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Conservation and the Weight of History

photograph of statues in front of Philadelphia Art Museum

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.


In September of 2020, the National Trust, an organization that preserves more than two hundred historical sites scattered across the U.K., published a lengthy report on the material legacy of British colonialism. The report specifically identifies ninety-three sites under its purview that were built, occupied, or otherwise connected to the slave owners, bureaucrats, merchants, and politicians who drove the Atlantic slave trade. The vestiges of imperialism, the report implies, can be found not just in bombastic public monuments, but in the quaint country estates and manicured parkland. Blood money taints everything from private art collections (which contain curiosities pillaged from India and Africa) to luxury furniture (often made from tropical hardwoods like mahogany, which were invariably harvested by slaves).

Hilary McGrady, the director of the Trust, notes in a blog post accompanying the report that

history can also be challenging and contentious. It is surely a sign of confidence, integrity and pride that while we can celebrate and enjoy history we can also explore and acknowledge all aspects of it. The National Trust is at its best when we capture this complexity – when we present facts and material evidence in ways that inspire curiosity, inquiry, learning and sharing.

History has certainly proved to be contentious; Charles Moore, the former editor of the Daily Telegraph, accuses the Trust of bowing to Black Lives Matter, which he refers to as a “semi-racist political movement with extraordinary doctrines who love, among other things, knocking down statues,” and laments “that our greatest conservation body should be, as it were, taking the knee to them.”

Others believe that the Trust isn’t going far enough. Their new programming acknowledges the impact of imperialism, but it isn’t clear whether or not they’ll take the next step of repatriating artifacts. In an article on the Trust for The New Yorker, Sam Knight interviews British historian William Dalrymple, who explains,

If you were to gather a group of National Trust supporters in a room and say to them, ‘We have some examples here of looted Jewish art treasures taken by the Nazis that have ended up in our properties. Should we hold on to them? Or should we give them back to their owners, who now live in L.A.?’ There would be a hundred-per-cent vote, of course. Most British people simply are not aware, or haven’t processed. . . that this is the same thing. That this is another conquered nation, whose art treasures now sit in British museums and in British country houses.

Most visitors to Trust sites find these historical parallels difficult to process, because, as Knight argues, the National Trust fulfills “at least two large and subtly conflicting roles, as a custodian of collective memory and as a purveyor of weekend leisure. The Trust aims for total inclusion. Its slogan is ‘For everyone, for ever’ . . . The Trust hates to disappoint people. It hates, like any great British institution, to cause offense.” But is the point of historical sites to provide comforting narratives that bolster patriotism, or to display the stark and often ugly realities of history, offensive as they may be? Many of us understand history as inert, a tranquil landscape that we gaze at appreciatively from a safe difference, but we come to that landscape with baggage in hand. All conservational bodies, not just the Trust, have to reckon with what the public wants from history, how they want it to act upon them (or, in some cases, not act upon them.)

Novelist Zadie Smith explored the weight of history in an essay for The London Review of Books. Smith argues that “Public art claiming to represent our collective memory is just as often a work of historical erasure and political manipulation. It is just as often the violent inscription of myth over truth, a form of ‘over-writing’—one story overlaid and thus obscuring another—modeled in three dimensions.” She’s speaking about monuments here, which are typically built with a particular narrative of the past in mind, but the way we maintain and present historical sites is another form of storytelling.

Smith, who has lived on both sides of the Atlantic, acknowledges the rampant erasure of slavery in the United States, but in the U.K., she sees not

erasure but of something closer to perfect oblivion. It is no exaggeration to say that the only thing I ever learned about slavery during my British education was that ‘we’ ended it . . . The schools were silent; the streets deceptive. The streets were full of monuments to the glorious, imperial, wealthy past, and no explanation whatsoever of the roots and sources of that empire-building wealth.

Smith’s experience casts doubt on the ability of the Trust, or any single organization, to act as a definitive “custodian of collective memory” when so much of our history goes unacknowledged. Even the idea of total inclusion, which makes up half of the Trust’s slogan, feels like an attempt to smooth over division and inequalities. Smith sees a potential remedy to historical amnesia in artists like Kara Walker, whose work depicts the grotesque absurdities of slavery. Walker famously interrogated the serene public monuments of imperialism with her piece A Subtly, an enormous sculpture of a black woman made from white sugar (a commodity that drove much of the slave trade and helped beautify those ninety-three homes identified by the Trust).

