Should the British Museum return the Elgin Marbles, taken from the Parthenon in Athens about 200 years ago? What should be the purpose of museums, education or social justice? Listen as Tiffany Jenkins, author of Keeping Their Marbles, discusses these questions and more with EconTalk host Russ Roberts.
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Podcast Episode Highlights
Intro. [Recording date: January 4, 2023.]
Russ Roberts: Today is January 4th, 2023, and my guest is Tiffany Jenkins. Our topic for today is her most recent book, Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums and Why They Should Stay There. Tiffany, welcome to EconTalk.
Tiffany Jenkins: Hello.
Russ Roberts: Let's start by talking about why museums are important, in the abstract. What happens to us as visitors to a museum that matters? They're interesting. I look around. There's artifacts and some of them are impressive. Is anything more than that?
Tiffany Jenkins: Well, I find it's an encounter with the past and with the people of the past. So, I really noticed during COVID that you couldn't go to these places that you would go to regularly and you took for granted. You could see them online. You could see the artifacts online. You could go to the Louvre. You could go to the Met. You could go to anywhere; but you couldn't go yourself through that door. And it's something about going through that door and you enter this world--it might be ancient Egypt, it might be Assyria, it might be ancient Athens--and it's like you're transported. I find them almost like a time machine.
Depending on your state of mind and the time of day and what's going on with your life, it might be that you just dart in to see a particular painting or object, but it also might be that you want to be just taken somewhere--actually by the institution, because they curated these things, usually intelligently, to tell a story. And, I just find it awe inspiring--I really do--that these people thousands of years ago were creating these things. And they might not have been initially to impress us. They certainly weren't. They were often for a particular purpose--to worship a God or to make their breakfast, an ordinary breakfast bowl, that sort of thing. Somehow it's like they've left it for you so you have a door into their life.
If I'm sad or happy, they take me out of myself and show me another world and another time and place. I mean, just think that's worth everything really, understanding other cultures, understanding that we aren't the only ones on the earth. That there's a sort of chain of generations behind us that influence us, that connect us, connect to us. And I do find them inspiring.
So, they make me think of human achievement. Even if you go into Museum of War, you see the complicated, sometimes destructive nature of human beings, but you also see the creative and human side. So, I really like them.
Russ Roberts: A lot of your book is about the increasingly loud demand that many of the objects in these museums that came from elsewhere should return to where they once were--either geographically within some national boundary that may or may not have existed in the past, but certainly closer to where they started.
When I went to London for the first time, I asked a British friend of mine what I should do when I was there. He said, 'Well, the British Museum, of course.' Then he listed a bunch of other things. I've probably remarked on the program in the past: that phrase, 'the British Museum,' of course, doesn't really capture what an extraordinary collection of human experience is under its roof.
I have the suspicion that if objects currently there were repatriated to where they once came from, there wouldn't be much there. Much of it is a comment on the British past, both military and colonial and exploratory. These demands that items be returned certainly make you think about what a museum would be in the absence of some of the imported items.
For the British Museum in particular, the most prominent example would be what are called the Elgin Marbles. Tell us what they are, where they started, and how they came to be residing in Bloomsbury under the roof of the British Museum.
Tiffany Jenkins: Okay. Well, the British Museum is an interesting museum to start with, because it doesn't house very many objects from Britain. Lots of other museums, particularly France and Europe, were built to house the collections of the nation. The British Museum was constructed a little bit earlier, in 1756, out of the collection of a man called Hans Sloane. Initially, you had objects from the voyages of exploration. So, there's no antiquity in there whatsoever. But now they are, if you'd like, all about antiquity. Not all about antiquity. The Elgin Marbles--many people want to call them the Parthenon sculptures now--even the term 'Elgin' gets you into trouble, but there we have it. I'll probably call them both. In fact, no--I'll call them the Elgin Marbles just to distinguish them.
So, these are sculptures that were taken from the Parthenon in Athens. They're about 2,000 years old. So, they were made at the height of Athens' most Democratic but also imperial moment. They were built under Pericles, the general and politician--under his command--to honor the goddess Athena. So, it was a temple initially, this Parthenon. A temple is not like how we would think of the temple. It was there really to house the god or the goddess--in this case Athena--and properly loot from war. It was constructed partly as a trophy against the Persians who they had just defeated. So, it was like: 'We are the best. Us [sic: we] Athenians are the best.' It is an astonishing work.
I was in Athens this summer and the image we all have now of Athens is obviously of the Parthenon that's still left on the Acropolis. Half of those sculptures roughly are in the Acropolis' new museum, which is a reasonably new museum, 10 years old or so, a bit older. And half are in the British Museum in Bloomsbury. So, these sculptures from ancient Athens are really at the center of the British Museum [BM]. The ones in the BM--I mean, there are a lot of them. There's a whole room and there's these incredible sculptures of horses. The big part of it is this relief. And in ancient accounts, actually, people don't really talk about the relief. That's not the big deal. But that's what we've got. And it is a big deal.
It's a procession and a few battle scenes. These figures are--they're sort of off-white, as ancient antiquity is. It's not like the Romans' sculptures, which are really white. This is off-white. I sometimes think of it a bit like a Leonardo inasmuch as it's realistic but it's also imagined. So, you can see the--on the horse, for example, which is one of the most famous sculptures, you can see this vein down its nose. When you want to touch a horse's face or long nose, it's like that. It's sort of pulsating.
There's these battle scenes and you can see this warrior is about to die. I find it incredible.
