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Wed Jul 28, 2021, 03:49 PM

The clay Gilgamesh tablet at the Museum of the Bible - thoughts of a museum collections worker.

Last edited Thu Jul 29, 2021, 10:29 AM - Edit history (6)

Earlier today, we learned that a clay tablet containing part of the ancient Epic of Gigamesh held at the Museum of the Bible, founded by the Hobby Lobby people, was smuggled illegally out of Iraq and must be turned over for repatriation.

This came with a lot of comments to the effect that such things belong in the countries where they were found.

I agree, in principle. But as someone who has spent his entire career working in museum collections, I want to explain why “it belongs where it was found” isn’t always such a simple thing.

First, some acknowledgments:

Acknowledgment 1: this case involves not just principle, but law. If a specimen is illegally taken somewhere, it needs to go back, and those responsible for the illegal exportation and sale/purchase of the object should be punished. Simple as that.

Acknowledgment 2: I’m a paleontologist and herpetologist whose direct work includes neither human artifacts nor human remains. The issues surrounding these are somewhat different from those surrounding non-human remains – there are levels of cultural sensitivity I don’t generally encounter, except in the abstract. And although all fields of natural history reflected imperial attitudes historically, they were arguably more acute when man-made artifacts or human remains (bones, mummies, etc.) were involved.

That being said, I actively collaborate with paleoanthropologists. In grad school, my partner at the time worked on an archaeological site that became the source of protest. One of my closest friends at the large midwestern museum where I did my post-doc was the liaison responsible for repatriating Indigenous American materials to the tribes from which they came. (This meant I once met the grandson of a Cheyenne warrior who fought at Little Bighorn. It was an educational experience I will never forget.). So although I’m not directly involved in archaeological issues, neither am I ignorant of them.

So here’s what I think –

It was very common, at least until the mid-20th century, for natural and cultural objects from the developing world to end up in European or American museums. Most of my work these days is on the evolution of crocodiles in East Africa over the past 20 to 25 million years. This means I visit lots of museums in Africa, but it also means time spent in London, Paris, Berlin, Brussels, and other capitals of the old European empires. Fossil and modern crocodile specimens collected in the former colonies often ended up back in Europe (and, to a lesser extent, the US).

Does this reflect imperialistic attitudes toward other people? In part, yes. The idea that the people living where they were found might want to play a role in their preservation and study was rarely, if ever, taken into account.

Moreover, some of the expeditions that collected the material included racist justification. For example – the American Museum of Natural History in New York led several expeditions to what are now Mongolia and north-central China during the 1920’s. These are famed for having discovered the first nests of dinosaur eggs. They also discovered some of the dinosaurs the general public might know about, including Velociraptor, though it only became widely known when Jurassic Park came out in 1992. But the actual purpose of the expeditions was to find human ancestors.

The rationale here wasn't entirely racist. One of the curators, William Diller Matthew, believed all mammalian groups had Asian origins, and that humans would be no different. He was working from a theoretical framework that suggested close links between North American and Eurasian animals, with the likeliest dispersal corridor being the Bering Land Bridge. But one of the museum higher-ups, Henry Fairfield Osborn, was another matter – he dismissed an African origin as unacceptable because of its racial implications. As he saw it, our ancestors had to be Asian because an African origin (from black people) would be beneath him.

It gets far worse when cultural materials and human remains are part of the equation. It can legitimately be said that modern archaeology arose from what would now be described as grave robbing. Indigenous graves in North America were routinely dug up, and their contents were routinely shipped off to New York, Chicago, Washington, or Pittsburgh, among many others. Anthropology shares some of this; it wasn't rare for the bones of Indigenous Americans or African Americans to be collected for study. That these were the ancestors of living human beings who didn’t want their relatives exhumed, much less treated as mere objects and put on display in a far-away museum, never seems to have crossed anyone’s mind at the time. It was an atrocity that we still trying to make right.

But as a museum collections worker, I have to point out that imperialism and racism were not the only reasons these things were done.

In many cases, specimens were shipped back to the cities not because they were seen as treasures of the empire, but because no museum existed anywhere near where the materials were collected. “Keep them where they’re found” loses some of its punch if there’s no facility on hand to properly care for the materials in perpetuity, assuming that’s what we agree to do.

(This is why fossils from South America were looted to a far lesser extent than from other parts of the world. There have been natural history museums on that continent since the 19th century. Not saying things were never removed improperly – only that it was less frequent.)

Moreover, much of it was done at a time when travel was far more expensive and time-consuming than now. A scientist studying biological or paleontological specimens from what is now Indonesia would find it far easier to visit London or Leiden than Batavia (present-day Jakarta). It was also considerably more dangerous - much of this was done before antibiotics or antimalarial drugs, for example, or even before anyone knew what actually caused tropical diseases. And since the colonial territories generally didn’t have the kind of educational system set up to train professional scientists who could work on the material locally, it made sense to send the specimens to the scientists.