One Walker drawing, enigmatically titled “What I want history to do to me,” elicits a polyphonous response from Smith. She reflects,

What might I want history to do to me? . . . I might ask it to urgently remind me why I’m moving forward, away from history. Or speak to me always of our intimate relation, of the ties that bind—and indelibly link—my history and me. I could want history to tell me that my future is tied to my past, whether I want it to be or not. . . . I might want history to show me that slaves and masters are bound at the hip. That they internalize each other. That we hate what we most desire. That we desire what we most hate. That we create oppositions—black white male female fat thin beautiful ugly virgin whore—in order to provide definition to ourselves by contrast. I might want history to convince me that although some identities are chosen, many others are forced. Or that no identities are chosen. Or that all identities are chosen . . . All of these things. None of them. All of them in an unholy mix of the true and the false.

When we approach the past, we come with many contradictory and often submerged desires, as Smith makes clear. British historical sites will continue to draw in tourists who want to snap photos of sprawling gardens and elegant drawing rooms. We can only hope that the National Trust’s admirable recognition of colonialism will start a new conversation about the many uses and misuses of history.

Destroy the ‘Mona Lisa’ for an NFT?

pixelated image of Mona Lisa painting

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.


Damien Hirst is a contemporary English artist whose work is world-renowned. Recently, I had the opportunity to view a collection of his work at the Galleria Borghese in an exhibition titled “Archaeology Now.” Hirst works almost exclusively in the genre of sculpture, but recently he has been pursuing a decidedly less physical kind of art — NFTs.

NFT, which stands for “non-fungible token,” is a piece of digital property that is unique — nobody but the owner of the NFT has that exact electronic object in their possession, and it is marked as an original in a way that digitally distinguishes it from all copies made. Hirst is part of a recent project, titled The Currency, in which artists submit works of art which are then turned into NFTs. For example: a sculptor can create a physical sculpture and put it on display in a museum or an art gallery. On the other hand, that sculpture could be turned into an NFT, and the owner of that NFT would then be able to print the image of the piece wherever they like, send the image to anyone who wanted to see the piece, or possibly even 3D print an exact replica of the piece. Art in the form of NFTs allows artists to send their works all over the world. And some would say that “sending” digitized artwork is much better than loaning physical works of art — there is no limit on the number of places one may send the image to and no time spent waiting for it to get there. The idea behind The Currency is a sort of competition between what we might think of as the “received view” of art — that the physical originals have a unique value that cannot be replicated by digital copies — and an emerging view that denies a difference of value between the two (or, perhaps, sees more value in the NFTs).

For artists, art connoisseurs, or even regular art-appreciators, the idea of destroying a physical work of art might be painful to think about. So much time, money, and resources have been invested in attempting to preserve original physical copies of works like the Mona Lisa that these efforts have become intertwined with the pieces’ value. Recent examples of near destruction of great works of art are similarly met with horror, sadness, and a rush to try to preserve the pieces. Just think of the fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral, or the vandalization of Michelangelo’s Pieta. Is Hirst’s project — one in which original works of art may be destroyed if clients choose to keep the NFT instead — a tragedy? While the project is unquestionably controversial, is there anything inherently wrong in destroying (the physical copy of) a work of art, so long as the NFT remains?

One argument in favor of owning NFTs over physical copies of works of art is that access to these pieces could be expanded greatly. Rather than having to travel to a museum to see a certain piece, viewers could simply download a digital copy reproduced by an NFT. This could be done, in theory, in a sensorily immersive way, such that there would be little difference between the digital experience and the in-person experience. Those who lack resources to travel, or the time to visit museums, could have access to the great works of art that they might otherwise be deprived of. This democratization of art could, in turn, boost education equity and improve education outcomes across demographics. The experience of art could be liberated from its typical exclusivity.

But there is another strong argument for answering “no” to this question, which relies on intuitions many have about what it is that is valuable about art. Philosopher Alexander Pruss pursues this question in relation to one particular form of art: music. In a blog post titled “Musical Beauty and Virtual Music” Pruss asks “where does the musical beauty lie?” He goes on:

“One day […] I expect many people will have direct brain-computer interfaces. When they ‘listen to music’, no sounds will be emitted (other than the quiet hum of computer cooling fans, say). Yet I do not think this will significantly change anything of aesthetic significance. Thus, the production of musical sounds seems accidental to the enjoyment of music.”