There was an exhibition there a few years ago at the British Museum that compared the Parthenon to the sculptures of Auguste Rodin, the French sculptor. He was really, really impressed and excited by them. And, putting them side by side, you could see both how he was influenced by them, but also how he departed from them; and how, actually those pieces, since they were taken to the British Museum at the turn of the 19th century, have inspired artists for generations, including to this day. Obviously, people are wandering around to this day.
So, you asked the most important question, which is: How did they get there? So, there were very few antiquities in the British Museum and there was very little knowledge of Greek antiquity at that time--at the turn of the 18th into the early 1900s.
Ancient Athens itself was under an occupier, the Ottomans, and had been for 340 years or so, 300 years. And there were just travelers that were beginning to get into the area and look at it. At the time, it was a shanty town in Athens. It was on the top, but there were buildings everywhere. It doesn't look like it does today because a lot of surrounding buildings were taken down to subsequently glorify that particular period in history. So, all the modern stuff has since gone. The Turks were using it as a garrison.
Russ Roberts: You're talking about the Acropolis now.
Tiffany Jenkins: Yes, the Acropolis.
Russ Roberts: Which, if you haven't been to Athens--I was also just there recently for the first time--it's rather extraordinary. It is essentially a plateau. It looks like it's created to be a pedestal for the Parthenon. It towers above--'towers' is too strong--but it's visible from everywhere as this standalone mesa almost, this flat-topped area. The Parthenon is large enough to be visible from almost everywhere that you could see it. You're saying that before, in the 1800s, the Turks used that whole flat-topped area as a garrison and had other buildings as well as the remnants of the Parthenon.
Tiffany Jenkins: Yes. And in fact, inside it, there was a mosque which they'd created for themselves, which has also since been gone.
But, there were travelers and people were beginning to get really interested in this particular period in history and really wanted to see the real Greek stuff. They had the Roman stuff, but they didn't have the Greek stuff. Elgin--Lord Elgin--is the British ambassador to Constantinople, and he becomes intrigued by these some paintings and drawings that he's seen of these sculptures. He sends a number of people to go fetch them. He comes to a deal with the Ottomans. This is one of the controversial things later, but what we know is that they came to some kind of agreement of which there is a Firman, which is the terms of an agreement. There is an Italian translation of it, which was the lingua franca of the time. That's what diplomats and people spoke. So, we have this Italian translation of the Firman, which says he can take parts of the sculptures which are on the ground. What we know is he took some off the building.
So, did he exceed the limits? Probably, but it's not like modern day where you have contracts that are that thick where there's everything saying, 'You can take this blade of grass but not that blade of grass.' It's a different setup. Equally, many of the locals were taking parts of the building to grind up and to use for their own purposes. So, it wasn't this sort of archeological or rarefied site that it is today.
There is writing between him and his agents about how--I think there's one phrase which said, 'We were forced to be a little barbarous.' And there's a description of the--because these are big sculptures. They're really heavy, large marble stone. There's descriptions of them crashing to the ground and the earth shaking. They then are shipped back to Britain. I think at the time, he wanted some for his house. He goes bankrupt. He has syphilis. He has a terrible time. He can't afford to keep them. He lands on a scheme of selling them to the British government.
They have an inquiry into it. Should they do it? That inquiry, if you read through it today, is quite interesting. There's two things that are at the center of whether they should buy it or not. One is: Were they looted in a way that the French would loot? They decide No, they weren't. Exactly. So, that's fine. But, the other that I find really fascinating is that when they arrive, people have this idea in their heads of what they should look like: a). They should have all their limbs. They should be kind of smooth. They should be white. And they're not. They're off-white, and they look a little bit more kind of relaxed than the Roman stuff that they are familiar with.
So, there's a big debate over whether they're any good or not. Massive, massive debate. It's possibly through that debate that they begin to be established as these great works of art. They're acquired in the end by the British Museum, I think, for £74,000 pounds.
They are bought partly because they hope that they will reinvigorate and revitalize the arts in England. There's some desire that maybe they'll also, by their sheer presence--the kind of democratic spirit of Athens will seep into British culture. There was some talk of putting them--I mean, at first, they were treated more like art objects. So, the aesthetic quality and less as hoping that they would inspire artists. I think they certainly became objects of poetry and inspirations. But they never quite had that impact upon British art that it was hoped.
But, they did become the centerpiece of this museum in Bloomsbury and they are still today. In fact, if you go to the Duveen Gallery where they're housed, you always hear this massive discussion going on at the hum. And the hum isn't about what people had for dinner or where they're going afterwards. It's about whether or not they should be there in the first place. Which is quite interesting, really.
Russ Roberts: And they're arranged in a large rectangle, somewhat akin to how they may have been mounted as a frieze or the relief part of it, at least, around the top of the Parthenon, which is--correct?--where they started.
Tiffany Jenkins: Yeah. It's a rough approximation. Although it's much lower. So, if you ever go to Parthenon, it's absolutely huge. I mean it's so tall. It's an amazing picture, which you can find on the Internet of Isadora Dora [?Duncan?] standing in front of it and it just towers above her. So, the British Museum, they're much lower, which means you can see them. One of the debates is: should they be as they were or should you play around with it? The British Museum brings them low so you can actually see them. And you can go up close to them. You can be right there in front of the horse, which I really like.
Russ Roberts: Well, the thing that I learned from your book that--I learned many things from your book, by the way, that I did not know. We'll talk somewhere about some of them in a minute. But, one of the most interesting things I learned was that it's very hard to remember that people in the past were almost as complicated, if not more so, than people alive today. We have a certain set of templates and stereotypes about people in the past. One of my favorites is: Everyone was religious except for David Hume. And this is not true. There were many people who had doubts about the existence of God or the value of religious life, just like today. Different proportions, perhaps.