I’m not saying removing the material was morally right – only that it was often logistically rational, given the assumption that these items were going to contribute to scientific knowledge.

The present situation in former colonies is uneven. Some now have world-class museums with modern conservation facilities, and they are staffed by professional scientists who are from those countries. In many cases, the specimens - especially some of the fossils - are considered national treasures. I can say from direct observation that “Lucy,” an Australopithecus afarensis skeleton from the Afar region of Ethiopia, is kept under better security in Addis Ababa than the US Constitution is in DC.

But that’s not always the case. I’ve been to museums in those parts of the world that give new meaning to the word "squalid." Pest and climate control are nonexistent, staffing is uneven and driven more by politics than expertise, and the facilities are so poorly funded that much of the work is done on a volunteer basis. Museum records may not have been computerized, and the catalog books are slowly deteriorating. Over time, specimens that aren't lost or damaged lose their scientific value.

A few years ago, the main part of the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro burned to the ground. It was caused by an aging electrical system. Everyone knew it needed a major upgrade, but the museum was never given enough support to address the problem, nor was it given the support to photograph or copy some of the most vulnerable material. Nearly all of its collections were lost.

I took this loss personally. I’d visited those collections. Some of the material I studied is now gone. (Indeed, I may have been the last person to study some of these fossils.) I watched curators – some of them personal friends – dash into the fire in a futile effort to save specimens, notes, data sets, and anything else they could grab in their arms.

"Keep them where they were found" and "keep them safe in perpetuity, so all can learn from them" do not always lead to the same conclusion. It's one thing if we're dealing with objects looted from a grave with direct links to a modern community, but not necessarily if cultural links to the present day are more tenuous, or if the specimens have no particular cultural significance in the first place.

There are massive gray areas here. Kinnewick Man is a good example of the issue. In 1996, the skeletal remains of a man who died about 9000 years ago were found in what is now the state of Washington. The material is unusual for its great age and completeness, and early work suggested physical features more typical of ethnic groups living outside North America. Together, these made Kinnewick Man central to figuring out how and when people began to settle the Western Hemisphere. We know Indigenous groups in the Americas moved around quite a lot over the millennia, and that the tribes encountered in a given location by European explorers weren't necessarily the tribes one would have encountered in previous centuries. There was thus no scientific reason to expect Kinnewick Man was directly ancestral to anyone in an Indigenous community known to have lived there during historical times. But according to the belief system of the Indigenous tribe that claimed that land, the tribe was created right in that place. To them, Kinnewick Man was one of their ancestors pretty much by definition. This left anthropologists with a serious dilemma - how to balance respect for the rights and beliefs of people who had every right to not trust scientists with the compelling scientific argument that careful study of Kinnewick Man might shed a powerful light on a critical phase of human history, all while treating the remains with reverence.

I can only say this - I'm glad I wasn't involved.

I'm not trying to be arrogant or imperialist here - I'm merely stating the complexity of the real situation.

(Acknowledgment 3 – not all squalid museums are in the developing world. I’ve seen some horrible examples right here in the US. And disasters like the fire in Rio can happen anywhere. The Second World War devastated many European cities, causing many important museums to be damaged or destroyed. The original specimen of Spinosaurus, for example, was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid. To this day, the exterior of the Humboldt Museum in Berlin is pock-marked with divots from Russian and German bullets. In 1995, the curator at the Naturkundemuseum in Stuttgart continually pointed me to one or another place where “one of your bombs” hit the museum. I kept my mouth shut, not explaining that [1] that was decades before I was born, [2] you guys started it, and [3] I did my homework and know that the bombs hit at night, meaning it was a British bombing raid. The US bombed during the day.)

Indeed, this has become a reason to support the argument that spreading materials around to different museums can be a good thng, even if it means taking them out of the home countries. That way, a disaster befalling one museum doesn’t result in a universal loss. It also supports the notion that efforts to duplicate should be given priority. That the insects and mammals at the museum in Rio were lost is bad, but they can be replicated. The audio recordings of indigenous people speaking languages that are now extinct, and which were never copied, can not.

Just thought I’d share a few thoughts. Yes, fossils and artifacts should be kept within their regional context, and they should be repatriated whenever possible. But there are other variables that should be considered. And in this case, although I fully support returning the clay tablet to Iraq as a matter of both principle and law, I worry that it isn’t the wisest practical decision, given how unstable the region is.

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Reply The clay Gilgamesh tablet at the Museum of the Bible - thoughts of a museum collections worker. (Original post)
cab67 Jul 2021 OP
Leith Jul 2021 #1
Tanuki Jul 2021 #2
DFW Jul 2021 #3
cab67 Jul 2021 #5
DFW Jul 2021 #6
ret5hd Jul 2021 #4
crickets Jul 2021 #7

Response to cab67 (Original post)

Wed Jul 28, 2021, 04:38 PM

1. I agree

The Buddhas of Bamiyan would have been far better off being shipped to Japan, India, or other countries who were interested in preserving them.

The Taliban destroyed many of them in 2001.

