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09.30  In Public Displays We Trust: Universal Museums and Immigrants

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Universal museums claim to be custodians of cultural heritage for the benefit of humanity and they thus have an obligation to address the voices of all stakeholders in relation to the objects that are in the possession of the museums. This paper will argue that if museum curators aim to achieve inclusivity, they should first address the phenomenon of epistemic injustice. Given that current accounts of archaeological ethics advocate the ethical significance of inclusivity, my concern is to investigate the limits of inclusivity in relation to epistemic injustice. My argument is based on the claim that museums seem to commit epistemic injustice against immigrants because they do not address sufficiently the immigrants’ contribution to the meaning of objects to which they are related.  

For immigrants who have moved from their place of origin, artifacts and objects of cultural significance, broadly construed, that are found in the collections of museums in the countries where they immigrated are significant. They contribute to their identity by supporting the thread of their life narrative with their place of birth. They also provide them with a sense of belonging to the same ethnicity by representing what unites them. Hence, objects shape immigrants’ identity in their new country, and at the same time, the meaning of objects is shaped by immigrants and their old stories from their birthplace mixed with their new experiences of a new life abroad. If this is the case, museums tend to commit epistemic injustice against immigrants and therefore fail to be inclusive.  

Drawing upon Christopher Hookway’s work on epistemic injustice, I will argue that museums can be charged with informational prejudice and participatory prejudice against immigrant communities. If it is central to the epistemic practice of museums to provide information about their objects, museums not only should allow immigrants to bring their stories related to the objects from their community, but also they need to allow sufficient space for the immigrants’ contribution to the meaning of these objects. Museums, however, tend to overlook immigrants’ information in relation to specific objects, claiming that their information is not relevant to the object from the museum perspective. This constitutes what Hookway understands as informational and participatory prejudices. If museums do not allow sufficient space for immigrants to shape the identity of the objects because their stories are not relevant to museum practice and because immigrants are seen as illegitimate informers for objects, they cannot claim that they are inclusive because they commit epistemic injustice against immigrants. A good example to elaborate my case here is the treasures of Benin in the British Museum. For Africans who originally come from West Africa, the plaques of Benin say something important about their identity as people who were trained for war. This is what still shapes their present identity and how they relate with these objects in their current status. However, the plaques of Benin are represented in a way that tells a story from the perspective of a public museum that assigns artistic meaning to the plaques, overlooking what African immigrants can bring to the meaning of these objects.  

If I am correct, my conclusion would be that epistemic justice is central to good heritage stewardship and it would be possible to amend epistemic prejudices if we develop a model of stewardship that is grounded on care and respect. A successful development of a caring and respectful relationship depends on epistemic trust, because giving credibility to what one says is central to mutual understanding.

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