESCOs push to protect every culture, Michael Brown argues,
is counterproductive.
BROWN: Every culture or every nation is
supposed to have members of its culture provide inventories of all elements
that are subject to protection, but of course that is protecting by making
something public. That runs foul of the sense of many Aboriginal
Australian and Native American groups that certain kinds of information
simply should not be made public, should only be held and used by
whatever sub group of the population, typically religious leaders, is
empowered to use it safely and effectively. And so one of the ironies is at
the local level indigenous peoples themselves are moving towards greater
and greater secrecy.
MALIK: Isnt there also a case of a Native
American group trying to dissuade outsiders from learning its language so
as to be able to better protect its culture?
BROWN: Well I was told that contract workers
who work in Zuni, New Mexico, are specifically prohibited from learning
the language of the Zuni people the assumption being, as you mentioned
earlier, that learning the language gives them access to ritual secrets and
other forms of understanding that they simply should not have access to.
MALIK: In a different context though, would
we not call this xenophobia or racism?
BROWN: Well its true if the shoe were on the
other foot, if Anglo Americans were forbidding Native Americans from
speaking English, it would be considered a completely unacceptable racist
policy. It really sets up a slippery slope at the end of which people are

trying to create cultural divisions that never existed in the first place.
MALIK: The campaign for the repatriation of
artefacts and remains, and for the protection of minority cultures, is
motivated by the best of intentions. Its consequences, though, can be
deeply troubling. It presents an idea of culture as fixed and immutable, and
as something that people own by virtue of their biological ancestry an
almost racial view of the world. Many museums, especially in America
and Australia, now accede to demands from indigenous groups that in any
other context would be seen as unacceptable. Some, for instance, ban
women or non-tribal people from viewing certain parts of their collections.
Others prefer to hide objects away in basements rather than risk causing
offence. This confusion and insecurity on the part of museums needs to be
sorted out, says Norman Palmer - particularly where human remains are
PALMER: The existence of all these questions
argues incontrovertibly for an independent resolution process. These
questions must be examined. We do not say that one side is
incontrovertibly right or wrong. What we say to each side is if youve got
a good arguable case, submit that case to independent evaluation.
MALIK: Do you think there should be binding
guidelines on museums as to how they should approach the question of
human remains that they possess in their collections?
PALMER: Our position is that the position of
human remains in museums is sufficiently important that it should be
subject to regulation by a code of practice. The code of practice would be
enforced, if you like, through a licensing system, and museums granted the
license would depend upon its adherence to the code of practice.
MALIK: Many museums are not keen on rigid
guidelines, preferring a case-by-case approach to every dispute. But, says
the British Museums Neil MacGregor, there is one area where binding
international agreements are not only welcome but may defuse many of the
current disputes over cultural ownership.
We have in the last thirty, forty years,
with the growth of international exhibitions, seen an unparalleled sharing
of world culture. That has of course been focused overwhelmingly on the
rich countries of the world. The next challenge must surely be to find ways
of sharing the culture of the world with the less rich countries. The
challenge is to allow as many of our objects as possible to be seen in
different contexts, especially in the countries of origin, so what we need is
a legal framework that will enable that to happen, that will ensure that
objects can be lent to the country of origin and return so that they can be
displayed again in the context here and indeed lent to other countries.
MALIK: What youre saying is that youd like
to build a series of universal museums across the world?
Absolutely. I think what we need
across the world are a series of the experiences of universal museums
through temporary exhibitions and revolving loans. But we need a legal
framework that would allow that to happen.
MALIK: The idea of a universal museum may
not be fashionable these days. But Neil MacGregors vision is surely
highly commendable. We shouldnt be ashamed of the treasures possessed
by places such as the British Museum. Nor of the Enlightenment ideal of a
museum as an institution that can help create more universal forms of
knowledge by collecting from across ages and cultures. No culture should

be private property. Each belongs to us all.