The role of museums

The collectors may also be motivated by the feeling that by purchasing the object she or he (most often a he given how the distribution of wealth in the contemporary world is structured according to gender) has saved the object from destruction. Such feelings are enhanced when the collector donates objects to a museum and the museum in exchange expresses its gratitude through naming the donor in the text label accompanying the object or – in case of large donations – by naming a room, a gallery or the entire museum after the donor. Through these donor memorials, when the name of the donor is inscribed in golden letters above the doorway of an exhibition hall or on the facade of the museum, money is exchanged for social status, or, to put it in Bourdieuan terms, economic capital is transformed into social and cultural capital. The generation of vast fortunes are made possible by certain societal rules and structures. When museums celebrate the benevolence and taste of wealthy donors this does not only function to maintain and further the donors’ position within this class hierarchy. The message proclaimed – that society as a whole benefits from the acquisition of wealth in the hands of a plutocracy – also serves to uphold and legitimise the class structure of society (Duncan 1995).

This may be said to be a function of all art donations by the rich and wealthy – whether the donation comprises Impressionist paintings or looted Peruvian gold – but when it comes to the collection and donation of looted archaeological material the notion that society owes gratitude to the those individuals – often labelled “philanthropists” – who put money into the looting business becomes especially paradoxical. Also, when archaeological objects from all over the world – but mainly from third world countries – are gathered together and put on display in Western museums with the implicit, or sometimes explicit, message that these objects would have been neglected, lost or destroyed in their countries of origin, but have now been saved for posterity by the museum where they can be seen and appreciated by “everyone” (which in practice means those parts of the population of planet Earth which have the opportunity and financial resources to go to these Western museums) this subtly serves to reinforce notions of the West as being more developed, peaceful and civilised than the rest of the world. The displays confirm a sense of Western superiority and naturalises the global power structures which makes the accumulation of loot in Western public and private collections possible (for the argument that the trade in unprovenanced archaeological objects is beneficial to mankind and that the world’s self-declared “universal” museums have the right and duty to continue acquire such objects, see Gibbon 2005, Cuno 2008, Cuno 2009).