We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Indiana Jones and the Renovation of Relics

These few paragraphs, transcribed from a (warning, very long) video essay by The Little Platoon about Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, contain lots of interesting ideas. I do not have time to fact check it all, so please argue about it in the comments section.

Why do old things belong in museums? Because history and nostalgia rely on the same thing: a letting go; a leaving be; that switch in the collective subconscious that manifests in the want to preserve rather than to renovate. Increasingly common demands to lift artifacts from western museums and return them to their ancestral homes are more of a desire to renovate than to preserve. Lost amidst the tediously ahistorical narratives around colonial exploitation is the fact that historical preservation requires an act of will backed up by resources and learning. The marbles probably were better off in Elgin’s indelicate hands than they were adorning the ammo dump the Ottomans made of the Parthenon, much of which was blown up anyway when the Venetians, as only Venetians could, decided to shell it.

And Indian archaeology began as a purely colonial exercise. It was the likes of Sir William Jones, James Prinsep and the Asiatic Society, that thought it worth digging up India’s forgotten past and translating its fading texts: documenting its undocumented history, and rescuing relics from the longstanding and, it must be said, understandable native tendency to break them up and turn them into new buildings.

It’s an unpopular fact but it is a fact nonetheless that orientalists taught the Orient a great deal about itself because the west was rich enough to afford the luxury of knowledge. And it’s that, by the way, not capitalism that motivated Indiana Jones, whatever Phoebe Waller-Bridge might tell you later. Capitalism is actually not very good with history, and I speak as an ardent capitalist. Capitalism is a thing that demands new ways to find a material profit, and it’s instinctively uncomfortable with letting things move from present to past tense. Those old Indians turning ancient Buddhist relics into railway sleepers were arguably more capitalistic than the capitalistic orientalists like Jones and Prinsep who rescued them for posterity. And they were much more so than Islamist or Hindutva nutters who, much like the Nazis, would rather destroy heresy than preserve history.

But it’s the constant need to renew, to renovate, that seems to have taken hold in our own countries in our own times. Coming closer to the subject of this video, it’s the reason we cannot let old things lie. We don’t know how to make what our ancestors made. We can only bend their relics into new shapes. Indiana Jones belongs in our metaphorical museum (I think the original trilogy does currently sit in the library of congress) but the character himself has been dressed up and wheeled out and recontextualised and generally renovated twice since then, to worse results each time. Someone somewhere believes there’s monetary value to be extracted from re-using him which denies his sufficient value as history. It’s kind of ironic, really. Indy wants to rescue relics from those who would want to put them to new financial and material ends; he wants relics preserved as they are, studied and untouched, not put to heathen purposes, because they’ve had their day and no good can come of re-employing them. If, however you find yourself watching Dial of Destiny and you find your face melting, it’s because Disney couldn’t help but go to that big old warehouse, find the wooden crate, pull out the ark and open it on our screen to our collective horror.

Disney are the René Belloqs, the Walter Donovans of our world; Philistines, not Philanthropists donating treasures to the public.

7 comments to Indiana Jones and the Renovation of Relics

  • Kirk

    I can’t help but observe that this is the academic’s perspective on history… Something that exists for its own sake, nothing more.

    There’s another perspective, one that people like me have on the issue. We study history because we want to know how the people before us dealt with things.

    The interesting perspective here is that the academic historian rarely records or studies those things that are important to men like me. Case in point? Who knows now which foot the Roman legions stepped off on? Did they even march in step, in the first place?

    Nowhere is that recorded. The historians like Vegetius didn’t bother to record it, either because they didn’t understand the importance of that point, or because they simply did not know. Personally, I don’t see how the Romans could have maintained their formations without step and cadence… Yet, we do not know.

    Look around you: How much of what goes into your job, your life, gets recorded? Who looks at the minutiae of your life, and preserves that for posterity? How many assumptions about what goes on in your life do you walk by, every single morning, and think nothing of, yet which will be utterly inexplicable to people a thousand years hence?

    There’s capital-letter H “History”, and then there’s lower-case “history”. Which is more significant, more important to record? Which tells us more, about the things of real import during our age?

    And, another point… The perspective on Indian history. The Indians, being resigned to the Wheel of Time, endless successions of reincarnation and repetition? They don’t see “History” as being of any importance, at all: It’s all another turning of the wheel. Only the Westerner cares…

  • Johnathan Pearce

    The recent scandal of thousands of artefacts being stolen from the British Museum has undermined the “it’s safer in a Western museum” argument somewhat. People will use that clusterfuck to demand return of more items to their alleged places of origin.