Pruss here argues that the way the music is produced, the technology through which the sounds are emitted, does nothing to change my experience of the music and, therefore, does nothing to change how valuable the music is. The beauty — and value — of music therefore must lie in the experience of it. Similarly, people who agree with Hirst may find themselves drawn in this direction with regards to other forms of art, like sculpture, paintings, performance art, etc. Perhaps the value of these pieces lies in what we experience when we observe them, and not in the physical manifestations themselves. Destroying the Mona Lisa, therefore, may be perfectly fine so long as the experience of seeing the Mona Lisa can be preserved. Hirst seems to have a similar idea about the value of art, saying, “I just think anything that looks good and feels good, and makes you feel good, you know, it’s good art.”

This picture of value calls to mind the famous “experience machine” thought experiment proposed by the philosopher Robert Nozick. In the fictional scenario, you are given the option of plugging into a virtual reality machine, where you will (1) forget you’re in a virtual reality, and (2) live an incredibly happy and fulfilling life, all while your body is kept alive for as long as possible. Guessing that most people would refuse to enter the experience machine, Nozick uses this thought experiment to argue that the value of good things in life goes beyond mere experience — there is value in the goods actually occurring in reality, outside of our perception of them. For example, we might think that it is better to actually have relationships with real others, than to merely believe you have relationships with real others, even if there is no difference between the experience of the real relationships and the experience of the simulation. Likewise, one might think that there is value in the original piece of physical artwork itself that goes above and beyond the viewers’ experience of it. The fact that Frida Kahlo herself put these precise, meticulous brush strokes on the canvas, for instance, may hold value that is not grounded in our experience of her work.

Further, we may wonder whether the experience of seeing original works of art in person really can be preserved in an NFT. Anyone who has been deeply affected by the experience of viewing their favorite originals face-to-face may be skeptical that NFTs can truly capture the full experience. One difficulty would be recreating the awareness of sheer size, something important to the experience of carved works like the Appennine Colossus or Landowski’s Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, and to large-scale paintings like the Sistine Chapel. Such awareness requires something like a sensory comparison of your size compared to the size of the work of art — something that would likely be difficult, or perhaps even impossible, for an NFT to facilitate.

A further complicating factor is that we tend to believe that pictures of art are not themselves art. For example, if you go to the Vatican Museum to see the Sistine Chapel, and then purchase a poster print of The Creation of Adam at the gift shop, you probably do not actually believe you have taken the painting home with you. Moreover, you also likely do not believe that your poster is equally as valuable as the original painting on the roof of the ceiling. The gift shop certainly thinks there is a difference in value, as a poster of the painting costs only about as much as one admission ticket! Whence the difference in value? Does it have to do with scale? But we can easily imagine a to-scale replica of the Sistine Chapel. Is the difference in value related to the wide availability of replicas compared to the limited availability of originals? If so, NFTs would retain the single-original status of works of art, and thereby (presumably) keep their value high, giving the owners of the NFTs full rights over any reproduction of the work. Additionally, some creators have sought to solve the problem of the inherent value of the original by positing that creators and artists may decide for themselves which work is the original: the physical copy, or the NFT. Choosing to designate the NFT as the original, as one YouTuber suggests, may change our understanding such that the physical copy becomes merely a “tool” used to create the final product, the NFT.

And finally, we may question whether Hirst’s project — exchanging original physical works of art for NFTs — would work for other kinds of art beyond painting and sculpture. There are, for example, works of art specifically created by the artist to exist only for a moment. Instances of this kind of art include a recent piece by Banksy titled “Girl with Balloon” which was secretly designed to self-destruct a few hours after it sold (the destruction was only partially successful), as well as performance art such as Chris Burden’s famous “Shoot” in which his friend shoots Burden in the arm with a gun.

Whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist about buying and selling art as NFTs, it is clear that the emerging technologies raising these philosophical questions will have a large impact on our view of art — what counts as art, who counts as an artist, and how we can best experience the work of those working with digital and physical mediums. May it make us more creative, and more open to appreciating the creative talent of others.

Colonialism and the Western Museum

Inseparable from the modern museum is an examination of how the forces of globalization affect it. As audiences of these museums seek increasingly globalized experiences, so too have the collections of museums diversified with collections from around the world. Impressive as they may be, though, such collections bring with them a number of ethical issues. And in the time of ISIS and antiquity black markets, foremost among them is just how such antiquities arrived in the museum’s hallowed halls in the first place.

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Whiteness, Accessibility and the Art Museum

It is easy to think of the art museum as a clinical space. Seemingly divorced from the outside world at times, these pristine spaces and the artworks that inhabit them often could not feel farther from real-life political struggles. Yet these sanitized, white gallery walls and climate-controlled rooms play host to a number of political debates that are intimately connected to the world beyond the museum gates.

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