“Folks, there’s nothing left…”

“Folks, there’s nothing left from the Linguistics division. We lost all the indigenous languages collection: the recordings since 1958, the chants in all the languages for which there are no native speakers alive anymore, the Curt Niemuendaju archives: papers, photos, negatives, the original ethnic-historic-linguistic map localizing all the ethnic groups in Brazil, the only record that we had from 1945. The ethnological and archeological references of all ethnic groups in Brazil since the 16th century… An irreparable loss of our historic memory. It just hurts so much to see all in ashes.”

Cira Gonda, translated by Diogo Almeida, about the fire at Brazil’s National Museum

It’s not for the Weak

Don’t study history if you’re too weak for cognitive dissonance. Don’t study history if you’re unwilling to face that your core beliefs are built on a shaky foundation. Don’t study history if you’re unwilling to grasp that your heroes are fallible, and your ideals just violence disguised as altruism.

The Sacred, the Profane, and Pokémon Go

I am not here to tell you why it’s disrespectful to play Pokémon Go at the Holocaust Museum or wherever. Frankly, if you need to be told why, you’re too far-gone for anything I say to have any impact. So let’s just skip past my pearl-clutching and moral assessments and move on to meaning; what does it mean to play Pokémon Go in spaces with commemorative meanings assigned to them?

Before I go any further, and for those of you out of the loop (like my mom, who thought this game involved following clues to people dressed like Pokémon), Pokémon Go is a cell phone game which, using the mobile device’s camera and GPS, allows players to catch, train, and battle Pokémon in the physical environment, transformed within the augmented reality of gameplay.

image

Oh hey look, there’s a Squirtle chilling in my office with my freshly processed papers.

Once a Pokémon is spotted, the player has to throw a Pokéball within the game and make a successful catch. And if the player catches all the Pokémon lurking in their immediate vicinity, they have to get up, and walk around their city, town, or local park to find more. If a player wants to buy supplies or battle with other players, they have to walk to a PokéStop or a Pokémon Gym, typically located at identifiable landmarks like monuments, local strip clubs, and some dude’s converted church house (no but actually).

I’ve thought a lot of about different spaces where gameplay could be perceived as tacky or inappropriate, and I’m going to focus on three sites: Auschwitz, where 1,100,000 Jews and 200,000 Romani, gay men and women, people with mental and physical disabilities, Resistance members, dissidents, and POWs were tortured, abused, executed, and tossed into the ovens; Tuol Sleng (previously known as Security Prison 21/S-21), a former high school used by the Cambodian Khmer Rouge regime as a prison, torture and execution center; and the September 11 Memorial and Museum, the site of death for nearly 3,000 people, and the grave of those whose remains were never identified.

image

Installation at the September 11 Memorial and Museum between the footprints of the towers. Behind this wall is the

Office of Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York, where unidentified human remains are stored. Image courtesy of the September 11 Memorial and Museum.

image

The women’s barracks at Auschwitz. Image courtesy of Yad Veshem.

image

The Khmer Rouge photographed every S-21 incoming prisoner, and here are a fraction of those images on display at

the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Image courtesy of said museum.

NOTE: The images I chose to represent Auschwitz and Tuol Sleng are comparatively tame. I could have chosen much more disturbing ones, but I find those extremely triggering, and I have no desire to spring that on anyone.

I choose these three because these are inarguably sites of human suffering, murder, and/or torture. That legacy cannot be assigned; it’s intangible. These sites are not in any way spatially divorced from the horrors they commemorate.

I don’t think the game has been released in Cambodia (yet) so my use of Tuol Sleng is hypothetical. But it has been released in Poland and the US and yes, people have and are playing Pokémon Go at Auschwitz and at the September 11 Memorial and Museum.

image

Here someone plays the game one of the two September 11 Memorial Pools, which lie in the footprints of the two towers. Image courtesy of Time Magazine.

So again I had to ask myself, what does this mean?

image

Screen-cap of the Auschwitz gameplay. Image courtesy of the NYMag twitter.

