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Removing relics vs. preserving history

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It took trips to opposite corners of the globe to settle my opinion as to whether museums' collections represented the "preservation" or "theft" of other cultures' artifacts.

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In Australia, the Melbourne Museum broadcasts this debate through a video featuring actors playing two 19th-century historical figures - a museum curator and an Aboriginal chieftain. Baldwin Spencer, who collected 5,000 objects from indigenous Aboriginals, argued that anthropology preserved history. Irrapwe, an Arrernte leader known as "King Charley," argued it was theft of culture.

Since Aboriginal law differentiates between men's and women's knowledge and prohibits entire races from even seeing their cultural icons, I left Australia secure that native cultures should reserve the absolute right to control their artifacts.

But after having recently spent months in Oxford and London museums, I'm changing my mind.

Many great works of art and history wouldn't exist today if Europeans, especially the British, weren't unstoppable collectors. Should the world be deprived of the Rosetta Stone, or Raphael's Madonna, or the frieze on the Parthenon because the progeny of their originators weren't as fascinated as early English collectors?

Over centuries, furthermore, the Visigoths and Vandals mangled much beauty from Roman life. In the Spanish Civil War, communists destroyed most of their country's Catholic splendor. Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro eliminated the glory of Peru. Gold and silver throughout the world is melted as fashion changes and, just before 9/11, the Taliban dynamited the great Buddha statues in Afghanistan.

Today, the world's best preserved Grecian ruins are in London's British Museum. At the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, the concept that "Those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it" became obvious. Sixty years before the Scopes Trial, the museum previewed the question about "intelligent design" that Kansas and other states are grappling with today.

In 1860, Thomas Huxley, a loyal defender of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, debated Archbishop Samuel Wilberforce over "The Origin of the Species." (Mr. Wilberforce agreed with many of the day's leading biologists that God commanded and nature followed.) The best line was uttered by a woman who wasn't even allowed to attend: "Descended from an ape? Let us hope that it's not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known."

In the nearby Pitt Rivers Museum, curators exhibit by theme, not nationality or region. The museum showcases such things as the methods of firemaking from all cultures, bagpipes from around the world, bark clothing from seven or eight civilizations, and the methods of headshrinking from three continents.

The tiny, dark museum demonstrates brilliantly that mankind is one big - but rarely happy - family. The items crammed into each museum case and the graying, handwritten signage describing them illustrate, with splendid subtlety, how we all share the same needs and desires.

For example, one exhibit explains that aggrieved parties in early Nigeria drove nails into large wooden heads representing their antagonists. This practice satisfied the "nail driver" and helped relieve some of the malice he may have felt. Perhaps significantly, Nigeria - now with many of its indigenous conflict resolution practices replaced by Western-influenced legal processes - is verging on another civil war.

I still wrestled with the "theft or preservation" debate until the world's oldest museum enabled me to relate significantly to both sides. My state, Virginia, is gearing up for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, and buried in Oxford's Ashmolean Museum is one of the crowning pieces of early American history.

According to Capt. John Smith, Jamestown's military leader, native American Chief Powhatan gave another colonist his royal shell-covered mantle not long after the colonists' landing in 1607. In his diary, Captain Smith proclaimed that American nobles wore such deerskin capes.

Two decades later, Smith willed his accumulations to an English "curiosity" collector who gathered rarities from sea captains, ambassadors, and merchants. By 1634, people were coming to John Tradescant the Elder's house "persuing, and that superficially, such as he had gathered."

One 1638 visitor recorded seeing "the robe of the King of Virginia," and by 1656, so many people wanted a look that Mr. Tradescant's son, the Younger, began selling tickets. That piece was cataloged, "Pohatan, King of Virginia's habit all embroidered with shells, or Roanoke."

At the Younger's death, the collection was deeded to Elias Ashmole who chose Oxford to house his museum in 1683. Today, tucked away on the second floor of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology are the remains of Tradescant's artifacts, including an item labeled in 1886 as the "earliest North American Indian garment to survive."

Many today would feel safe pronouncing this Powhatan's mantle.

I doubt that I have native American blood, but, as an American, I'm glad that Powhatan and Messrs. Smith, Tradescant, and Ashmole, as well as the museum curators since, decided to preserve this relic before it turned to dust. I can only hope it might be returned to Virginia for the 400th anniversary of this country's oldest settlement.

If it weren't for collectors' and curators' love of history and culture, I'm afraid all of us the world over (whether Aboriginal or not) would be losing ours.

Randy Salzman is a freelance writer and former journalism professor.

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