Friday, 17 April 2015

Digital Technology Fueling Debates on Cultural Property

I have been following an interesting story that involves one way in which digital technologies are changing the way we interact with museum objects and cultural heritage. Recently, a Dutch museum performed a CT scan of one of their objects: a statue of a Buddha.  The CT scans revealed a human skeleton inside, and the museum curators learned that what had previously been thought to be a statue was, in fact, a mummified Buddhist monk. This is an interesting example of how digital technology is revolutionizing archaeological inquiry.  Without the application of digital imaging techniques, this mummy was interpreted as a statue and displayed as such.  Now, not only is our understanding of this object altered, but the understanding of this type of object, as there were no known previous examples of mummified monks being encased in statues.

The statue on the left, and the CT scan on the right, revealing the skeleton inside. (Photo credit: Drents Museum)

Now that this information has been made widely available to the public (through that other omnipresent tool of digital archaeology: the Internet), questions have been raised about the legal ownership of the object.  The mummy is suspected to have been stolen from China a decade ago.   While reports vary, and the owner of course claims that he acquired the statue legally through, there has been much debate in the press and social media about where the statue rightfully belongs.  Although purchased legally, and displayed in Drents Museum, many people are raising the opinion that perhaps such objects should not be displayed in museums.

The Dutch owner of the object is now considering returning the object to China, although the owner may have purchased it through legal channels, it is unlikely that it left China legally.  Additionally, the debate surrounding this item has swayed the owner to see it is the cultural heritage of the country of origin and should be returned. This whole incident has now brought up other similar cases to be discussed in a public forum. A similar mummy in a statue had been reportedly stolen from a temple in Gekeng, China in 1996.  It will be interesting to see how this story develops, and what impact digital technologies have on how we interact with and understand cultural heritage.

1 comment:

Brandy G said...

Thanks for posting this. Since I had come across the article earlier in the term I had been wondering what else had been said/done/discussed about the scanning of this person. Interesting that the idea of ownership is placed here "The Dutch owner of the object" even though we are essentially talking about a person who was only owned by himself. This idea of ownership is one I often deal with and it can be seen in not only tangible objects, but in information shared on the internet and on images created for scientific study. I will also be watching how this story develops .