Pokémon Go’s gameplay allows users to assert augmented reality over their surroundings. They engage as people on the game board of Pokémon Go, not as people taking in the meaning of the space around them. The game takes what exists, and projects itself over it. Thus, in these spaces I’m discussing, that is no longer a room where a Khmer Rouge official tortured a librarian, or where Jews were forced to huddle together like cattle before the slaughter,or where unidentified human remains still lie, but simply wallpaper; just the setting of a game.

image

Superimposed Pokémon lurking outside the entrance to Auschwitz. Image courtesy of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

To play Pokémon Go at these sites is to divorce them of all meaning, wrest them away from the hideous pasts they and all visitors must bear witness to. And I guess I lied; I have to extend moral judgement here, because that act?-is pretty profane.

At a site like the Vietnam War Memorial*, it’s a much more ambiguous relationship. This is a memorial to lives lost on a battlefield across the sea. It’s meaningful because we, as a society, have made it meaningful. People bring to it their grief and trauma and memories, and in doing so imbue it with  meaning. Or to put differently, the meaning of the Vietnam War Memorial is a constructed, but it’s a meaningful, important construct.

It is a symbolic site of mourning which means different things to each of the millions of people who visit it. One person could see playing Pokémon Go at the Vietnam Memorial as a horrific insult to fallen soldiers and veterans suffering from trauma, while another could see at as a tribute to a fun-loving grandfather, or never-met uncle. Because it is not on the site of death, the meanings of augmented reality gameplay at the Vietnam Memorial are too fractured for me to be able to make any definitive statements about them.

There’s a lot more to say here. About playing this and other augmented reality games at sites like cemeteries, war memorials, monuments, museums, art installations, gentrifying spaces; about space, interaction, memory, and human geography. I have really just begun to scratch the surface, and I welcome contributions.

*I used the Vietnam War Memorial as an example here, but this discussion can apply to any number of cemeteries or memorials or monuments located away from the site of death, or violence.

“Jewish Refugees and Shanghai”  by the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum

A reader wrote:

I spotted this exhibition (“Jewish Refugees and Shanghai”  by the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum) on the first floor corridor of the main building of the University of Basel the other day. Apparently the Confucius Institute at the University of Basel organised the exhibition here (the Jewish Museum of Switzerland, which is only two blocks away from the University, is not involved). Do you know anything about this exhibition?

I do. And as you may expect, I have some very strong feelings about it.

My problem with the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum and that traveling
exhibit is that they both rest on a narrative of saviorism. And that narrative is false.

When the Central and Eastern European Jewish refugees began arriving in Shanghai in 1938, they were allowed in not because the city’s governments wanted nothing more than to save the Jews, but because the city lacked a united government that would be able to keep them out. By 1938, the city existed as three separately governed polities with Great Britain, the United States, France, and Japan as the main power holders. All three governments attempted to devise exclusionary policies, but the divided nature of the city governance created a situation in which neither these policies nor passport control
could be enforced to effectively keep Jewish refugees out of the city.

The Communist Party of China won the Chinese Civil War in 1950. Under the rule of Mao Zedong, most evidence of the Jewish refugees and their built environment was erased, their cemeteries built over, and their buildings re-purposed. The Jewish refugees and their historical experience in Shanghai had no place within the new post-imperialist Chinese state. This began to change in 1991.

In 1991, China officially recognized the State of Israel. In 2004, the government of Shanghai designated the Ohel Moshe synagogue—built by the Russian Jewish community of Shanghai in 1927 and later used by the WWII-era refugees—as an architectural treasure. In 2007, the People’s Government of the Hongkew District budgeted for a full renovation of the synagogue in accordance with its original architectural drawings. When the renovation was complete the government installed in the space the brand new Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. In 2008 the museum featured an exhibit dedicated to developments in the Sino-Israeli relationship; its website boasted:

“Mr. Yitzhak Rabin, the former Israeli Prime Minister, commented during his visit to Shanghai, ‘To the people of Shanghai for unique humanitarian act of saving thousands of Jews during the Second World War, thanks in the name of the government of Israel.’”

