The culture wars

If you’ve read my blog for any period of time, you’ve doubtless witnessed the occasions where I find myself scratching my head at what cultural commentators have to say about museums in very public forums. Philip Kennicott, Judith Dobrzynski, Ellen Gamerman, the list goes on and on…

Another salvo was fired earlier in the week. Tiffany Jenkins, a regular commentator to the Scotsman and other papers, wrote a blog post titled “Who Owns Culture?” for the Oxford University Press blog. She’s also written a book “Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums – And Why They Should Stay There” which promises to be a full-throated defense of the status quo of 20th century Western museum philosophy. I won’t bore you with a synopsis of her post. Read it yourselves.

The thing I really want you to do is read Courtney Johnston’s reflection on it. Johnston, the Directory of the Dowse Art Museum in New Zealand, and a pretty bright star in my personal pantheon of museum thinkers, gives a deeply thoughtful response to, and rejection of Jenkins’ arguments that is eloquent, passionate, and so free of the vitriol that is my usual first response to arrogance masquerading as concern. Reading what smart people with different viewpoints have to say is a pillar of my professional practice. Museums, as public institutions (whether they’re publicly or privately operated) have to be able to engage with the larger discourses happening in society. That doesn’t make it easy to hear, and doing it respectfully and honestly, ain’t easy. It’s far easier to mock, eg. most of the Internet. Johnston’s post is a wonderful example of how grown-ups do it.

Stop reading this now and read Courtney’s post, OK? Here’s the link again. Go now. These are important, indeed foundational issues, and how we respond will shape museum practice in the coming century. Thanks!


  1. For a good while now I have considered T. Jenkins to be the Ann Coulter/Bill O’Reilly, etc. etc. of the museum world. Like the them, I often wonder if Jenkins truly believes what she is writing or is only trying to sell books.


  2. I’m with Courtney. Having just completed a FutureLearn course on Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime from the University of Glasgow, I feel even more strongly about restitution of stolen antiquities to their country of origin. I found Tiffany Jenkins article to be incredibly patronising – the colonial era has long gone! (PS I’m an Australian).


  3. Kia ora Ed.

    Thanks so much for this. You should’ve seen my first draft, which had all the vitriol you’re thinking of! Then I spent the weekend watching my colleagues respond and seeing some strong generational disagreement and cultural misunderstanding – and did *a lot* of reading. And got to the point where I could try to play the ball, not the man. But sweet jesus – the sheer unreflective arrogance of that viewpoint is so hard to take for someone in Aotearoa New Zealand.

    I appreciate your kind words – and look forward to your visit to New Zealand!

    Aroha nui,



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