The Problem with Museums
Are museum collections ethical? How did these institutions end up with their vast array of artifacts and remains from every corner of the globe? Well, chances are there was some definite shadiness involved. Danielle examines this complicated debate and looks closely at the cases of Saartjie Baartman and Chang and Eng Bunker.
So if you’re a big ole history nerd like me then you probably remember the scene in
Black Panther when Killmonger is standing in a museum with a particularly smug docent
who's explaining to him the origins of various African tribal masks.
Killmonger’s response is to ask the docent how much she thinks the people who placed
these artifacts in the museum paid for them and if she thinks “they paid a fair price?”
Then you know...the docent dies from poisoning and Killmonger and his crew pull off a truly
diabolical and thoroughly flawless museum heist where they recapture the missing Vibranium,
murder a bunch of guards and run off in a decoy ambulance.
Now, putting aside the fact that this is an example from the Marvel Universe and not...well
this universe, this scene got me wondering: what are the ethics of museum collections?
And if museums founded decades or even centuries ago acquired their collections through either
out right shady or less than honorable means, do they have a moral responsibility to return
those stolen objects today?
So for this episode of Origin let’s dive into the politics of museum collections and
how these beloved institutions ended up enmeshed in some sticky ethical questions.
So we should first spend some time talking about the history of museums as in where they
come from and what their purposes are.
Museums have a long and storied history that stretches back over 2,500 years.
Some of the first ones sprung up in ancient Greece and Babylon, but these early museums
often housed royal collections and royal zoos that weren’t opened to the public.
The first official public museum came into being in 1471 and was opened under Pope Sixtus
IV when he donated a group of statues to the people of Rome.
Although these early institutions were technically museums (I mean they housed collections of
rare and valuable objects for display) they weren't the large public museums that we've
come to know today.
Those institutions didn't come into being until the 18th and 19th centuries.
Early modern museums were meant as public institutions to document the history of mankind
in the Arts and Sciences.
However they had a less than auspicious start.
One of the first American museums was built in Philadelphia in 1786 by Charles Willson
Peale’s collection included portraits he painted of George Washington, other art, and
a mastodon skeleton he later unearthed...a rather odd collection to say the very least.
This brings us to a man who was better known for his work under the big top, PT Barnum.
In the 1840s he bought the collections from Peale’s Museum and also curated The American
Museum that toed the line between education and freak shows, opening their doors to paying
customers interested in seeing an array of human “oddities.”
Performers like Joice Heth (billed fictitiously as George Washington’s hundred plus year
old nursemaid) and Commodore Nutt (a little person who traveled the country in Barnum’s
displays) were a large component of Barnum’s museums.
Museums during this time period featured a balance of entertainment and “scientific-y”
But the US saw a big shift in museum culture when in the 19th century an English philanthropist
by the name of James Smithson granted money for an “establishment for the increase and
diffusion of knowledge.”
And if you haven’t guessed from the name already, that’s how the Smithsonian Institution
came into being.
Staffed by actual scientists, this museum had a different scope and mission than its
Meanwhile, also in the 18th and 19th centuries, European public museums were flourishing.
Like the National Museum of Natural History in France which opened in 1635 and was restructured
Or the British Museum, which was founded in 1753.
But what made these new scientific museums start to spread like wildfire?
Well, keep in mind that the world was deep in the midst of two significant phenomena:
European imperial expansion and the Enlightenment period.
From these early days, the modern museum was a site to collect, catalog, and organize the
story of the world through the lens of European expansion.
As a result many museums focused their collections on items that were brought in from around
the world under dubious or outright immoral circumstances.
Today questions remain about the right to ownership since many of those objects are
still in the hands of museums and not in the locations they originated from.
For example: if something was stolen, wrongfully taken, or unethically displayed in the 19th
century should it still be owned and shown in museums today?
In order to illuminate this question I'm going to tell you two stories, both ending in complex
debates involving bodily remains that ended up in museums.
But how they got there and why they were kept on display for so long is extremely relevant
to the ethical dilemmas that museums face today.
One of the major cons of many museums is the ethics of how they obtained their collections.
And although we most often think museums just contain pieces of art, scientific specimens,
and historical paraphernalia, they actually often house sensitive or even sacred items
that were acquired during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The older a museum is and the more storied the collection, often times the more challenging
the history of how those items came to be in the museum in the first place.
Which brings us to Saartjie Baartman.
Born in present-day South Africa in the late eighteenth Century, Bartman spent the majority
of her adult life touring Europe as a medical sideshow and as a freak show performer.
Her body was the subject of many medical examinations and scientific explorations, in large part
because it was believed that her genitals and backside were exceptionally different
from those of European women.
She died in 1815 from causes that were likely a combination of poor treatment, poor health,
and suspected alcoholism due to her years in captivity.
Then, Baartman's body became the subject of an autopsy by a French scientist by the name
of Georges Cuvier, who was determined to use her body to discover missing links between
the animal kingdom and the human world.
He had a relationship with the French Museum of Natural History, so after the autopsy was
completed her bodily remains and a plaster cast of her corpse remained in the museum
Cuvier went on to great success as a scientist; and he’s often considered one of the founding
fathers of modern paleontology and biology.
However the Legacy of Baartman’s body and how it became an object in a French Museum
continued to cause ongoing political strife and scandal.
Beginning in the 1970s South African activists and supporters of the anti-apartheid movement
began to petition the French Museum to return Baartman's body to her native South Africa.
But as scholar Christina Sharpe notes in her work, Baartman never technically lived in
South Africa because it did not become a nation until after her death.
Therefore those who were resistant to returning her corpse to South Africa could (in some
ways rightly, in other ways incorrectly) point to the fact that South Africa as a nation
did not have a greater claim her remains then France’s Natural History Museum.