  • Martin

    I don’t necessarily think having a circular view rather than linear view of history prevents one from caring about history. After all, the ancient Greek historians like Herodotus, Thucydides, and Polybius viewed history as essentially circular in nature, and yet they are the oldest historians whose work we have access to still.

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker) Gray

    Kirk, those Indians may have a point. I remember two occasions when English people claimed to have had a prior life, and later research backed them up. One was a supposed life in Petra, the city ‘half as old as time’. Archaeologists had some trouble understanding what some things were used for, and this man gave a plausible explanation. The other was a woman, Dorothy Eddie, who had memories of a past life in Egypt, and traveled there, and seemed to know the place without needing a map- she was even able to mention sites that were later uncovered, and they were exactly like she had said!

  • Ah, the renovation of relics. As a museum curator, I was in the middle of this argument. It was a museum of technology, so opinions were somewhat different: in many cases it was a matter of repair rather than renovation. I considered it ideal to have at least two of something. I’d leave the one in better condition in its original state, and repair the living daylights out of the other – get it working if I could. That was the one for display and visitor interaction while the untouched one was for study. If something were in a really horrible state I’d leave it that way, and sometimes display it, to demonstrate the problems inherent in that particular technology.

    These things were not sacred or hallowed national history, except very occasionally. (I wouldn’t dare modify Medtronic’s first pacemaker prototype, but I did fabricate a number of lookalike “stunt doubles”.)

    Jonathan Pierce mentions earlier in this discussion that “The recent scandal of thousands of artefacts being stolen from the British Museum has undermined the “it’s safer in a Western museum” argument somewhat. People will use that clusterfuck to demand return of more items to their alleged places of origin.” There are sharks in that water, but I’d argue that storing artifacts in a place that doesn’t have people madly passionate about them can often be far safer than repatriating them.

    The Buddha of Bamiyan didn’t go anywhere, but now it’s gone. In Iraq, the Islamic State toppled priceless statues at the Mosul Museum in northern Iraq. They used sledgehammers and power tools to deface giant winged-bull statues at Nineveh on the outskirts of Mosul. At Nimrud, IS detonated explosives, turning the site into a giant, brown, mushroom cloud. They used assault rifles and pickaxes to destroy invaluable carvings at Hatra; and at Palmyra in Syria they blew up the 2,000-year-old temples dedicated to the pagan gods Baal Shamin and Bel. All things considered, the Elgin Marbles are probably safer in England.

  • Paul Marks.

    The various peoples of the Indian Subcontinent tended to have little interest in an objective study of the past – that was mainly the preserve of the falsely attacked “Orientalists”. Contrary to the lies of the late Edward Said [associate of Barack Obama] and other leftists, the “Orientalists” were not people who attacked Eastern cultures – “Orientalists”, as the word suggests, were the people who thought that oriental (“oriental” as in “of the orient” of the east) had value and were worth studying.

    Sadly the objective, truthful, study of the past is dying. Both in the east, where, for example, the truth that much of the language and culture (including the use of horses and spoked wheel chariots) of what is now northern India came from invaders from the north thousands of years ago. And in the West – where the truthful study of history is being replaced by Marxists lies, under the guise of “anti racism”, “anti imperialism”, “feminism” and so on.

    To the modern “scholars” most of the historians who were active in the 18th and 19th centuries are evil “dead-white-males” – and to these “scholars” there is no objective truth (they reject the very concepts of objective truth and honest history), there is only the “Progressive” cause.

    So, it could be argued, it does not matter much if objects discovered by real historians and archaeologists in the past remain in Western museums or get sent “back east”, as these objects will be lied about, by Marxists and others, either way.

    In the United States even objects discovered in the United States (so with no where they can be sent back to) are hidden away, lied about, or just destroyed – if these objects challenge the “Progressive” narrative, and this is starting to happen in other Western countries – for example the destruction of some Norse objects in Sweden.

  • Paul Marks.

    As for Hollywood – Marxist agitprop brought to the public by millionaires working for vast “capitalist” corporations.

    And it is not even well done Marxist agitprop – it is badly written, badly acted, badly directed, and-so-on.