In 2012, historian Irene Eber wrote:

“Chinese interest in Jews and Israel as well as in Jews who once lived among them is
widespread today. Not only scholarly works, but also a number of recent popular publications support this interest. Several universities have Jewish Studies Institutes and visiting professors teach courses on Jewish topics. Translation work is flourishing and books on Jewish topics and fiction by major Israeli novelists are being translated. A new and very different chapter in Chinese-Jewish relations has begun.”

This is the context in which the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum must be understood.

The Museum’s website reads:

“From 1933 to 1941, Shanghai became a modern-day ‘Noah’s Ark’ accepting…Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust in Europe. In the ‘Designated Area for Stateless Refugees’…about 20,000 Jewish refugees lived harmoniously with local citizens, overcoming numerous difficulties together…Dr. David Kranzler, a noted Holocaust historian…commented that within the Jewry’s greatest tragedy, i.e. the Holocaust, there shone a few bright lights. Among the brightest of these is the Shanghai haven…the original features of the Jewish settlement are still well preserved. They are the only typical historic traces of Jewish refugee life inside China during the Second World War…[Hongkew] was the place where Jewish refugees lived in greatest concentration during the Second World War…in those days. Mr. Michael Blumenthal, ex-Secretary of the Treasury of the United States and the present curator of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, once lived in a small garret at 59 Zhoushan Road.”

As geopolitics move China and Israel together, the history of this refugee community suddenly has a place within the history of the Chinese state; it is no longer a forgotten moment in the imperialist chapter of Chinese history, but a piece of history which demonstrates China’s enduring interest in and care for the Jewish people.

The museum’s narrative is clear: Shanghai was a Noah’s Ark, not a city which, by accident of its history, had on opening into which ~20,000 Jews could squeeze; the Jews and the Chinese lived in harmony, not in separate communities which rarely interacted; the Chinese government is the preserver–the savior–of the history of the WWII-era Jewish refugees, not the Mao-era destroyer.

In the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, Shanghai is legitimized not simply as a place where Jewish refugees spent the years before, during, and after the Second World War, but as a space in which the refugees were actively saved. This museum, then, neither serves the memory nor speaks to the experiences of the refugees, but instead speaks to and serves contemporary Chinese political interests.

The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum currently has a traveling exhibit making the rounds with the cooperation of a variety of non-profit organizations. This, of course, is what you encountered at your university.

I attended the Capitol Hill kick-off event for that exhibit; one of my professors got me on the invite list. The event really had nothing to do with the historical experience of the Jewish refugees who spent ~1938-1950 in Shanghai. To be quite honest, it made me angry and upset, especially on the behalf of several former Shanghai refugees present. The event was filled with giggling Congressional staffers and interns who were only there for the free wine and food, and the exhibit got several simple facts wrong.

And then the speeches started. They had nothing to do with history. But, they did have a lot do with the relationships between the United States, China, and Israel, with a
little Japan thrown in as well.

Was it naive of me to be as taken off guard as I was? Yes. Should I have been surprised considering what I already knew about the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum? No. Am I well aware of the fact that the identities of and relationships between modern nation-states in the context of global capitalism are all about narratives and myth making? Yes. Am I still annoyed by that exhibit? Absolutely.

I’m glad that more people are becoming aware of this history, and I am glad that, despite the motivations, the Chinese government is preserving the history of this community and offering resources for researchers. I love that so many people in China are becoming more aware of and demonstrating a growing interest in Jewish history in China.

But I’m a historian and this is my research. I want to see those refugees and their memory put out there because they’re an important and fascinating piece of Holocaust history, not because they’re politically useful. But, here we are.

And those are my feelings on that museum and that exhibit.

