The Effects of Viewing an Art Object Separated from Its Original Setting


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Egyptian History has been my favorite topic to study for as long as I remember. I was always fascinated by the richness of Egyptian culture, admiring everything from their enormous architectural feats such as the pyramids, to the attention to detail shown in small children’s toys. But the facet of Egyptian history that was most compelling to me, were the tombs and funeral customs.

In Ancient Egypt, religion was an important part of daily life and society. A big part of Egyptian religion surrounded death and afterlife. The people of Ancient Egypt did not believe that death was the end of life, but rather a transition into the afterlife, and a great deal of steps were taken during life to ensure the dead entered the afterlife comfortably. The dead were mummified so that they could use their bodies in the next world. Protective amulets were placed with them, prayers said over them and most importantly, funerary texts and images placed in the tomb provided deceased kings clues for them to join the Lord of the Sky. The tombs of dead kings and noblemen were filled with their valuables, from everything from gold and clothing, to food for them to eat on their long journey to the afterlife. These tombs were sealed with extreme care and thought because once buried, none of the items were meant to exit the tomb. They were to join the deceased in his or her new everlasting life.

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Knowing this of Egyptian culture, I felt extremely uneased as I stood in the British Museum, viewing Egyptian funerary artifacts that had once been buried for a specific purpose, a religious purpose, and sealed for no one to retrieve. This leads to an interesting discussion regarding the morality of museums as a whole.

Why are things put into Museums? On one side, museums provide a vast amount of knowledge and history about civilizations that existed far before we did, allowing us to immerse ourselves in entire cultures through an object. One the other hand, many of the objects we see in museums were created for an original purpose important to its original civilization. As quickly as I thought how wrong it was that the materials were taken from the Egyptian tomb, I also realized that without this discovery, I never would have known about Ancient Egypt at all. I’d have no access to information about the pyramids; how they came to be, who built them, and I would have no knowledge at all of the religion and focus of the afterlife. So while there remains a valid debate regarding where the line is drawn in “finding” these artifacts, museums are responsible for connecting people to the history of the world, educating us through these discoveries. However, through these artifacts, museums only show us a snapshot of these histories, as the original locations for the artifacts is typically far far away, and in most cases, no longer around. So what is the effect of viewing an object in a museum, separated from its original setting, its original purpose? What can we learn from these snapshots of history?

A similar question was asked to Kate Barrett, former Art Curator at Royal Museums Greenwich, to which she responded: “Objects give us a special kind of access to the past. They allow us to touch (within careful parameters usually) something that was used by people, and thus get a physical feel for their lives. We can learn about past societies’ values from what they kept, and what materials they made things from – or about daily life from such simple things as cooking utensils and furniture. Objects bear the marks of how they’ve been used, giving us access to ideas that may have been too fundamental to a person’s life ever to have been written down. The wear and tear on books can show us how people read them, with some even showing the rust marks of the knife used to cut the pages in an era when text was printed on large sheets of paper which were folded the size of the finished book”.

Barrett’s point excellently discusses the relationship objects create with both viewers and researchers. Objects are our link into the past, allowing us to create a full picture of a part of history we never would be able to experience otherwise. “Yet, in recent years, museums have become a battleground. Communities around the world don’t want to see their culture in distant, institutions they have no control over”. Well-known examples of this come from Greece and Egypt. Greece demands the return of the Parthenon Marbles while the famous Rosetta Stone awaits its reunion with Egypt. Both of these objects were groundbreaking discoveries, and continue to gather thousands to Britain every day, to not only observe and marvel, but also to educate themselves on the objects and respective countries they come from. Let’s observe first how obtaining these artifacts and being able to research and display them has done good, before analyzing the detriment of these pieces being divorced from their original homes and uses. The Parthenon Marbles, also known as The Elgin Marbles, are, “are a collection of Classical Greek marble sculptures made under the supervision of the architect and sculptor Phidias and his assistants”.

The Marbles were part of the Temple of Parthenon in Athens. From 1801 to 1812, about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon were removed, under the direction of Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and transported to Britain on ships. When the Marbles arrived in Britain they were a success. Artists and lovers of sculptures praised them, admiring the detail and grandeur. Poets such as William Wordsworth and John Keats would go on to write renowned sonnets inspired by the marbles and British historians were given the chance to examine and study Greek architecture in the flesh.

