Thursday, 6 November 2014

Nara + 20: Trojan horses and battle trophies

Mykonos Vase showing the Trojan horse
The Nara conferences came about because Japan was increasingly becoming aware that UNESCO's views of cultural heritage were not in harmony with the Japanese experience. This was not the first time that Japan had seen the need to adjust the west's attitude toward its culture: in the Meiji eraNinagawa Noritane (1835-1882) sent gifts of traditional Japanese pottery to British and American museums, explaining to them that their displays of Japanese porcelain did not represent his culture, which preferred, and had evolved cultural expressions around, the humbler pottery of the people. The porcelain, he explained, was a technology they had learned from China, and while it had gained Japanese cultural themes and styles, it was only produced for export to the west. The museums followed his advice.

What was different with Nara, was the realization that other cultures faced similar problems, and ideas about what defines cultures had evolved to be more focused and specific. There came about an awareness, too, that the boundary of a culture was diffuse and that influences mingled across many subjects. It was realized that even contemporary world-wide virtual communities were cultures in their own right. A nationalist-aimed, top-down, international cultural heritage policy starts to take on the aspect of a steam-roller.

A current fashion is to see the contents of museums as the spoils of long-ago wars, and now, whether because of feelings of guilt, or sour grapes over shrinking empires, everything must go back. I attended a school in north London that stood on the grounds of Cecil Rhodes' house. Of the house, itself, only the façade had survived with its four pillars. The school badge showed those four pillars as representing four human virtues exhibited by Cecil Rhodes. Later, it was realized that Cecil Rhodes had none of these qualities at all, but that was the story I was fed. When I returned to England for  three weeks in 1999, I  watched a TV show using the same sort of rhetoric I got at school, but it was now promoting the opposite views to what I had been taught. I gained a new respect for George Orwell. Neither of these views had authenticity.

The Trojan horse serves me as a useful metaphor: the soldiers hidden in the horse can bring victory to the invaders. With cultural objects, what is hidden inside are not soldiers but ideas and shared concerns. The artificial walls between peoples start to fall.

Image courtesy  of Classical Numismatic Group Inc.
On the reverse of Caesar's denarius to the left is a battlefield trophy of captured Celtic equipment. Such trophies were displayed for only a limited time so as to allow old hostilities to heal. Caesar did mention that some Gaulish tribes had permanent sacred displays of booty and no one could take anything from it under penalty of death, but I suspect that this law was to prevent its reuse by potential warlords. The pictorial treatment of the enemy was harsher and could include a couple of bound captives seated at the base of a trophy on some coins.

When museum exhibits become repatriated, they are usually set up in a display by the receiving country to commemorate the victory: old spoils have been recaptured. History is the handmaiden to all of these different views and we can choose the metaphors to reflect that which comforts us best.

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