All posts by zasibley

The Sarah Bartmann Centre of Remembrance

In 2009, the South African Department of Arts and Culture announced a competition to design a Sarah Bartmann Centre of Remembrance. As the Department of Arts and Culture announced, the aim of the center is, “ to honour and document the life of Sarah Bartmann as well as the heritage of the Khoi and San people” ( The center would be built adjacent to her grave site, as a way to aid in the development of the local economy of the Kouga municipality in which the grave resides (

Sarah Baartman's grave site, located in the East Cape near her birth place. It is now surrounded by a fence due to a history of vandalism.
Sarah Baartman’s grave site, located in the East Cape near her birth place. It is now surrounded by a fence due to a history of vandalism.

The description of the center that was announced during the opening of the design competition outlined three ‘doctrines’ that the design should be based around: memory, healing, and hope.(2) The Khoi Khoi community was said to have been consulted in the development process of these doctrines. It was also announced that the center would be linked to the development of the KhoiSan Heritage Route, a project that would connect and promote sites important to the Khoi Khoi and San communities.

The architecture firm Wilkinson Architects eventually won the design competition, producing models for a center that defined “a circular route… that leads from the informal to the sacred, via Memory, Healing, and Celebration spaces” ( Memory spaces include a “Genocide Wall” to educate visitors on the history of the Khoi and San people, and what seems to be an exhibition space depicting the life of Sarah Bartmann. Gardens and ponds are also included, presumably as healing spaces, and it is unclear what or where the celebration space is. Though the firm’s description says that, “subtle references to the Khoi-San people and way of life come across through sensory experiences and textures,” it never mentions that the Khoi or San communities were included in the development of the design.

The outdoor section of the model of the Sarah Baartmann Centre for Remembrance created by Wilkinson Architects
The outdoor section of the model of the Sarah Bartmann Centre for Remembrance created by Wilkinson Architects

Though the center has yet to be constructed, it seems due to a lack of funding (though there is not much information available), the model itself already includes problematic elements that may work to further objectify Sarah Bartmann. Images of the exhibit space on Wilkinson Architect’s website show enormous images of Bartmann covering the walls, many of them showing her naked or in offensive cartoons from the time. Still, this is only a model, and no clear plans are available for the exhibition space. Ideally the Khoi Khoi community is an integral part of the development of this space, and it works to affirm Bartmann’s personhood rather than reobjectify her by focusing solely on her image and exploitation.

The architect's model of the exhibition space at the remembrance center, which includes large depictions of Baartman's nude body.
The architect’s model of the exhibition space at the remembrance center, which includes large depictions of Baartman’s nude body.

Though the center is almost definitely going to be built, I think it is also important to ask whether this is the best way to remember Sarah Bartmann- or whether it is remembrance that should even be sought. It is impossible to know what Bartmann would have wanted, but it is nonetheless important to be critical of the ways in which sites for memorial or remembrance might work to reobjectify Bartmann or work against the spirit of her repatriation.


(1) Bartmann was a part of the Khoi Khoi, a South African indigenous group. The San are a group that the Khoi Khoi are often grouped with because of there geographic proximity, and the term KhoiSan is a recognized “ethno-linguistic group” yet still controversial to some because it lumps the two groups together. (

(2)The descriptions of these doctrines are as follows:

* Memory: to affirm the personhood and the life of Sarah Baartman and to develop a space as a repository for the cultural-heritage of the KhoiSan.
* Healing: given the past injustices against Sarah Baartman, the Khoekhoe and San peoples, to affirm the culture of human rights.
* Hope: to affirm the cultural heritage of the Khoekhoe and San people, and expressing the hope for it renewal, through transmission to these to younger generations and rigourous research to preserve those aspects which have
enduring value. (

Sources and further reading:


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The Ethics of Looting for Cash

In Dr. Leventhal’s talk about the destruction of cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq, he discussed mostly the devastation at the hands of ISIS and the Assad regime. These groups have jackhammered artifacts in museums, blown up mosques, and obliterated minarets important to the Syrian people. All six of Syria’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites have been affected by this kind of destruction. As I did some more research about this issue, I came across information suggesting that the Syrian opposition, known as the Free Syria Army (FSA) has also participated in the looting of historical archeological sites. As one rebel, Jihad Abu Saoud, put it, “Some days we are fighters; others we are archaeologists” (Washington Post).

The Umayyad Mosque in the old town of Aleppo, which has been severely damaged during the fighting. The minaret is said to have been destroyed by Assad's forces.
The Umayyad Mosque in the old town of Aleppo, which has been severely damaged during the fighting. The minaret is said to have been destroyed by Assad’s forces.
The Umayaad Mosque before destruction.
The Umayaad Mosque before destruction.

The FSA is mainly transporting the looted goods to Jordan, where they sell them to antiquities dealers, who then sell them for around three times the price to locals or tourists. Of course, archeologists are dismayed by this looting. Not only is the removal and export of these artifacts illegal, it also makes it difficult, if not impossible, for these objects to be dated and studied. As Dr. Leventhal pointed out, many Syrians are very upset about the harm being done to the cultural heritage of Syria- they seen it as part of their identity being destroyed. Furthermore, the looting and destruction of these sites will harm the post-war tourism industry.