But, in this case, I assumed--incorrectly--not in a conscious way, but I would've, if you'd asked me: 'Well, most people in England when those marbles arrived were proud of them and glad that they came and didn't really care about how they were acquired, because: We're England. We ruled the Senate recess on the British Empire, and we're proud of that.'
And yet, your book reveals that--certainly with the marbles, and with the looting of the palace in Peking during the aftermath of the Opium Wars in the earlier part of the 19th century--that many people in England were deeply uncomfortable with this process. They didn't just say, 'Well, we're the most powerful nation on earth. We're entitled to anything we happened to pick up and grab.' There was shame. There were people who said, 'This is immoral, unethical.' So, even then, people were uneasy with that acquisition, even if it was different than loot or plunder. In the case of the marbles, it was purchased, maybe exceeded in the contract, yes. But, as you say, there were gray areas in many contracts like that. It wasn't like there was an archeological commission there overseeing the removal. It was a chaotic time and that was that. But, even then, people were somewhat--not 'somewhat'--many people were very uncomfortable.
Tiffany Jenkins: They were. I think there are other ideas that influence that. Like, I mentioned about the French: the French were much more conscious and deliberate about their looting. It wasn't to say that the Brits didn't do it, but it's much more accidental and haphazard and informal. And it often came as a consequence of Empire rather than it being a kind of instrument of Empire.
There was also quite a romantic strain. So, there was a very strong sense that artifacts belonged in the soil of where they came from: That, cultures are different and they have different practices and different ways of thinking and different ways of worshipping, and they should remain in the soil of where they came from.
So, at the beginning, that kind of encyclopedic or more cosmopolitan idea of comparing cultures was something that not everybody bought into. And in fact, if you see some of the claims--some of the demands--for repatriation, were along those lines: They should go back to where they belonged.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I was shocked to discover that that there wasn't just looting. There was systematic looting. They were eager to acquire--the French army and Napoleon were eager to acquire--although I have to confess, Tiffany, this is an account from someone who is from the United Kingdom. So, perhaps biased against the French--we have to keep that in mind. I'll let you defend yourself in a second. But Napoleon, in your story, had plans. He'd say, 'Let's go get that thing in Belgium. When we get to Italy, we're going to take those things.'
And then when he loses the Battle of Waterloo, the British systematically tried to get returned. That is extraordinary.
So, they repatriated--repatriated through war. Well, you have to put a footnote. The Rosetta Stone--British army did defeat the French and took the Rosetta stone that the French soldiers had found.
But, in general, the British army forced the repatriation of native works of art to their places of origin after conquering France in 1815 in the Battle of Waterloo. Correct?
Tiffany Jenkins: Correct. In a way, it's the mirror image of taking it for national gain. So, there was this ditty in France that went something like: 'Rome is no longer in Rome. It's all in Paris.' The idea was that you take the greatest works of civilization to the greatest city of civilization--Paris, then. Napoleon, I think, in his head was following in the footsteps of the Romans who looted. They were the first great looters; and they would bring their stuff back in the center of Rome in these big imperial triumphs with crates of everything that they had taken to show that they conquered their enemies and the objects were part of that.
I think that's what very much inspired Napoleon. He did bring these things back and have his equivalent to the triumph in Paris. So, the Brits, when they win at Waterloo, forcing him to return is their kind of same sort of thing. They're using loot and objects as a display of might.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, it's really quite fantastic. When I visited Rome for the first time--which again was recently, it was about five years ago--it's hard not to notice that there's a number of obelisks--large towers with Egyptian hieroglyphics. Being an idiot, my first thought was, 'I wonder why they would build Egyptian--.' Of course, they didn't build them. They stole them. They have the most obelisks. They have 13, evidently. I looked it up before our conversation. I think they have the most of anywhere in the world. They have more than there are in Egypt. That's because they were powerful and they took them; and they still have them. And they're rather extraordinary. It's particularly extraordinary to see them in Rome.
But, the French took many things from Rome and the British made them give many of them back. They couldn't get all of them. As you point out, maybe about half. Some of the more important ones got returned, probably not all of them, and so on.
Tiffany Jenkins: I think also--I think the interesting thing about those obelisks is I think they also made a particularly large ship for them, because these are huge objects. I mean, if you imagine how they could have done it, it's quite astonishing. There were also--maybe I'm being a bit generous to the Brits then--I think there were the beginnings of an idea of what was right and what wasn't wrong. Which wasn't to say it was systematic. I think probably there was possibly a sense of: This is not what we Europeans do. Which doesn't mean to say that they then didn't do it elsewhere.
Russ Roberts: The other interesting controversy at the museum that I found so extraordinary is that, if you go to the British Museum, they have quite a number of these large stone objects from Nineveh--from Assyria--of their [?]--of a creature that is half-bull, half-human. And the human part, the head, is this large, bearded head. And then there's wings, just to make it interesting. They're extraordinary; and they have a ton of them. I learned two fascinating things in your book. One is: lots of other people have them, too. They don't have all of them. There's some in Seattle, and there's some in New York. My gosh. When Nineveh was plundered again in semi-modern times when there were no Assyrians around to speak for themselves, these things went everywhere; and they're so striking.
Tiffany Jenkins: I should just say they weren't plundered then. They were excavated.
Russ Roberts: Correct. No; yes, absolutely.
Tiffany Jenkins: But, that's also an amazing thing I think--is that they were underground. These things in museums were not just taken from the shelves in other countries. They were underground and they were excavated by, in this case, Henry Layard. So, they were there with their shovels and their spades and finding them. I love those objects because they are huge and I think they were at the entrance of the palace. There are all sorts of other things that they found then, things that we didn't know about those civilizations.