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Response to cab67 (Original post)

Wed Jul 28, 2021, 04:50 PM

2. Interesting thread...thanks so much for sharing your professional experiences

and reflections.

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Response to cab67 (Original post)

Wed Jul 28, 2021, 05:29 PM

3. I'm 100% with you on this

About 20 years ago, I got a private tour of the national cultural archeological museum in Quito, Ecuador. In Ecuador, this is part of their Central Bank. The Central Bank was trying to figure out a way to raise funds to completely modernize their museum, which really is a treasure. When I asked about the Incas, they laughed, and said that we "norteamericanos" always asked about the Incas, but to the people of Ecuador, the Incas are merely a recent chapter in their history. They have whole sections of that museum dedicated to peoples who predate the Incas by 3000 years (!!).

I'd hate to think what would be lost if that building burned down or was destroyed due to not being made sufficiently earthquake-proof. The country is so poor, it hurts, but they had a way that could have been turned into financing for a completely new museum. All the government had to do was to agree to a plan to raise the money, and they HAD the means to do it at no cost to themselves. I know there is an absolute fortune in pre-Columbian art that has been smuggled out of Andean nations in the last century and a half. I saw photos of the inside of the house of a (very rare) rich Ecuadorian who paid excavators all over the country to bring him gold artifacts when found. There was more in the way of gold artifacts there than in the national museum! He has since passed, and I don't know of his collection ever being sold at auction (export licenses would NEVER have been granted), nor being incorporated into the national museum. I REALLY hope his gold sculptures and masks were preserved instead of being melted down, and it pains me to think that their chances of survival are greater if they were smuggled out of the country into the hands of rich overseas collectors.

It was in 2001 when their government first invited me down there. I was asked back there in 2003 to go over the whole plan with the government once again, so I went, talked for an hour with their Economics Minister, who was a reasonable, educated guy, who wanted to move forward. I have lived, and gone to school, in Spain, majored in Spanish, so there was definitely no language problem. Their government has STILL not been able to agree on a version of the plan--or ANY plan--to put into motion. Their museum is, as far as I know, still waiting for their financing.

Each time I went down there, the people from the Central Bank took me on day trips to Otavalo (MUST do on a Saturday) and Cotacachi, which made the trips worth the trek just by themselves, but it pains me to think of the time lost, as well as what will be materially lost if that old building of theirs suddenly burns or collapses.

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Response to DFW (Reply #3)

Wed Jul 28, 2021, 06:09 PM

5. you raise another important problem

In some fields, there's a distinct difference between scientific and commercial or for-hire collecting. It's a bigger deal in paleontology than in archaeology (where collecting laws can be far more rigid), but butterfly and shell collectors are a problem for entomologists and malacologists, and the exotic pet trade is a threat to a wide range of fields, including herpetology. And as you point out, even those fields with better legal protection are not immune.

Some commercial collectors do a decent job of recording relevant information (e.g. local geology) and making sure museums are aware of their more important discoveries, but not all do - and even what they might perceive as "common" or "not significant" might prove to be crucial, depending on the question being asked.

And once a specimen is in a private collection, it loses a whole lot of its scientific value.

There was some controversy a few years back about something called Tetrapodophis, which was originally described as a primitive snake with four limbs. (Previous fossil snakes with limbs only had the hindlimb.) It was collected in Brazil, but was on exhibit in a museum in Germany. Another team went to look at it in Germany and decided it had nothing to do with snakes - it was a limb-reduced squamate, but not a snake relative. They also realized it had also most likely been smuggled illegally out of Brazil, which has very strict laws regulating export of fossils. But worse, the specimen had only been on loan to the museum by a private collector, who has since retrieved the specimen and refuses to let anyone else look at it. So we have a situation in which two groups of researchers have drawn very different conclusions, but no one else can look at it to add to the discussion. (For what it's worth, based on what I've seen, Tetrapodophis is irrelevant to snake origins.)

BTW, I'd love to go back to Ecuador. I've only been there briefly, as I headed to and from the Galapagos Islands. There are too many birds there for me not to visit.

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Response to cab67 (Reply #5)

Wed Jul 28, 2021, 06:16 PM

6. I've never been to the Galapagos

Wish I had, but I was there for work which, as you obviously figured, had nothing to do with ornithology or paleontology. But I remember, having lunch with the government people in Cotacachi, just marveling at the variety of birds perching on the trees right in front of us. That part of the Andean jungle must be an ornithologist's dream. I'm sure that even today, a month spent in the region would yield a good chance of new discoveries.

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Response to cab67 (Original post)

Wed Jul 28, 2021, 05:34 PM

4. I see/feel a difference between...

sending an artifact to the Smithsonian or something like that and some guys personal collection that he just happens to display and that he acquired so he could say “look at what I bought!”

Maybe not so much difference to the people it was stolen from though. I acknowledge that.

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Response to cab67 (Original post)

Wed Jul 28, 2021, 09:29 PM

7. K&R for the post and the discussion.

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