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The right to live where one’s culture was museified


For Verso, Ariella Azoulay writes about the Multaqa: Museum as Meeting Point program, a collaboration between the Museum für Islamische Kunst, the Vorderasiatisches Museum, the Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst and the Deutsches Historisches Museum that trains Syrian and Iraqi refugees as museum guides in order for them to give tours about artifacts that come from Syria and Iraq to other refugees in their shared native language. Read the excerpt below, or full piece on Verso.

The process of formal decolonization provided the impetus to consolidate looting by transforming stolen objects into legally owned treasures, exonerating imperial powers of their debts, and withdrawing their responsibility to restore infrastructures and recover cultural practices that were devastated through colonial brutality while being construed as belonging to a less advanced stage of history. As long as an imperial temporality and spatiality remains intact, people who are running away from political regimes in ex-colonies and seeking asylum in Europe are not perceived as connected to the precious objects of their cultures that were illegally brought to the West and long ago converted into legal possessions.

Restitution claims for discrete objects, poorly addressed for years, are not enough to overcome the imperial temporality and spatiality that keep people in unbridgeable distance from their culture as it is showcased elsewhere. The artifacts preserved in European museums are not just exemplary masterpieces but also mummies of imperial violence that should be transformed. European citizens, acting against their governments to smuggle in refugees and assist them, are effectively arguing that these refugees represent a pristine opportunity for European citizens to transform the legacy of imperial violence into a different contract between descendants of the colonized and the colonizers. Art objects, so dearly preserved and appreciated by many, can be the first ambassadors of a different ground for the emergence of shared rights or rights-in-common. The right of access, or proximity, to the artifacts of one’s own culture. The Right To Live Where One’s Culture Was Museified. The right to have rights to one’s objects. Only by introducing such rights can phenomena like the hiring of refugees as guides in museums that archive and present artifacts plundered from their homelands be not just another way to exploit people, but a way to “excavate the wound” (Saidiya Hartman) of imperial crimes and respond to the plea of people who, in the one world created by imperialism, have the right to a place within living communities created with and around shared objects and not in their outskirts.