Sunday, September 12, 2010

Do artefacts belong in museums?

Collecting tribal artefacts in the late 19th century, Harvard University's Peabody Museum sought to preserve a span of American history that 18th-century frontiersmen had tried to obliterate. By the end of the 20th century, the tribes wanted their things back. Thousands of ceremonial objects were returned before curators realised that earlier conservators had doused them with arsenic to repel insects. Saving the artefacts had rendered them deadly.

This is just one of the fascinating and morally fraught tales told in Finders Keepers, a book about archaeology and its implications. Craig Childs is a superb storyteller, expertly recounting Aurel Stein's 1906 pan-Asian pursuit of the Diamond Sutra - the world's oldest printed book - for the British Museum, and his own search for pre-Columbian artefacts in the American Southwest. Presenting myriad perspectives on the pursuit of artefacts, Finders Keepers is a cross between Indiana Jones and a parliamentary debate.

"In no other field of research have I encountered so many people who have wanted the other party dead," Childs writes. To start, there is the epic battle between archaeologists and looters, sometimes with actual gunfire. Then there is the political war over repatriation, fought very publicly between museums and nations. Even within archaeology, the proper approach to history is a matter of vehement debate. Take, for instance, William Saturno, discoverer of an ancient temple in Guatemala dubbed the Mayan Sistine Chapel. Against the advice of his conservation-minded colleagues, Saturno refused to have the temple's extraordinary murals moved to a climate-controlled museum, instead preserving them in situ. "This temple has been here for two thousand years," he tells Childs. "Beat that."

Childs agrees, leaving the artefacts he finds alone - a point he sanctimoniously emphasises a dozen times too many. Yet he admirably remains sympathetic to other views. He salutes Stein and the Peabody, recognising what might have been irretrievably lost without their timely interventions. Surprisingly, he even pays tribute to a man he met while travelling through northern Mexico, a local named Mario who had dug a pre-Columbian jar from the ground. Mario had spray-painted it gold because his wife didn't like its natural earth colour, and set it on the kitchen table filled with flowers. "In a kind of connection with the past I had never even imagined, the jar, and its purpose, were still alive in his home," Childs writes.

As Childs makes clear in this engrossing book, how people grapple with the past is as varied as history itself.

New Scientist. 2010. "Do artefacts belong in museums?". New Scientist. Posted: August 31, 2010. Available online:

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