For many artists and researchers, the arrival of the Elgin Marbles was an amazing thing. However critics did not agree. Lord Byron strongly disapproved of the marbles removal, deeming it thievery and Elgin a vandal, and many critics agreed with him. (Add more stuff about their history and significance) Present day the debate remains. Advocators for the return of the marbles argue that in addition to being cut out and stolen, the marbles were part of a bigger sculpture, and were not intended to be separated. Rationale for leaving the marbles in London rests in the claim that “fulfilling all restitution claims would empty most of the world’s great museums”. Only rested a few rooms away from the marbles in The British Museum is the Rosetta Stone.

The Rosetta Stone is an ancient Egyptian stone discovered by a man named Boussard near the town of Rosetta. The stone was inscribed with three different scripts that were found to be Greek, Demotic and Hieroglyphics. Two researchers were responsible for unveiling the scripts found on the stone. Their names were Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion, from England and France. Young deciphered the cartouche as the name of Ptolemy and proved a long-held assumption that the cartouches found in other inscriptions were the names of royalty. By examining the direction in which the bird and animal characters faced, Young also discovered the way in which hieroglyphic signs were to be read.

Champollion started where young left off and deciphered the demotic and hieroglyphs, later being able to publish direct translations with their Greek signs. The work of these two men established the basis for the translation of all future Egyptian hieroglyphic texts. Here we have the joining of scholars from two different countries, coming together to research and unveil not just a history but an entirely new language. The Rosetta Stone continues to be of huge popularity because its influence on culture and language. Because of this discovery, many Ancient Egyptian scripts and artifacts’ meanings are no longer a mystery. The stone’s influence has even ingrained itself into modern day culture, through the popular language learning app Rosetta Stone, the one stop shop to a sea of languages. Knowing how wonderful the educational impact of the Rosetta Stone has been, it is difficult to say that it would be best to re-unit it with its native Egypt. The Rosetta Stone is among the best examples of what is the right thing to do for history purposes and what is the right thing to do for moral purposes. When is the line of what can and cannot be in museums drawn? Interestingly enough, the battle surrounding artwork in museums is a bit more lax. This may be due to the fact that the artifacts mentioned previously were important parts of the civilization as a whole. Paintings tended to be more individualistic, thus the experience between viewer and painting is slightly different. When we exhibit something in an art gallery, two very important things are happening. The first thing is that the work becomes far more accessible. More people become able to view the piece than if it had been pent up in a basement or the long deceased artist’s home. This can mean a lot, but for argument’s sake, we will focus on subjective and objective.

Subjectively, each person who now is capable of seeing the work of art is able to impose their own interpretive ideas upon it. The piece becomes whatever they think it is. For example, in the Portrait of Isabella Brandt by Paul Reubens, to one person, Isabelle may appear to be holding back a laugh from a story she just remembered, while to another person she may be sneering. Regardless of the various views people may have when they view an artwork, all opinions are useful. The more people that are able to see a work of art, the more they can interpret and debate what the work of art truly means. Therefore, there is a greater likelihood of actually understanding what the artist was attempting to convey. A little like how if more people play the lottery, the more likely someone is to get the numbers right. Then we have the objective side of access. A work of art on exhibit is also being scrutinized far more for structural aspects aka color, brushstrokes, medium, etc. The more that we can understand the fundamentals of the work, what has built it, developed it, the more we may be able to understand the true meaning. Additionally, when on display, most works of art are surrounded by other pieces by the same artist. This might play a role in understanding the piece. All of this leads to a collective convergence on the true meaning of a work. On the flip side, context also plays a role. The context surrounding a work, obviously, is important.

I split this into two parts: how the work is out of time and how the work is out of place. For how the work is out of time, this cannot be avoided no matter where the piece is displayed. However, it clearly detaches the viewer from the true impact of the work. This coupled with the fact that the piece is no longer in the place where it was painted, most times even the same country, one cannot account for the cultural implications of the time/place on the work, the way the artists strokes were impacted by the way the sun shone through his window or the politics at the time that influenced the work. In essence though, it means that in the context of the museum, we are diverging away from the true meaning of the work.

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