We need to talk about Anne Frank

As of this writing, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars has sold over one million copies, and holds a place on several bestseller lists. The film adaptation of the book has made over two hundred million dollars in the domestic and foreign market. The book and the movie tell the story of two terminally ill American teenagers, and both contain a scene where the protagonists, Hazel and Augustus, share a kiss in the Anne Frank House. John Green made the following statement regarding the scene:

“Anne Frank was a pretty good example of a young person who ended up having the kind of heroic arc that Augustus wants—she was remembered and she left this mark that he thinks is valuable—but when he has to confront her death, he has to confront the reality that really she was robbed of the opportunity to live or die for something. She just died of illness like most people. And so I wanted him to go with a sort of expectation of her heroism and be sort of dashed.”

Here, Green makes it clear that he reads Anne Frank’s death as being from an illness like “most people,” like his protagonist. In doing so, he erases the circumstances under which she contracted typhus. “Most people” are not Ashkenazic Jewish teenage girls who contracted typhus in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. This fundamental erasure of the context of her death allowed him, those involved in the cinematic adaptation, and yes, a large portion of his readership, to accept the use of Anne Frank and her death as a prop in this American YA love story. Indeed, when further called on the issue, Green stated:

“I’ve been getting this question a lot. I can’t speak for the movie, obviously, as I didn’t make it, but as for the book: The Fault in Our Stars was the first non-documentary feature film to be granted access to the Anne Frank House precisely because the House’s board of directors and curators liked that scene in the novel a great deal. (A spokesperson recently said, ‘In the book it is a moving and sensitively handled scene.’) Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a Holocaust survivor, had this to say: ‘The kissing scene in ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ in the annex of the Anne Frank House is not offensive or against who Anne Frank was. What Anne communicated in her diary was hope. She celebrated life and she celebrated hope.’ Obviously, the Anne Frank House and the ADL do not have a monopoly on Anne’s life or her legacy, but their opinions are important to me.”

I take issue with this response. Here, Green is divesting himself of responsibility for the scene, and communicating to his critics that he is not to blame, because the Anne Frank House board of directors, curators, and a Holocaust survivor approved of it. In other words, he is drawing these peoples’ assumed authority to silence criticism, and to avoid taking responsibility for the filmed version of a scene he created.

The Anne Frank House, for all the wonderful work it does, is a museum. Like all museums, it must work to attract and reach out to potential patrons. In other words, museums have to advertise because they require patrons and revenues to exist. Therefore, I read the official approval of the Anne Frank House simply as a targeted attempt to reach out to and attract a pool of untapped, younger patrons. They chose to support the filming of a sympathetic romantic scene about terminally ill teenagers in their institution to reach out to young people. While that is a sound business decision, I would argue that it’s hardly an ethical one for the Anne Frank House, an institution devoted, as per their website, to:

“the preservation of the place where Anne Frank went into hiding during the Second World War, and to bringing the life story of Anne Frank to the attention of as many people as possible worldwide with the aim of raising awareness of the dangers of anti-Semitism, racism and discrimination and the importance of freedom, equal rights and democracy,”

to support the filming of this scene. For, in Green’s own words, that scene had nothing to do with the context of Anne Frank’s death, and therefore, it did nothing to bring Anne Frank’s story to life. And it hardly raises awareness of contemporary European anti-Semitism.

As for the ADL, I very much agree with Mr. Foxman’s assessment of Anne Frank. However, what she celebrated in her life and her writings have little to do with what she has come to mean in within public memory of the Holocaust of European Jewry. Her narrative has been used by nations and educational systems to the extent that for many, she is the Holocaust; she is the face of the Holocaust. But what we inherit from her isn’t the experience of the Holocaust. That experience and her death at Bergen Belsen take place outside the pages of her diary. Readers are never forced to experience the Holocaust through her eyes; they are able to embrace the tragedy of the Holocaust through her story while remaining removed from its experiential realities. Thus, Anne Frank becomes the Holocaust without forcing anyone to experience it. Her name can be invoked to summon tragedy, without forcing anyone to feel it.