Russ Roberts: But, the thing I love about those is that when it came time to decide whether the British Museum should acquire them--again, using the money of the British government, not a private collector--there was an enormous debate about whether they were, quote, "any good." And whether they were art. They were inevitably compared to the Elgin Marbles, which were, quote, "the best." And, these were just, like, 'Ermmm. I'm not even sure this is art.' Talk about that. It's incredible.
Tiffany Jenkins: No, I think that's really interesting, because effectively, the museum is an orderer and it makes things into hierarchies. It creates knowledge but it does also then impose it.
And at the time, the idea that the Assyrians could possibly be as good as the Athenians was anathema. There's just not a chance. That's a very different mindset--not--today, where we have the sense that all cultures are equal and the ancient Athenians were one among many of different civilizations.
And I think it also speaks to just how important the British Museum found the Marbles. They worshiped them. The whole of the museum was orientated around them. That's slightly different now.
But, the great thing about them being in the British Museum, as you say, is that you can then go to--I mean if you stand in one place, I think to the right, you've got Assyrian. To the left, you've got Egypt, and in front of you, you have ancient Athens. So, in front of you, you have the Parthenon. To the right, you have those funny winged beasts--which are really clever, because they've got five legs rather than four. And it's not because they had five legs, these imaginary creatures. It's because they're walking. I think, gosh, that's really clever.
But you can see--I think you can look over there and you can see these winged beasts and you can look in front of you, and you can see, particularly with ancient Athens, not just the Parthenon sculptures, but you've got--they revered the naked body. And you see the human figure at the center of Athens. And then to the left, you see these--kind of, these gods, Rameses--and very different way of thinking about the world.
And, just having those three civilizations next to each other, you can see both--you can understand each of them on their own terms, better I think, through comparison. I think that's what these museums do is through comparison, you understand the specificity.
Russ Roberts: And for me, also right there is the Rosetta Stone. Which, if you think--for some people, the Rosetta Stone just a language app on their phone, but it actually is a physical item that had three different languages written on it, which was the only way, at least at the time, that we learned how to translate some of those languages--the hieroglyphics in particular. And to think of--for me, it stands there like a sentinel: a little bit, very much like a monument to the mystery of the past. Which, of those winged creatures, like: why did they make them that way? And: what did they have to say about them? To the extent, because we found the Rosetta Stone, we were able to decipher ancient writing and get a glimpse of what they were about.
Of course, there are a thousand other mysteries we can't fathom because we don't have enough Rosetta stones in every cultural--not just language, but other religious practices and commercial norms. They're lost to us. And the fact that anything remains is so gloriously beautiful to me. For me, there is something awe-inspiring about that particular spot. Some of that awe will go away if those marbles head back to Athens.
So, let's turn to that question. A lot of people, both British and certainly Greek, think that even though they were given away by Ottomans or sold or whatever by Ottomans, they belong in Greece and the British Museum should give them up. So, you are more ambivalent--is my take. Talk about why they should be returned and then maybe why they shouldn't.
Tiffany Jenkins: Well, I was in Athens this summer and I went to the Acropolis Museum, which is right next to the Acropolis. I think it's a glorious building. It's modern. It's light. There's a lot of glass. It's elegant. And from the lovely cafe, but also from the museum itself, you can look out and you can see the Acropolis on the hill.
In fact, if you go up to the Acropolis, it's quite difficult to understand what this place was. But, if you go into the Acropolis Museum, it tells you everything.
And it begins with pre-classical sculpture from the area. And it tells you the story of the Parthenon: sort of how it was created after the Persian Wars as this monument to them. It was a monument to goddess Athena. But, it shows you through sculpture, how magnificent these pieces are, how different they are.
It's like, you just walk through time and you see different ideas about human form and sculpture change. Just the sense of how a person would stand: a lot of the earlier sculptures are just really static. There's no dynamism. There's no life to them. So, you really understand the specificity of the time and the place in which they were created.
So, there's no doubt in my mind that if the sculptures that were in the British Museum went to the Acropolis Museum, they would then probably enhance it slightly. And you'd go there, and you'd think--even though you know it's 2,000 years on--that they don't look like they looked like at the time. They were colorful. They had lots of bling on them. We don't have a lot of them: 40, 50% is gone lost to the world.
So, they don't look like they did look, but you still think, 'Oh, this is real. This is the authentic place.'
So, I was almost persuaded this summer. But I think there are numerous reasons why I think the situation as it stands with half in each place is pretty good. It's probably the best situation. Because I think objects do different things in different places. And, in the British Museum, for a start, they have been there for 200 years. And so, they're very much part of the identity of the museum. In a way, they've got a British identity. They've also got a world identity, because it's from--the retrieval of those sculptures at that time and the way they were communicated to the world, they suddenly kind of went the equivalent of viral, I suppose.
They--and this was just at the time when people were beginning to think about the glory of ancient Athens. Including a few years later, the Greek state, which was formed. And they too started to--that's when they took down a lot of the buildings around it and almost invented the sense of being ancient Athenian and the continuity with the new Greek state.
But, the British Museum, I think you understand them in relationship to other cultures. You understand them in relationship to, as we were saying, to the Assyrians, to the Egyptians, to the Romans, the enemy--the Persians--but also now African art, art from Korea.
And, I think that just really helps you understand what they were then--what they were, what they meant. It's a different way of seeing what they were then, when they were created originally; but also what they have subsequently meant. And so I think--does it enhance our understanding there? Without a question. And so, that's why I'm firmly on the side of retaining them.
