JO - Drive-by 'Development'
Sunday, March 09, 2008
About 40 years ago when I lived in London and worked for the BBC, I strolled one day into the Victoria & Albert Museum to view an exhibition of the arts of 'primitive' and indigenous cultures of the world.
I was brought up short at the very entrance to the museum by the sight of a small figure I had last seen at the museum of the Institute of Jamaica. It was a small, black carving of a human figure with a bird's head -- one arm uplifted and the other outstretched, resembling the attitude of a policeman directing traffic.
It was a zemi - an Arawak (as we called the Tainos then) representation of a demi-human demigod or ancestral spirit.
Going into the museum, I discovered that the zemi at the door was the original of the carving in Jamaica, and what I thought was the original Jamaican zemi on East Street was the copy.
The V&A is part of the British Museum and the British museum was founded by the bequests of Sir Hans Sloane, who was personal physician to the Governor of Jamaica, the Duke of Manchester. Sloane spent his time in Jamaica collecting all manner of curiosities, including natural history specimens. He did not however, collect the zemi; that was stolen later.
As Lord Mahon's history of England put it, "the museum has ever since continued to thrive and grow, sometimes by accessions liable to censure, as by the Elgin spoils of Athens ." - a notorious example of the imperial looting of foreign cultures for the greater glory of Britain. This imperial pillage was not confined to Britain. Museums in the United States, Germany, Austria, France, Spain and the Netherlands, among others contain some of the finest collections of stolen national treasures from other nations.
Read the whole thing.