Additionally Baartman was a paid performer during her lifetime, even though she was unfairly
treated and poorly compensated.
It’s impossible to determine what her final wishes for her remains would be.
Our second story involving human remains is that of Chang and Eng Bunker, known throughout
the world as the original Siamese twins, whose bodies are now buried in North Carolina with
a plaster cast of their conjoined torsos on display in Philadelphia's Mutter Museum.
The Mutter was founded in 1863 as a teaching museum for physicians and in the 20th century
opened its doors to the general public.
The collection of the Mutter Museum is unusual in that many things within its walls are comprised
of human remains, primarily because it was a place to train physicians in anatomy and
I've actually visited The Mutter before and it's truly gruesome in some aspects.
You can walk around and see jars of human skin, a tumor from Grover Cleveland's jaw,
and even babies preserved in jars.
Chang and Eng Bunker, similar to Baartman, spent their lives as medical anomalies and
They were born in Siam, or present-day Thailand, in 1811 and when they died in 1874 medical
doctors were eager to seize control of their bodies.
Since the brothers had a number of children as well as two wives, doctors were not able
to keep the entirety of their remains.
The Mutter Museum’s display is a plaster cast of the Bunkers conjoined torsos and a
jar containing their conjoined livers.
Although there is evidence to support that the family consented to an autopsy after the
twins died, a letter that I uncovered in the archival collections at UNC Chapel Hill suggests
that there was some hesitancy to have the bodies displayed in a museum permanently.
The letter was written by one of Chang’s sons and one of Eng’s.
Addressed to the physician who performed the autopsy, it notes:
“Sir enclosed you will find the receipt for bringing the bodies of Papa and Uncle
from Salem[…]My mother and Aunt was very sorry that we did not bring the lungs and
entrails of our fathers with the bodies home, and as we did not bring them, you can keep
them, until further orders from the families.
Respectfully, CW and JD Bunker.”
Basically what their sons were saying is that when they went to collect their father’s
bodies they were surprised the physicians kept pieces of them.
Clearly the family’s reticence to have their fathers’ and husbands’ bodies displayed
forever in a museum is evidenced by the fact that they mention the missing body parts and
their not-too-subtle comments around who should keep them.
However unlike Baartman's body which was repatriated to South Africa in 2002, the Bunkers’ livers
and plaster cast remain on display in Philadelphia, presenting an ongoing critical dilemma.
Because even though limited consent was, at some point, given by family members, could
they have known that their loved ones bodies would be included as part of the permanent
collection of the museum?
And in fact that those body parts would be billed as one of the museum’s biggest attractions
to this day?
But just like Baartman’s return to South Africa presented a legal puzzle since her
body predates the founding of the nation, the Bunkers’ bodies also present a legal
quandary because none of their immediate family members are alive today (although they have
a sizeable number of descendants).
So what should become of their bodily remains?
Should they be kept in the museum on display?
Or should they be returned to their resting place in North Carolina?
Or alternatively should the museum keep them but not display them?
Now we're not always dealing with human remains in museums.
But historical artifacts have been at the center of similar debates.
There's often a slippery slope between knowledge dissemination and individual or community
What if, for example, a sacred object was placed in the museum decades or hundreds of
Should it be returned to descendants of that religious faith today?
Or say a family object was stolen and placed in a museum.
Do the descendants of the original owner have a claim to have that item?
In my own personal view of the debate, there are three major camps:
The first contends that any items or objects taken unethically or under duress, should
be immediately returned to the communities from which they were taken or to the direct
descendants of that community.
The second camp argues that because of the passage of time, there’s no consistent or
clear line of ownership, so the objects should remain in museums where they can be preserved
and cared for.
This group would also argue for the public good that museums represent, because having
items in a collection means that everyone can view them and learn from them.
The final camp would try to strike some compromise between the two, with museums working together
with activists, descendants, and communities to create displays that honor the items in
Scholar James Clifford theorizes that museums aren’t just passive collections entrapped
by Imperial gazes, but rather he borrows the concept of “contact zones” or places where
varying cultures and identities come into close (if fraught) proximity.
He notes as an example the challenges of displaying Indigenous Tlingit art in the Portland Museum
Activists and elders worked in collaboration with museum curators to speak about the significance
of the items on display, many of which held rich oral histories or narratives, but were
just being displayed as static art objects hung up on the wall.
Although the final conclusion of Clifford’s story didn’t lead to immediate changes,
this incident did open up a new conversation about how items that aren’t immediately
repatriated can be repurposed by making museums more interactive spaces that take on the needs
of the communities they serve.
But even with this optimistic view of museums and their intended purposes, the ethics of
the objects that remain there are still unclear.
So, I'm not saying that you should pull a full Killmonger and poison a museum worker.
Like, don't do that.
And I know that bringing up these questions with an audience that is, presumably very
pro museum can be challenging.
Because in many ways, when done correctly, museums can be great spaces for the dissemination
of free knowledge, serve as important supplements to the educational agendas of teachers and
also provide valuable community resources such as free programming and outreach to various
And if you’ve ever even spent a cursory amount of time scrolling through our community
tab or my instagram you’ll see that I like museums.
I mean...I really love museums.
But that doesn’t negate the serious conversations we have to have and potential actions we have
to take to correct historical wrongdoing when we’re confronted with it, even if it’s
within the walls of some of our most beloved institutions.
If the original purpose and functions of museums was to disseminate knowledge, entertain, and
preserve artifacts related to the human story, then we must also critically ask the question:
who is it all for?
Because if something has been wrongfully, cloudily, or unethically collected then in
some ways it actually functions as antithetical to the museum's intended missions.