Russ Roberts: My guess is they will not be retained. Your book was written in 2016. Just before we recorded this, I found an article from the BBC's [British Broadcasting Company's] website about how negotiations for returning them were almost finished. Of course, that last 10% may never happen, but I suspect it will. And my suspicion is--and you can agree or disagree--but my suspicion is, is that they will be replaced at the British Museum by casts of the originals.
And, I want you to reflect on that for a moment. I'm a big fan of Rodin. You mentioned Rodin earlier. Having spent many summers at Stanford, they have an extraordinary Rodin collection there and on the campus. The Burghers of Calais are one of my five favorite works of art, I would say. And I could spend a lot of time just looking at them.
But of course, they're casts. They're not, quote, "the original." They're a little bit different in that it's not a frieze or a relief. It's a full-blown sculpture.
But I don't look at that and say, 'Oh, this is just a cast.' Or, The Gates of Hell, which is another extraordinary work of art that Stanford has on its campus by Rodin. And I don't say--I love them. I think they're beautiful. I could look at them for a long, long time.
And, one would have to ask: What is really lost if the Marbles are replaced by casts at the British Museum and the Athenian--Acropolis Museum--gets the, quote, "originals"?
Now, I'm sure there are people who would say, 'Well, they're not the same.' And, a real artist--an art historian--would see differences; and it would bother them.
But I think it's something else. I really think there's something about the original. Just like seeing them online is nice. It's interesting. There's some value to it. I'm glad that Google and others have digitized many of the world's great art museums. But, I've seen a lot of photographs of Michelangelo's David and that doesn't work. Now, there's a cast of it. There are two Davids, I think, in Florence: the real one and the cast. I suspect that the cast would amaze me as well, but I don't like it as much. It's just interesting that the real thing is better, somehow.
Tiffany Jenkins: I think it is better for two reasons. One is that although the casts are really good and obviously technology is just jumping far ahead, I don't think it is as good. It might be that I couldn't tell the difference, but I like to think I could. I think I probably could. And I do think we want to see the authentic thing. It might be that we're object fetishists and all the rest of it; but fine, I'm happy with that. I want to see the real thing. I think casts aren't going to be the answer.
I also think you could probably do something more creative with casts. I mean there's some really great casts in the V&A [Victoria and Albert Museum]--
Russ Roberts: That's the Victoria and Albert.
Tiffany Jenkins: Museum. Yeah. I think one thing you could do is--if money was no object--you could try and do what we think it would've actually looked like and just do a full one. I mean, that wouldn't be trying to solve the repatriation argument. It would be trying to imagine what it was like. And, therefore, it'd be a new thing in and of itself. I think that would be really exciting.
I'm not sure they will go back. I think a lot of that stuff in the press at the moment is slightly mischievous from those who would like to repatriate, but I think what it's doing is taking advantage of a moment in the debate over museums. The discussion about repatriation moves up and down in relation to other political questions.
Often, if you can't mount the case for the museum--and I tie this repatriation discussion to that--can you mount a case for a museum? Can you mount a case for bringing lots of things that were not originally from here, putting them together and showing them to people, and actually saying with some authority what they were and why you should look at them? Can you do that? And at the moment and for many years, I think museums have actually found that quite difficult. They've been much more defensive. So, they sometimes apologize really for what they're doing or they try to hide it slightly. They talk about their cafés and things like this, which we love. I think they're much more defensive.
At the moment, I think museums are very much on the back foot, which is why this argument, 'What's the point of them anyway? Why don't we just send them back?' is so popular. But, I don't know if it will happen. The technical thing is that there is a law that says it can't, in Britain--the British Museum Act. But there have been laws that say certain things can't happen in relation to museums in the past--in relation to, for example, human remains. And the government has changed the law, and therefore, they've gone back.
But I do see--I mean, I've been following this debate for a long time, and it's very volatile because it's so aligned to political and intellectual currents. So, for example, we had Brexit in 2016, which was to leave the European Union. The vote for was 52%. The vote against was 48. So, it was quite divided and it became a really controversial and still is subject with massive--people not talking to each other on the different side of the divide.
Point being: after that, people were concerned that it was a return to assertive nationalism. That was a general feeling. And if you did a debate then over the Marbles, then nobody wanted them returned, because it was seen as this expression of Greek nationalism, and we're against that.
That's gone. I think even things like Black Lives Matters has changed the debate, particularly over things like the Benin Bronzes, which is something different--the objects taken from Nigeria. They are now going back and people think that will impact upon the Marbles, but I will stake my reputation saying, I don't think they'll go back.
Russ Roberts: Well, you heard it here first. It's 2023 here, in January. It's a bold prediction because it's like when people say about Marx [Karl Marx]: 'He had such foresight.' His predictions haven't come true yet. Meaning it's just a matter of time. But it may take a few hundred centuries.
You've gone on record. I appreciate the boldness.
Russ Roberts: Let's turn to this question of the role of the museum because you spent a lot of time on it, and I found that also quite fascinating. Growing up in 1950s, 1960s, America's little boy: museums are for where you learn about stuff that happened a long time ago. It gets explained and you look at--it might be a diorama, it might be an object--but they're educational institutions for understanding the past generally, or for appreciating art.
Of course, as you write quite nicely about many defenders of museums in the past, they were also seen as civilizing: that, you went to a museum to become, quote, "a better person." You educated yourself. You appreciated the art or the artifacts of the past.
