The repercussions of Western imperialism have impacted modern society in countless ways. From politics to language to art, is it clear that people are still grappling with how to address the conflicts stemming from increased globalization and colonialism (primarily that of Europeans and Americans) from the 16th century onwards.
Returning Southeast Asia’s Past: Objects, Museums and Restitution, edited by Louise Tyhacott and Panggah Ardiyansyah, tackles the issue of art repatriation, and how museums and private collections approach pieces that were looted or trafficked illegally from where they were originally exhumed. The authors focus specifically on objects with intrinsic cultural, artistic, or archeological value from Southeast Asia. Approaching historic inequality through the lens of material culture provides fascinating insight into the dynamics of visual art and power, and the relationship between artifacts and national identity; as succinctly summarized by scholar Justin Wintle, and quoted in the book, “much of the colonial project was about material exploitation.”
The book is separated into three parts: “Artefact Ownership”, “Object Biographies and Colonial Legacies, and Museums, Restitution”, and “Cultural Identities”. Within these sections are individual essays, each written by a different contributing author, discussing specific instances of repatriation, and the ethical and legal dilemmas that arise during the process of Southeast Asian art acquisition and display. They can be read independently, but collectively create a narrative spanning national and cultural borders.
Many focus specifically on the way in which westerners, academics in particular, exploited power imbalances arising from colonial occupation. Even if the manner in which art or artifacts were acquired was technically legal, by most standards these individuals crossed a variety of ethical lines through ungenerous or imbalanced transactions. For example, chapter 2 explores the particularly contentious issue of the selling Khmer artifacts while Cambodia was a French protectorate. As the contents of temples and archeological sites were poorly documented, many French citizens were able to export objects en masse to Europe in the late 19th century, profiting off western collectors’ desire for unique “oriental” goods, which were often either reduced to their aesthetic properties or treated as curios. As very few bothered with keeping records of provenance or cataloguing efforts, it became very hard to track down or properly identify objects once they left the country. At the turn of the century, several “antiquities commissions” were established by the colonial government to prevent the further desecration of cultural heritage, and to monitor the export of Cambodian artifacts. A majority of preservation efforts were undertaken by the French officers; they quickly took advantage of their position to handpick items for French museums, and funded their activities by selling “debris”.
This is the first of many instances discussed in the book in which the tastes of westerners determined which objects were deemed as representative of a culture’s heritage, especially within the fields of anthropology, archeology, and art history. In other words, westerners became (and still tend to become) invested in the wellbeing of Southeast Asian art once trained to appreciate it aesthetically. However, in doing so it became a desirable commodity for both academics and private collectors, and therefore frequently subject to looting.
Discussing the amoral acquisition of objects naturally leads to the modern complexities of historic repatriation and international law in this book. This is perhaps best demonstrated in the messy, ongoing case of neolithic Ban Chiang pottery, considered to be among the most beautiful and technically advanced ceramics surviving from the Bronze age, quite literally stumbled upon by a Harvard political science student in Thailand in 1966. They were immediately prized among scholars and collectors for the information they offered on the subject of ancient Southeast Asia, which resulted in a number of major art collections around the world scrambling to purchase them, despite the 1961 Thai law prohibiting archeological materials and objects of art from leaving the country without express permission of the government. 60 years later, questions have been raised as to whether these items should be returned to Thailand, or whether they should continue to fulfill their purpose within collections of educating people about Thai history and cultural heritage? After US federal agencies obtained permits to investigate renowned American institutions (like LACMA, USC, and the Bowers Museum of Art) and search for stolen artifacts, almost all Ban Chiang ceramics in museums were taken off display around the country, either to protect them from unwanted attention or to conceal their involvement in illicit dealings. While these “raids” were ultimately an effort to acknowledge the illegal procurement of the objects, and was the first step in repatriation, the author points out that hiding them is arguably “detrimental to public understanding not only of Southeast Asian art history and culture, but also broader human history”.
Returning Southeast Asia’s Past: Objects, Museums and Restitution is an interesting, well-researched book which explores how museum collections reflect the colonial ideologies of the people who assembled them. The complex and ever-changing landscape of repatriation is explored eloquently and with great sensitivity and particular focus on how restoring objects to their country of origin is a process that attempts to balance a desire for justice with objective analysis of its function within artistic and educational institutions.