Against Principles

constantine In an article published in The Forum on 03 April 2017, Constantine Sandis, argues for a holistic approach to museums.

Constantine is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire and Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a a member of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles.

When leaving Athens, don't buy ouzo at the Duty Free. The aperitif is divine when poured over ice under the Attic sun, but largely disagreeable in rainy England. This rather simple observation, that cultural artefacts have varying effects in the context of different locations and the moving populations around them, is seriously downplayed within cultural heritage debates appealing to moral and museological principles. I stand against the grain, advocating that we shouldn't prescribe any general rules determining the location in which cultural artefacts whose ownership is contested ought to be housed. As populations, identities, and technologies shift with unprecedented velocity, debates regarding the ownership of antiquity are fast becoming antiquated, while the question of where and how they should be exhibited—if indeed they should be exhibited at all—has never been so timely.

Read the full article here.

Constantine concludes that 'there cannot be any helpful hard-and-fast rules determining the location of objects whose provenance is a matter of controversy. Decisions should instead be made on a case-by-case basis, considering a wide range of reasons: moral, aesthetic, educational, distributional, legal, historical, pragmatic, and psycho-geographical. No principle is so high that it alone can settle the question of where any single cultural artefact should be located, let alone all. A corollary of this holistic conclusion is that it is not as easy for precedents to be set as some museum experts and defenders of 'heritage' in the abstract allege. No floodgates would be opened if the Parthenon sculptures were to be rightly re-unified under one Athenian roof, or the statue of Cecil Rhodes to at long last fall from Oriel College, any more than they were when Jesus College, Cambridge removed its Benin bronze cockerel last year. The damage done by holding onto principles in museology is as great as the gains to be had by freeing ourselves from them.'

Constantine Sandis' edited volume Cultural Heritage Ethics: Between Theory and Practice is available in Open Access. His research interests include philosophy of action, moral psychology, and heritage ethics.