You also point out, of course, that even though they're for the people, they tend to historically be mostly for rich people. Most museum-goers tend to be relatively well off. So, there's a little bit of an illusion there that it's for the people writ large. That's true of colleges and universities, too, by the way. We romanticize them as for the people, but in fact, they tend to be for mostly well-off people. So, subsidizing them as we do both those items--universities and museums--strikes me as a little bizarre and dishonest, but that's the way it is.
But, your point, which is obvious even to those of us who aren't experts, is that the whole idea of a museum in the way I've described it is under attack. Museums are now frequently seen as--their appropriate mission should be vehicles for restitution, contrition, apology, atonement, or a cultural agenda. So, talk about that movement and your feelings about it.
Tiffany Jenkins: Okay. Let's try and think about the museum of the Victorian Age or the Enlightenment Age and the museum of the present. I think there was a lot of building of museums in the Enlightenment period, later, and then the Victorian Age. I think the idea then was to educate the masses; and there was a paternalism to that. But the British Museum was free to anyone from 1756. You had to write and apply. So, there was a certain barrier. You also had to have clean shoes. I think the one in Russia, you had to wear a dress--like a proper evening gown and a dress suit. So, there was a paternalism there. But I do think that there was a sense that ordinary people could learn something, could be transformed, could move from their particular circumstances into another.
I don't think that's so much the case now, in all the discussions about accessibility in museums. It's very much the sense in which we need to reflect their culture to them. We need to go to them. There might be the hand-wringing about not having teenage boys in there. So, what do we do? We'll put--in the case here, we'll put an exhibition of video games on, and then they'll come.
So, it's not that paternalism was good, but there was a sense that we could be transformed. We could be educated, even ordinary people.
So, I think that's gone. I think, perhaps, in the past--and there's always a danger when you talk about the past that you idealize it. So, I accept that. But, I think there was an interest in other cultures that, in a way, you don't quite get the same today.
Now, what do I mean by that? When we talk about things like diversity and world culture today, it's remarkably unspecific. Sometimes you feel more like it's a moral lesson than it is a lesson about those people of the past.
So, I think museums have become very moralized, particularly around the reckoning with history that's going on, particularly in Britain. I know it's sort of similar in the States and to a lesser degree parts of Europe. In Britain, there is this encounter with and reckoning with the colonial past--to which you might say, 'About time.' But it's peculiar in that you don't really learn very much about the colonial past. You learn it was bad, but the specifics of it, no.
I'll give you an example of a recent case, which is that in London, there's a collection called the Wellcome Collection. Henry Wellcome, the pharmaceuticalist who was also a collector of medical objects--and he was a slightly odd guy. He collected some really odd stuff, which you could see in an exhibition, a sort of 15-, 20-year-long exhibition of his collection, which itself was multi-focal. So, it had different interpretations of the artifacts. Some of them were human remains, for example, which are very controversial. And so, it had different interpretations of the ethics of having those there and what different people might think of them. But that closed this year--well, last year now because we're in 2023. That closed at the end of 2022 because the curator said it was racist, sexist, and ableist.
To which you think, 'Oh, that's bad.'
But then, she was unable, I think, to be able to explain why it was racist, sexist, and ableist, and why if it was, it should be shut--because surely, isn't it the job of the museum to help us understand that mindset, understand that time, understand that period? It doesn't have to be sycophantic or hagiographic about it. It's to open up the path.
So, I almost think that what we're doing is almost quarantining the past rather than exploring it.
Another example is Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which is a museum of a museum. If you ever want to go to see what museums are like in the Victorian age, you could go to this--or you could go to this museum. It's all the dark cases. It was an ethnographic collection and it was brought together to show the hierarchy of cultures by comparing the different things that they made.
So, it had that kind of purpose, but it inevitably didn't quite achieve that. In fact, if anything, it showed the similarity between cultures. A case where museums may intend to do something, but the nature of objects and history and people is that you can't always construct it the way you'd like to.
But, they've taken their shrunken heads off display, and these are not going to be returned to communities. I think, in many cases, what's the interesting thing about the repatriation argument is that it's come from within museums unconfident about why they have this stuff anymore, unable to do anything with it. Thinking, 'Let's just get rid of--who will take it? Who can we give it to?'
And I think there's a degree to which you're seeing that with the Benin Bronzes in Nigeria. There is a demand for them, but there's also an eagerness from institutions to get rid of them.
In the case of Pitt Rivers, they've taken the shrunken heads off because they don't have any community to send them to. Nobody is wanting them, but they no longer think it's for you, the audience, because you might think the wrong thing.
So, I think there's a sort of finger wagging now with institutions, which tells you very little about the past, more about the museum mindset of these certain curators and more about what they think of the audience, which is effectively: You need to be schooled in the right moral thinking, not about who lived, where, when, and how they lived.
Russ Roberts: You quote the scholar Torpey [John Torpey], and maybe of some other people who make an argument I'd never heard before, which I think is utterly, extraordinarily fascinating, which is: Utopianism is in disrepute to some extent in world thinking. Some people recognize that utopianism can be dangerous. And, instead of fighting over what is the ideal future, we culturally have turned to the past. Which is rather an extraordinary moment in the human journey--if it's correct, if this insight is correct. The idea is that, 'Okay, I'm going to give up on a better future, because I don't know how to get there or we can't agree on it or they all seem pretty horrible. And, religion, which once promised a messianic age of sorts, is also in retreat. So, looking toward the future is shunned; and instead, let's fight over the past. Let's try to repair our past. Let's try to use the past as a form of virtue signaling.' You know: Utopianism definitely has always been a form of virtue signaling, whether it's religious or political. But, this focus on the past as the battleground of our intellectual warfare is a fascinating insight I had never heard before. Talk about that.