While Anne Frank may be the face of the Holocaust of European Jewry, the memory of the experiential reality of the Holocaust is male. The way we conceptualize and remember the concentration camp experience is constructed by male narratives. More Jewish men survived the Holocaust than Jewish women. Due to attitudes towards education in the interwar period, more male Jewish survivors had the education and literary capital needed to craft enduring narratives of their experiences than did female Jewish survivors. There are three foundational male Holocaust survival narratives: Night by Elie Wiesel, Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi, and Maus by Art Spiegelman about his father’s Holocaust experience. Never have I seen those three men and their narratives used as a joke, or a meme, or a cheap narrative device, or as self-promotion by an American pop star.

These men are revered, and their narratives taken extremely seriously. And none of them, none of them have been used in a prop in a story about terminally ill gentile American teenagers. They survived, in perhaps the type of heroic arc a John Green protagonist would yearn for. Yet Augustus doesn’t look to them. He doesn’t share a kiss with his girlfriend at Auschwitz. He shared a kiss with her in the Anne Frank House.

Anne Frank is not a prop. She is not a symbol, she is not a teenager who happened to die of an illness, and she is not one of the canonical Jewish male survivors. She is one of many millions of Jewish women and girls who were industrially murdered like livestock, incinerated, and left in an unmarked grave. That is the story of the Holocaust of European Jewry, and that is the story of the persecution and murder of all Europeans (the disabled, Romani, Irish Travelers, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Communists) who failed to fit into Nazi racial and ideological constructs.

And we would all do well to remember that.

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum: Memory, Remembrance, and Capitalism

The National September 11 Memorial and Museum opened to visitors one month ago. I’ve been watching the responses, reading the critiques; it’s been fairly weird for me—not because I had a loved one murdered in the attacks, but because I was a Special Collections Intern at that museum for ten months in 2010. I digitized photographs, wrote profiles for the memorial exhibit, updated metadata, measured and photographed objects in our collection, digitized ephemera, sat in on meetings with victims’ families, and sat in a location which allowed me to eavesdrop on exhibitions meetings. I learned about the narrative they were constructing, and why they were doing it that way. (“We’re just telling the story,” one member of the Exhibitions team told me, “and the story is a complicated one, with parts that many think should not be included in this museum. But we have to include them—it would be dishonest not to.”)

Victims’ families are unhappy with the layout of the museum, the extremely literal nature of some of the pieces on display (the half destroyed ambulance, for instance), and the fact that they were not contacted to approve aspects of the memorial exhibit. And pretty much everyone is unhappy with the gift shop. First I want to address the criticisms regarding the victims’ families and loved ones.

Between the 1993 and 2001 World Trade Center attacks, there are approximately 3,000 dead. That is 3,000 people, each with mothers, fathers, spouses, significant others, brothers, sisters, friends, mentors, nieces, nephews, and children. And with each and every one of those people is the remembrance of a life suddenly and tragically cut short. And that, I think, cuts to the core of this issue: remembrance.

Memorial museums are, of course, about memory. They are institutions constructed to capture, maintain, and give narrative to a memory. As a historian, I think the concept of intentionally constructing a historic narrative as national canon is horrifying (I’m a melodramatic academic; I regret nothing), but as a public historian, I understand the necessity of creating that narrative. To have the responsibility of being the people to invent, construct, or cement that memory, that narrative? That’s no easy task, and it’s a task which will always be flawed because history by nature defies a singular narrative. And, in my very humble opinion, the September 11 Memorial and Museum is staffed by dedicated, responsible museum professionals and public historians who understand the importance of honesty and clarity, and who understand the gravity of what they are doing; they’re not just creating and opening a museum, but they are constructing a memory.

The memory they’re creating and commemorating will live beyond the memories of those who remember 9/11, and those who intimately remember the people murdered on that day. Therefore, I feel comfortable saying that the criticism—controversy, even—surrounding the set-up, layout, and narrative of the museum is a matter of personal remembrance versus constructed collective memory. I obviously begrudge no one their anger over the manner in which their loved one’s murder is remembered, but I do have to ask: could this base issue of memory vs. remembrance have been avoided at all? Is that even an option in the context of mass commemoration? I’m going to leave this one open ended.

