BMCR 2016.12.06

Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums…and Why They Should Stay There

, Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums…and Why They Should Stay There. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. ix, 369. ISBN 9780199657599. $34.95.


In Keeping Their Marbles, Tiffany Jenkins argues that museums should be under no obligation to return or repatriate artifacts (including human remains) to countries or peoples who claim more rightful ownership of them. This, she maintains, is because no individual or group can own culture or a culture, thus no individual or group has exclusive rights to any cultural artifacts. Repatriation demands have intensified since the 1980s, Jenkins explains, thanks to a sense of political defeatism: instead of working together to build a better future by enacting true political change, we now settle for squabbling about the past, dwelling on wrongs inflicted and suffered by people who died long ago. The villains in her story are not looters or collectors or curators or colonizers, for she maintains that “we should judge the past on the terms of the past, rather than by what we feel is right today” (122). Instead, they are the twin forces of post-modernism and liberal guilt. The regrettable consequence of society’s current obsession with sorting out history’s “victims” is that the once-venerated institution of the museum “has become a focus of a relentless critique, castigated for historical wrongs and social ills” (9).

In Jenkins’s view, the public benefit provided by museums, especially “encyclopedic museums” (the British Museum, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and so on), is what ultimately counts: “The mission of museums should be to acquire, conserve, research, and display their collections to all,” she concludes; “That is all and that is enough” (324). Museums are crucial (but evidently not ‘critical’) sites for public improvement and specialist research. The artifacts displayed in them excite our imaginations; they inspire us to think and dream of the wondrous, skilled peoples who fashioned those objects (or animated those bones) long ago and often in distant lands. The unique virtue of encyclopedic museums is that their combinations of artifacts “provoke questions” and “illustrate relationships,” such that any single artifact takes on “elevated meaning” from the company it keeps. Positions such as these continue to be influential, and should not be dismissed out of hand. Unfortunately, though, Jenkins does little to develop the logic of her arguments, or to make a good faith effort to engage with (or even just show a modicum of respect for) anyone who might see things differently.

She does attempt more generally, and to this reviewer’s mind offensively, to dismantle the logic of what detractors call “identity museums” (Jewish museums, museums dedicated to indigenous peoples, and so on; the category would certainly include the United States’ newly-opened National Museum of African American History and Culture). Her position is that the wrongheaded, and even morally questionable, aim of these institutions is to make historically “marginalized groups” “feel better about their lives” (182)—a phrase greatly out of place in an academic book. That self-esteem project, she argues, often comes at the expense of real museum work: practicing Catholics don’t make a fuss about their devotional objects being displayed in, say, London’s National Gallery (267), so why should anyone else? Yet, as it stands, to Jenkins’s mind, “Anointed groups decide how the material is to be shown, if at all” (265) and so hinder serious researchers. By “anointed groups” Jenkins is referring largely to groups—indigenous peoples in the Americas and Australia; European Jews—who have suffered massive historical wrongs, including genocide.

Some of Jenkins’s ancillary claims stretch far beyond matters of museology. The notion of reparations for past injustices (such as, of course, the transatlantic slave trade) is said to divert “energy and ideas” “from imagining a better future” (283). Reparations, she maintains, by definition cast the group on the receiving end as history’s passive victims. And what of the people and societies who theoretically owe reparations to others? The whole premise, Jenkins tries to convince us, is sneakily racial and racist in itself (or what some would call, very wrongly, a case of ‘reverse racism’):

“[I]t is said that the British people of today, and their institutions, are responsible for the suffering of those people conquered and subjected by the British Empire, and should assume a sense of collective guilt for the sins of imperialism. What is troubling is that this has uncomfortable echoes with old racializing discourse, which promoted notions about the biological inheritance of moral traits, and the culpability of whole populations or groups for the actions of their ancestors.” (285-6)

She further cautions that we must be extremely wary of revisionism that attempts to unsettle old historical narratives, for “If history can only be written by the victims, or if it can be rewritten to make them feel better, it will not be history” (287). This sentence is illustrative of the book’s extremism. It is also the first time that I have seen it argued, in something that poses as a balanced and substantiated scholarly contribution, that history is at risk of being written exclusively by its ‘victims’.

The case studies, historical events, and intellectual movements discussed in the book all receive superficial treatment, and in general the content does not work in service of the argumentation. In Part I, meant to provide the historical background to current museum debates, Jenkins begins with a chapter called “Great Explorers and Curious Collectors.” Curiously indeed, it is dedicated almost exclusively to an account of James Cook’s voyages and the fate of the (mostly floral and faunal) “artifacts” collected on them. The next chapter is a patchy account of “The Birth of the Public Museum” that skips from the ancient Library of Alexandria to curiosity cabinets to the early history of the British Museum (which opened in 1759, almost a decade before Cook set out on his first voyage). It ends with a brief account of museum-building in North America (the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and a lament for how the original, admirable aims of such museums—of improving the general public’s taste and even of “civilizing the populace”—is now, woefully, “subjected to the relentless critique” of “academics and commentators” (64-5).