Tiffany Jenkins: I think one way of thinking about it in a nutshell is that you used to have, and particularly on the Left, this sense of: 'Don't mourn. Organize.' I think that was a song by a left-wing protester called Joe Hill: 'Don't mourn. Organize.'
And now it's flipped over to: We must organize to mourn.
And I think the Left is key, here. I mean, I know Left and Right don't really work anymore, but the Right traditionally had a sense of needing to conserve the past. They were perhaps too wedded to it, you know; and therefore, they weren't open to experimentation and different futures that could be imagined and realized. That was the role, I think, of the Left. Then in a way, it worked quite well in that you had this look to the past and then this look to the future; and there was a tension between the two.
I think over the course of the 20th century, the failures of left-wing politics and the experiments in alternatives to capitalism failed. And, I think also, the Left moved away from the working class towards themselves, really, as being agents of change. And as a result, that kind of--the future receded.
What do you do, then? You have what Thatcher described as: There is no alternative. This is it.
And it's not--instead of being a moment of triumph, I think it was a moment of defeat of both Left and Right. Both ideologies have waned and weakened. And I think you can really see post-1989 and 1990, this turn towards almost an apologetic outlook. And I think at first, that was a way of gaining legitimacy. I mean, people who apologizing were--in our case, Tony Blair, the Pope--for things they had nothing to do with: the potato plight, in his case. This is just before he is going into Iraq.
Russ Roberts: This is Tony Blair, not the Pope.
Tiffany Jenkins: This is Tony Blair, Prime Minister. Yeah, no, not the Pope. Yeah, two different guys.
Russ Roberts: He had other things to apologize for, but yeah.
Tiffany Jenkins: Exactly. And I think you've really seen it really become really high-pitched in the last few years over slavery, over the birth of America: What was the originating date of America? The 1619 Project.
So, the foundations of the past are being ripped up and people are fighting over its meaning. But it's all driven by present. It has nothing to do with the past.
But it is very destabilizing, I think, because we learn less and less about the past. We're not thinking about the future. In a way, we've lost the distinction between the past and the future. So, you get that curious presentism.
I think all you can do, really, is argue for understanding the past.
But we have to return to politics, if you like. And I think in this context, obviously culture has become--instead of thinking about how you might make a productive economy, we think about returning objects. The cultural sector has become very, very politicized and involved in that--to its detriment I think. Objects do then become tools of politics, rather than objects of enlightenment.
Russ Roberts: Well, I'm confused about your argument about the present versus the past. Again, I grew up in 1950s-, 1960s-America, where cowboys and Indians--there were good guys and bad guys. And certainly the--some sort of reckoning has been made. I don't think it's very effective or very well done with the treatment of Native Americans in the United States. So, the part--I wouldn't say we've ignored the past. We've swung toward a different vision of the past in the cultural mainstream that's almost as one-sided--in some settings, not this one--but in many settings that's not particularly accurate either, but at least it's a voice that gets heard that didn't get heard before.
The part that resonated with me in your book--and I think you said this; certainly, it's a theme, whether you said it explicitly or not--is that the people who stand up at conferences and begin by announcing that they apologize for the fact that the land that they are standing on, where the campus was established or the museum was established once belonged to, say, Native Americans or an aboriginal group in the case of Australia, that, this has--you could argue whether it's good or bad, but it appears to be a gesture that allows people to avoid taking responsibility for the present, where the treatment of, certainly Native Americans in the United States, is still deeply troubling.
I'm not talking about day-to-day racism. I'm talking about government policy is deeply troubling. And, the problem I have with virtue signaling isn't the performative part of it. It's the performative part of it to the exclusion of real change. So, I think that's the problem I have with that. I think you agree with that. Or do you?
Tiffany Jenkins: Yeah, no, I do very much so. I think that's certainly the case here as well. And it was notable that it was a Labour Government that turned to culture to solve social problems rather than government.
So, these centers are centers for social inclusion--museums and galleries. This was a government which we have seen rising inequality, in a way the retreat of the state and the government and the political sphere from solving social problems; and I think certainly that's happened.
Let me try and explain what I mean, because it's quite hard to try and tackle it. I think if you look at the Museum of the Native American Indian in America--
Russ Roberts: It's in Washington, D.C. on the mall--
Tiffany Jenkins: On the mall. In a way, it's definitely progressed from the exhibits that you talk about in the 1950s. There's no doubt about it. In no way am I saying we need to go back to the way things were.
But I think two things have happened. So, I'd like to be critical of them without saying there was this golden age. There was, without doubt, no golden age. In terms of this institution, it kind of exemplifies what I mean. So, on the one hand, you've got--having cultural representation and inquiry is essential to being an equal citizen in society, but in a way, it's all loaded onto culture. So, that speaks to sort of the point you were making in a way: What about stuff? What about material--instead of treating Native Americans as if their problems can be magicked away by a museum, what about doing other things? I think there's an element of that.
But there is something else that's going on. And in a way, I think it's more because it's driven for the benefit of the museum than it is for the Native Americans. They're the ones who are making the decisions about what goes in and what this museum is for. They do it in the name of, in the voice of Native Americans. They have to have a certain number of Native Americans. But who speaks for the Native Americans? Right? Their government in a way that's going to--state appointed. But, what you've got is one vision that's allowed.
Certain museums can be run by people of certain identities and really can only have a certain message about the past. And that's because it's so tied to its political purpose, which is to make people feel like they're part of America, that they're good, they're nice people. And so, the narrative is driven by that political purpose.