And then, of course, there is the gift shop, not to mention that $24 entry fee (from which victims’ families are exempt). I’ve seen a lot of talk about how sickening it is to walk into this sacred space only to see a gift shop selling expensive jewelry, tchotchkes, and refrigerator magnets. And I agree, it is distasteful, and for a grieving family member already distraught over the nature of the memory constructed by the institution, it’s a slap in the face. However, there is one glaring issue that criticisms of the gift shop continuously neglect to address: the fact that this museum receives no government funding for its operational costs.

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum must pay for insurance, maintenance, on-site climate control, off-site storage, off site-storage climate control, the preservation of everything from 13-year-old receipts to damaged steel beams, the JFK storage hangar, staff salaries, the rent for the office space, et cetera, et cetera. The museum has extremely high ongoing costs; former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg estimated that these expenses come to a figure of at least $60 million annually. That money has to come from somewhere, and one of those somewheres, unfortunately, is the gift shop.

While the shop’s wares may be a sickening site to grieving patrons, I would argue that it is more sickening that the American government—which launched an oil war over 9/11—refuses to fund the institution dedicated to its memory.

On Nationalist Historiography

Nationalist historiography is a way of looking at or studying history with the preconceived notion that a modern nation exists as a result of history, or, with the preconceived notion that history has being leading up to the existence of a modern nation. So if you are French, this means that you read and/or teach French history with the perspective that everything which occurred in the geographic area which is now France before the present happened because it was leading up to modern-day France.

I’m not picking on France here, because literally every nation/group that wants to be a nation does this. And often, they don’t even realize that they are doing it because it is a logical thing to do. People instinctively center their world view on themselves, so why shouldn’t they center their world view on their nation? The study of history is so challenging because, if you want to truly understand it, you have to have to be able to de-center yourself from your view of the world.

Image courtesy of Bill Watterson and gocomics.com

History is the study of past political, social, and economic interactions, and the effect of those interactions on subsequent events and interactions; it is like a gigantic never-ending web, and it is the job of the historian to try to understand and trace that web in really really tiny increments. If you are a proponent of nationalist historiography, then the web has an end, and all the threads were leading up to you. In erasing and discounting those other threads that didn’t lead directly up to you, you are erasing people, perspectives, lives, and interactions.

Thus, as a historian, I look at the present as a product of past interactions, and as the creator of subsequent interactions. I look at today as part of the whole; something which will grow and change and one day be as completely foreign to people as the Middle Ages are to us, and I try to base my personal actions and my political attitudes on this fact (I even succeed occasionally!). I am not naïve enough to think that everyone should, can, or will take up/aspire to this decentralized view of the world, but I do think the world would be a less violent place if they did. If that ever happens, you guys have to buy me a unicorn, okay?

History of the Guennol Lioness

The Guennol Lioness; photo courtesy of Sotheby’s

The Guennol Lioness is of Elamite origin and is thought to have been made between 3000 and 2800 BCE—the same period in which writing systems were being developed, the wheel was being invented, and cities were beginning to rise in the Ancient Near East. Experts believe that the Lioness may have been used to ward off evil, and that it was probably owned by a person of high social standing. It also must be noted that many Ancient Near Eastern deities were portrayed as figures of both animal and human attributes, encapsulating the Mesopotamian belief in the attainment of power through the combining of the physical attributes of different species.

In 1931, New York art dealer Joseph Brummer came to possess the figure after reporting its discovery at a site near Baghdad. In 1948, the piece was purchased by Alastair Bradley Martin and Edith Park Martin. As a trustee and President of the Brooklyn Museum, Mr. Martin had the object—along with other artifacts from his family’s collection—displayed at the museum, and kept them there on a long term loan.