The next chapter, “Antiquity Fever,” is an apologia, though certainly no apology, for European removal and collection of Egyptian, Assyrian, and Greek antiquities in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Unsurprisingly it is dedicated largely to Lord Elgin’s removal of nearly half of the Parthenon Marbles, their acquisition by the British government, and installation in the British Museum. The discussion here is clumsy and shallow, and on occasion misleading (e.g. the nationalization of Greek antiquities occurred in 1826, under the provisional government known as the First Hellenic Republic, and not “in a matter of years” [99] after King Otto’s installation). Some of Jenkins’s observations about the state of Greek antiquities in Elgin’s lifetime and their repurposing would have been right at home in the contemporary accounts by European travelers. She shakes her head, for example, at how the “Acropolis complex was being used by the Ottomans as a garrison, and the Parthenon was crumbling, treated as a quarry” (3). There is not a whiff anywhere of the new scholarship that has sought to undercut the old stereotype of local “indifference” to antiquities in and during the Ottoman Empire.1

The last chapter in this section, “Cases of Loot,” reviews Napoleonic looting of antiquities and then focuses on two exceptionally notorious cases of antiquities looting by the British: the looting of the so-called Benin bronzes as part of a British “punitive expedition” against the Benin Kingdom in 1897, and the destruction of the “Chinese Summer Palace” in 1860 at the end of the Opium Wars, on the command of the next Earl of Elgin (James Bruce, the Eighth Earl of Elgin, was the son of Thomas Bruce, the Elgin now of greater notoriety). But while cases such as these—in which looting was accompanied by torture and murder—“are instances of the removal of artistic treasures in circumstances that are now frowned upon” (150), Jenkins expects readers to take heart in the knowledge that, e.g., “European artists including Picasso emulated images found in Benin art.” After all, “When artefacts move to new locations, they have an influence beyond, and sometimes contrary to, that which is intended or expected” (142).

When not ignoring them outright, Jenkins over-simplifies, mocks, and dismisses the arguments in favor of artifact repatriation that detail the more abstract, lasting damage their (oftentimes violent) seizure caused. Even former British Museum director Neil McGregor quoted Wole Soyinka on the significance of the Benin bronzes to African political discourse when he presented “ Benin plaque: the Oba with the Europeans ” as entry number 77 in his “History of the World in 100 Objects.”

In the first paragraphs of this review I accounted as much as I would like for the general arguments set forth in Part II, which focuses on the current “museum wars” allegedly being fought around issues of repatriation, “identity museums,” and even around reparations more broadly. I only will add that this part ends with a chapter “Burying Knowledge: The Fate of Human Remains” that ridicules, among other things, the United States’ 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and complains that nowadays “Scientists are beholden to those with the approved ethnicity and beliefs as to whether they can research historic remains, if at all” (307).2

I have done my best to represent Jenkins’ positions here accurately and in her own words. If BMCR readers are not upset by these quotations and the kind of thinking behind them then there is little point in attempting to convince them, within this space, of why they should be. Like recent developments in Britain, the United States, and beyond Keeping Their Marbles is evidence not just of a colonial hangover, but that some people still refuse to leave the party. American and European nationalists will no doubt feel they have found an ally in this author. What is perhaps most frightening, though, is that the book’s publication with OUP only confirms that we are witnessing the normalization of extremist discourse, on both sides of the Atlantic.

And while I find myself wholly at odds with the politics of this book, it is also the task of the reviewer to judge whether an author succeeds, on her own terms, to make a credible and persuasive intervention on behalf of her positions. Jenkins does not. Despite the sensationalistic claims made in the introduction and in the splashy marketing material, Keeping Their Marbles contributes almost nothing to (and arguably even sets back) the broader, evolving, and ever more sophisticated conversation about critical heritage studies, which should be a matter of concern to everyone who reads BMCR. The book is a diatribe—and not a very well-researched, well-documented, or well-written one—that has been dressed, advertised, and reviewed as an authoritative monograph issued by one of our field’s flagship presses.

As a rule I believe that typographical errors should not be the subject of book reviews; this case is a little different. Precisely because this book was meant to be provocative it should have been subject to a far more careful editorial hand. The stylistic infelicities and errors are so pervasive as to distract—almost—from the sloppiness of the argumentation. This is a representative selection of glaring examples up to the end of Part I: The second sentence of the book begins on a dangling participle (1). On page 40 the grand hall of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio ( sala grande) has become the great salt ( sale grande). The ancient Athenian Odeion was not on the Acropolis (91). There was one Greek War of Independence: they have become multiple on p. 99. One does not prosecute a trial (124). The Euphronios Krater is the Euphronious krater on p. 157.

In the end, one is at a loss at whom to fault more: Jenkins for her views, or Oxford University Press for allowing such a book—a combination of sloppy work and, to this reviewer’s mind, shockingly poor taste—to bear its name. Jenkins’s right to free expression of her views should certainly be protected, but that does not mean that OUP must be the one to disseminate them.


1. See the excellent example by art historian Benjamin Anderson, “‘An alternative discourse’: Local interpreters of antiquities in the Ottoman Empire,” Journal Of Field Archaeology 40.4 (2015).

2. For a far more informative and well-documented account of how human remains came to be held in museums see Samuel J. Redman’s Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums (Harvard University Press 2016).