And so, in a way, I think, you're getting this very idealized view of history. So, you could say in the past you had these hidden histories, which might have been the history of Native Americans in America--was written by Americans--and, it was hidden. It was secreted away. And now, you have a new hidden history, because in a way, only certain histories are allowed to be told. They dress it up in nice language, but it's still very partial. Does that make sense?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I mean, part of it is the fact that in large, mass, cultural movements, nuance is never going to be the strong suit of--unfortunately just a reality. The motto of this program, Tiffany, is: It's complicated. It's the informal motto that people tease me about. And, 'It's complicated' doesn't sell very well. So, inevitably, I think it's going to be the case that culture swings between various unnuanced interpretations of history.
Russ Roberts: But, I think what you remind me of that is fascinating and alarming is that these institutions--we're talking about museums, but of course, that's just one piece of the cultural landscape. Another important piece of the cultural landscape are universities.
I think I've joked about this on the program before. When I was at Washington University in St. Louis, a friend of mine told me he was spending a lot of time on a committee he was on. I said, 'What committee is that?' He said, 'Well, it's the education committee.' I said, 'What do you mean the education committee?' So, 'Well, it's the committee that keeps an eye on the educational process.' I mean, isn't this a university--isn't that the whole thing? Of course, it's not. And universities, which were temples of scholarship and education in the old days--just like museums were temples of historical memory and education--now they serve a different purpose. And some would say that's better. I wouldn't, but who knows if I'm right?
The argument is that they serve our identity or our sense of who we are, or a cultural force that's necessary as atonement for a past injustice.
Right now, in America, many, many colleges are dropping the meritocratic entry barriers that they once established--SAT [Standardized Achievement Test] scores, grades--in the name of other goals. And, I think a great deal is lost. But others would say, 'Yeah, perhaps, but much is gained.'
But, the real point is that all of these institutions, and I'm sure there are others, are not doing what they once did. And that's just the way it is.
Tiffany Jenkins: I think the question, therefore, is: Are they succeeding on their own terms? I don't think they are. I think you have to ask, 'Access to what?' And, if you are one of the people who are permitted in finally by lowering the demands, are you going to be satisfied? No, because I think it's a lie. Isn't it? Really? If you're not being educated as the standard you need to be get into university, and then at university educated to a higher standard and being allowed, if you like, for your imagination to roam free, if you're not being stimulated--which I don't think people are, they're just being told they're in; here's the certificate--it's a con. I think it's a con for those people.
I think there are better ways, which is: there are reasons why people aren't getting to the educational level they need to get to, to get into university; and they need to be tackled. How do we really create a kind of healthy intellectual culture that helps people up? We're not doing that.
I also think that when you get to university--I mean I speak to students a lot and they just feel like because they've paid their money, they're there for all these other kind of political goals. They know it's not this intellectual place that they would like. I think it's a con.
Russ Roberts: Well, some of it is that--if we looked at the underlying driving forces on this, I think it's much more about egalitarianism than it is about fighting injustice. I think it's a desire for leveling and getting rid of hierarchy; and, you could argue that that's got some benefits. I'm open-minded or agnostic about that.
But, I think the point you make in your book, which I find quite persuasive, is that museums weren't designed to be places of atonement. They weren't designed to be the place to conduct cultural contrition. They were designed to educate. And, whether they were designed for that or not doesn't matter. They don't perform--as you alluded to a minute ago--they do not perform the task that they're being asked to perform very effectively. We need a different institution for that.
The political process needs to do that. The political process needs to redress grievances. The real risk--and I worry when I say this because it sounds like an excuse, so I say it with some caution--the real worry is that by doing what is a sham, in this case, apologizing for, say, past injustices and the accumulation of items in a museum or closing a museum or getting rid of the items that make people uncomfortable, we've salved our conscience. And therefore, we're done. The true injustices--the true things that need to be redressed--are left undone.
And I think the natural response to that is, 'Well, you should do both.' But that does not seem to be the human response. It seems to be more like, 'Well, I apologized. I'm done. I've done my part.'
So, I think your critique of museums as ill-suited for cultural education of this kind via political arguments is very persuasive to me.
Tiffany Jenkins: Right. I think it comes about for two reasons. One is the kind of future-looking political projects, which means the cultural sphere and the past becomes the place for kind of contestation.
Two, the sense in which museums and institutions of learning, including universities, have lost faith in the point, almost, of learning about the past and the possibility that we could do that and it's not all just a relativist mush.
So, they're linked unfortunately; and I think getting out of it does mean both doing stuff in the political sphere--where there is a great deal of fatalism. If we are determined, if everything today is as a result of what happened 200 years ago, then what can we do? We're just prisoners. There's a real fatalism.
So, some kind of more ambitious thinking about the possibilities of what human beings can do, because we have--the past is a half empty, half full thing, isn't it? Depending on the way you look at it, it could be all terrible--war, inequality, violence, abuse--or it could be the things that we have achieved--civil rights, a degree of equality, material advancement, the medical breakthroughs. So, we need to rebalance the way we see our past a little bit more.
It perhaps was a little bit too positive in the past. Now it's a little bit too negative. But so we need to have, I think, as a society, much more kind of confidence in what human beings can be and do, some more ambitious thinking there. But, we also just need to treasure the insights and the knowledge and the creativity of civilizations that came before us, to be able to look and understand at what they created, the bad and the good. And, museums and institutions like universities are the place to do that. We need in a way to respect what the past can tell us and understand that there's a thread between the two, and not confuse them, I suppose.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Tiffany Jenkins. Tiffany, thanks for being part of EconTalk.