A ceramic tablet similar to those that are on the International Council of Museums’s Emergency Red List of artifacts that are at risk of destruction in Syria. Many of them date from as early as the 3rd century BC.

Still, I think that this issue is too complicated to simply condemn the looters without an examination of motives. I believe it is unethical for the Assad regime to destroy the cultural monuments of the opposition simply in order to hurt their morale or make a statement. I see ISIS’s intentional destruction of museum holdings in a similar light- their actions are ideologically motivated and intended to cause harm to the identity of a people, and are therefore unethical. Yet in my opinion the ethics of FSA looting in order to fund their opposition campaign is bit of a sticker issue- it requires us to weigh the fate of Syria and its people with the importance of its cultural heritage. Abu Majed, an FSA smuggler, says that, “People may judge us and call us thieves, but sometimes you have to sacrifice the past in order to secure the future” (Washington Post). Another member of the FSA defends his actions this way: “We have been left to face an entire army without arms, without money and without help from the outside world. It is within our right to use whatever resources we can find” (Ibid.). I’m not sure there is a right answer in this situation- though I do think part of the problem is the number of collectors that are willing to buy illegally obtained objects, and the number of individuals that are not informed enough to even know what they are buying and how it was acquired. In the end, I think that the destruction is devastating but that not all destruction is equally bad- the motivation and cause of the looters should be taken into account.

Further Readings:


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Potlatch Ceremonies and the Repatriation of Potlatch Regalia

The potlatch is a ceremony practiced among indigenous groups of the Northwest coastal regions of Canada and the United States in which families come together to celebrate births, give names, conduct marriages, mourn the loss of a loved one, or pass rights from a Chief to his eldest son. The word potlatch derives from the Chinook language, and means “to give”. Accordingly, at the end of the ceremony, the host gives gifts to all in attendance. A host can achieve a high status in their community by giving out a large quantity of gifts. In exchange, witnesses are expected to remember and pass on the knowledge of the events they have witnessed. A website written by members of the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw, a group that practices the potlatch, states that the potlatch ceremony is “the very foundation for a system of laws by which we have always lived and continues as the cornerstone of our culture today” (

Dancers at a potlatch ceremony

In 1885, the Canadian government outlawed potlatch ceremonies. Christian missionaries feared the pagan implications of these ceremonies, and the government felt threatened by the distribution of wealth and anti-capitalist connotations of the ceremony. The Canadian Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, John A. Macdonald, called the potlatch, “the useless and degrading custom in vogue among the Indians … at which an immense amount of personal property is squandered in gifts by one Band to another, and at which much valuable time is lost” (

True enforcement of the law began in 1913. The number of arrests for potlatching increased dramatically, but individuals could often received lesser sentences if they pledged to stop engaging in potlatching or handed over potlatch paraphernalia, such as masks, whistles, cedar bark regalia, and coppers. Over 750 objects were confiscated, and the Canadian Department of Indian affairs paid a total of $1,485 for more than $35,000 worth of objects. Most of these objects were then sold or given to museums or individuals for display.

Masks that were worn during a potlatch ceremony

Clearly, the outlawing of the potlatch ceremony is awful and discriminatory. For individuals to be arrested for singing, dancing, or giving gifts, simply because these actions were part of a certain cultural practice, is unlawful and represents violence towards these tribes’ cultures and history. Since the confiscation of these objects however, there has been some progress made towards justice. The Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw protested the anti-potlatching laws, using petition and other legal means, though these efforts were unsuccessful for a long time. Many indigenous groups continued to practice potlatch ceremonies in secret, and in 1951, the section making potlatch ceremonies illegal was deleted from Canadian law, though some Native tribes say they would have preferred a repeal, which would have brought more public attention to the issue.

Gifts that will be given to guests at a potlatch held by Tlakwagila in 1983

Once potlatching became legal, many Native individuals and tribes worked to get back the objects that were illegally taken from them. In the 1970’s the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw formed the U’mista Cultural Society, which petitioned the Canadian government for the return of the objects. Though this was certainly a step in the right direction, the burden of proof that these objects were illegally obtained rested on the Native peoples, and even when that burden of proof was met, the government would only agree to repatriate the objects if a museum was constructed to properly preserve them. The U’mista Cultural Center in Alert Bay, British Colombia now houses many of these objects. Though I appreciate the progress in the repatriation of these objects and the recognition by the Canadian government that they were obtained illegally, I find it patronizing and unfair for the government to stipulate the conditions under which the objects will be returned. If the government truly recognizes that these objects belong to the Native peoples they were taken from, then it should be up to those tribes what happens to the objects upon repatriation. To force these objects to be housed in museums, in my mind, reinforces the idea that these are dying cultures that must be preserved and devalues the cultural traditions of these Native people while further reducing their agency over their own rightful possessions.

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