Blog post

The Right To Live Where One’s Culture Was Museified

Ariella Azoulay10 March 2016

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The Multaqa: Museum as Meeting Point program, an initiative of the German Ministry of Education, Science and Culture that trains refugees from Iraq and Syria for guide positions in a handful of cultural and historical museums, has been widely praised in the Western media. But, as Ariella Azoulay argues in this excerpt from a work-in-progress, it doesn't go nearly as far as it could to undermine the cultural dynamics of imperialism and give rise to a new set of human rights.

It is no secret that millions of objects that had never been destined for display in white cubes were looted from all over the world only to be carefully handled and preserved in Western museums as precious objects. Once looted, these objects were made inaccessible to the people who had created them and to the communities in which they had been produced, used, and exchanged. This breach between colonized people, who were dispossessed of so many of their artifacts, cultural practices, and infrastructures, and the objects they made, which museums, archives, and libraries now handle according to imperial principles and procedures of classification and a discourse of salvation and preservation, is one of the founding principles of imperialism, which has never been abolished. Under imperial temporality and spatiality, this breach is not conceived as an open debt that Europe owes to colonized peoples whose cultures were destroyed in the process of “rescuing” rare samples of these cultures to enrich European and American institutions.

The process of formal decolonization provided the impetus to consolidate looting by transforming stolen objects into legally owned treasures, exonerating imperial powers of their debts, and withdrawing their responsibility to restore infrastructures and recover cultural practices that were devastated through colonial brutality while being construed as belonging to a less advanced stage of history. As long as an imperial temporality and spatiality remains intact, people who are running away from political regimes in ex-colonies and seeking asylum in Europe are not perceived as connected to the precious objects of their cultures that were illegally brought to the West and long ago converted into legal possessions.

Restitution claims for discrete objects, poorly addressed for years, are not enough to overcome the imperial temporality and spatiality that keep people in unbridgeable distance from their culture as it is showcased elsewhere. The artifacts preserved in European museums are not just exemplary masterpieces but also mummies of imperial violence that should be transformed. European citizens, acting against their governments to smuggle in refugees and assist them, are effectively arguing that these refugees represent a pristine opportunity for European citizens to transform the legacy of imperial violence into a different contract between descendants of the colonized and the colonizers. Art objects, so dearly preserved and appreciated by many, can be the first ambassadors of a different ground for the emergence of shared rights or rights-in-common. The right of access, or proximity, to the artifacts of one’s own culture. The Right To Live Where One’s Culture Was Museified. The right to have rights to one’s objects. Only by introducing such rights can phenomena like the hiring of refugees as guides in museums that archive and present artifacts plundered from their homelands be not just another way to exploit people, but a way to “excavate the wound” (Saidiya Hartman) of imperial crimes and respond to the plea of people who, in the one world created by imperialism, have the right to a place within living communities created with and around shared objects and not in their outskirts.

Filed under: history, immigration-and-asylum, imperialism