On Museums and Cultural Appropriation


I’ve started to feel about cultural/historical museum exhibits the same way I now feel about zoos: uneasy. I mean, yeah, in some ways it’s really cool that kids in San Diego (or in Budapest) get to see a real, live zebra or giraffe or Bengal tiger. But fundamentally, those animals don’t belong there. Similarly, much as I’ve been fascinated by Egyptian artifacts since my early teens (largely as a result of avidly reading my way through the Amelia Peabody seriesso good!), I’m not sure all those pieces of ancient Egyptian history really belong in Hungary.

I think this sort of cultural appropriation anxiety started for me when I visited Greece in 2010. Athens has been left with the scraps. The Acropolis is practically barren, and the fancy new museum for it has all these replicas and drawings and reconstructions accompanied by signs saying that they wish they could show us the real thing, but the British Museum won’t give it back.

And that makes me kind of sad. 

I feel like ‘art’ is different in some ways, but the more I think about it, the less clear I get. What’s the distinction between a painting or sculpture and an historical artifact? Certainly in the case of Greece, those things are one and the same. But I didn’t feel guilty or sad looking at the Budapest museum’s stellar exhibit on Toulouse-Latrec (even though he’s decidedly French), whereas I didn’t enjoy the Egyptian gallery. Maybe I’m just oversensitive as a result of years of grad school over-analysis.

My couchsurfing compatriots and I are planning to visit the viking museum here in Copenhagen, and I’m pretty stoked for that. It seems appropriate. And the description says we could possibly get dressed up in viking outfits and have out picture taken on a boat. On a boat! (That may prove worth the expense)

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