In 2007, the Martin family took the object—their family property—off of loan with the intent to sell it through the Sotheby’s auction house. At this point, it was one of the last antiquities of its age and type still in private hands. Here is a video of the Executive VP of the Sotheby’s auction house discussing the Lioness; they’ve disabled embedding, but I really encourage you to click through to it.

On December 5, 2007, the piece sold to an anonymous British bidder for nearly $57.2 million, setting a world record (which has since been broken) for an antiquity sold through an auction house.

Because the purchaser was anonymous, nobody is quite sure on the location of this artifact. Perhaps the individual has private conservators, perhaps they do not; there is no way of knowing. What we can know for sure, however, is that this item is not available to the public.

White Nonsense Historiography

I think it’s time for us to talk about the effects of white guilt on historical revisionism, especially within the USA. The following sentiments need to gtfo of ~National Dialogue~

The blacks sold each other into slavery before the whites came along, so the white people were just as bad as the Africans.

-Black people in America had slaves too, so I don’t get why we’re demonizing white people.

-The Indians screwed each other over and worked with the Europeans, so the white people weren’t that bad.

These sentiments are horribly offensive, deeply ignorant, erase the identities of millions of people, and post-humously deprive people of their agency.

First of all, “Africa” is not and never has been a nationality. It is a continent filled with a multitude of ethnicities and nationalities. Before the Europeans came along, the power structure in Africa was driven by wealth and ethnicity. When these African nations went to war with each other, they did take prisoners of war, and those prisoners of war were sold into slavery. However, to identify this as “blacks oppressing other blacks” or “Africans oppressing other Africans,” is to view pre-European Africa through a colonialist lens. Those people were the Bantu, the Yoruba, the Igbo; they weren’t just people in a continent you don’t understand.

The block/white construct of race was not even developed until Europeans arrived in Africa in the late 1400s, and even then, the white=superior, black=inferior dichotomy took over 100 years to develop. Which leads me to the second point.

The development of the construct of race in the New World isn’t as simple as it is made out to be. When Europeans first landed in Africa, an entirely new culture developed from the interaction between the European and African populations. This culture was that of the Creoles: a society whose culture combined elements of both African cultural attributes and European cultural attributes to create a third, entirely new culture. This culture saw itself as neither African nor European, and in fact, to have identified a Creole person as an African or a European would have been deeply offensive to them.

Members of the Creole culture settled in parts of the New World, and owned slaves from Africa. The New World Creole population was highly affluent, and affluent people held slaves regardless of skin color; wealth ruled the hierarchy of the Atlantic World.

However, as time went on and the racial construct solidified, the Creole population, though they had never been slaves, were slowly deprived of their agency, and often found themselves being forced into slavery by virtue of their darker skin. To identify the Creole slaveholders as “blacks owning slaves” is to demonstrate a total lack of comprehension of the realities and identities of the early Atlantic World, and the history of the construction of race.

As to the final point, the peoples inhabiting North America before the Europeans showed up were hardly a cohesive group of people with one language and culture and mode of dress. North America was populated by a huge variety of nations with their own cultures, languages, ethnic identifications, gender roles, and worship practices. You know, just like Europe. And Africa. And the Near East. And literally any large piece of land with multiple functioning polities.

Between those North American nations there were alliances and rivalries and enmities. When the Europeans arrived, some nations saw them as a key to thwarting their enemies; some didn’t.

To imply that the foreign policy decisions of a few nations, while, of course, labeling the decision-makers as simply “The Indians” is to blame Native populations for their own destruction, and let European Americans off the hook for ethnic cleansing. I don’t think you need me to tell you why that is disgusting and offensive.

The United States of America was built on the backs of African slaves and the native populations of North America; not to mention the young, poor, and mostly Irish indentured servants the colonists went through like tissues before slavery became normalized.

The perpetuation of these harmful narratives further marginalizes and erases non-dominant populations. It’s lazy, harmful, ignorant, offensive and like, generally, not a good look.

The Bust of Nefertiti, Germany, and Egypt

Nefertiti was the wife of the controversial 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Akhenaton, also known as Amenhotep IV. Akhenaten and Nefertiti lived during the thirteenth century BCE, and were responsible for the move of the Egyptian capital from Thebes to Amarna. The site of Amarna was excavated by Ludwig Borchardt of the German Oriental Institute from 1912 to 1914.

The Bust of Nefertiti

On December 6, 1912, the artifact known as the Bust of Nefertiti was excavated. It is 3300 years old, and it is a highly prized, if not unique piece because, unlike the majority of Egyptian sculpture, the Bust contains facial detailing.* After finding the Bust in the workshop of the sculptor Thutmose, Borchardt wrote in his diary that “Suddenly we had in our hands the most alive Egyptian artwork. You cannot describe it with words. You must see it.”

In 1913 Borchardt met with Egyptian officials to discuss the division of the artifacts unearthed in the Amarna dig. What took place in this meeting was not recorded until 1924. The secretary of the German Oriental Institute who had taken it upon himself to record it wrote that Borchardt had concealed the value of the Bust from Egyptian officials in order to “save the bust for us.”

He reported that Borchardt had shown the officials misleading photographs of the piece, and had given them inaccurate information about the material used to create the piece.

Following the meeting, the Bust was shipped to Germany, and entered into the custody of James Simon, the sponsor of the excavation. Simon donated it to the Berlin Museum in 1920, and it was put on display to the public in 1924. Upon its 1924 unveiling, Egyptian officials immediately demanded that the artifact be returned. In 1925, Egypt threatened to ban German excavations unless it was returned.

In 1933, Hermann Goring considered returning the Bust to King Farouk Fouad of Egypt, but Hitler opposed the idea, saying he would “never relinquish the head of the Queen.” The Bust remained on display in the Neues Museum in Berlin until the museum closed in 1939 at the onset of the World War II. At that point, all Berlin museums were emptied, and artifacts were moved to secure areas for safekeeping. The Bust was moved around to multiple safe locations over the course of that war, and it was taken into custody by American troops in March of 1945.

The United States—which had had the Bust in display at the U.S. Central Collecting Point in Wiesbaden beginning in 1946—returned the Bust to West Berlin in 1956, at which point it was put on display at the Dahlem Museum. East Germany was unhappy with the move; they’d wanted the Bust returned to the Neues Museum, which had been badly damaged by an Allied bombing in 1943.

During the 1950’s, Egypt had attempted to re-open negotiations, but Germany was unresponsive and the United States simply told them to take it up with the German authorities.

The Bust was moved around several times after this. In 1967 it was moved to the Egyptian Museum in Charlottenburg, in 2005 it was moved to the Altes Museum, and it was moved back to the Neues Museum upon its 2009 reopening.

Zahi Hawass, the former The Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, spent a great deal of the 21st century working to have the artifact returned to Egypt. He held that the Bust had been illegally removed from the country, and in 2005 he asked UNESCO to intervene. In 2007 he threatened to ban exhibitions of Egyptian artifacts in Germany if they would not lend the Bust to Egypt. He also called for a worldwide boycott on loans to German museums.

Within Germany, cultural groups and a fair few academics believe that the Bust should be returned to Egypt. In 2007, an organization called CulturCooperation based out of Hamburg handed out postcards depicting the Bust with the words “Return to Sender” written on them. They also wrote an open letter to the German Culture Minister, Bernd Neumann, regarding the Bust. Other groups within Germany hold that the Bust has become a definitive part of German culture, while German art experts refute the claims that the Bust was illegally removed from Egypt.

In the midst of these debates, German conservation experts raised the concern that the Bust is simply too fragile to survive a move to Egypt. Dietrich Wildung, head of Berlin’s Egyptian Museum, stated that “the structure of Nefertiti’s material, plaster over limestone, is very sensitive.” If the Bust were to be returned to Egypt, it is possible that it would not survive the journey.

*Facial and other such detailing may be found on the majority of the art produced during the Amarna period.