It seems that the shoe is on the other foot. The Banksy Mural that has been removed from the wall of a Poundland shop in North London is up for auction in America. The auctioneer says it is all above board, enquiries have been made and the sale is legitimate. I believe him. No self respecting art auction house would put themselves in the position of selling stolen Banksys. The legitimacy of the sale is not really the point though. Banksy creates street art, not commercial pieces designed to be sold to the highest bidder. He appeals to the general public to spread political messages or just entertain. Marc Shiller uses the phrase “location specific commentary” to describe the works and also this:
“I’m not buying the argument that because Banksy put a piece in public it gives a person the right to steal and resell it,” he said. “When he is on the street he is giving his work to the public to enjoy for a day, a month, a year or more. His position has been that if you take his work out of its context it’s not his work any more, it’s no longer a Banksy.”
Apparently the auction house has received threatening phone calls and messages about their involvement in the sale of this piece of work. There is outrage, there are also secrets, the seller has not made themselves public. This is within the seller’s right to remain anonymous, but by doing so is creating a furore about who they are and what right they had to remove the mural. For all we know this is Banksy himself trying to prove a point.
Maybe, though we should be looking at this from a different viewpoint. Is this how the people of Greece felt when the Elgin Marbles were removed and put into a museum for the British public to see? Did they wonder who had the right to remove these works that they had access to and could see on a daily basis if they wanted to and take them to another country? I am sure they did (and still do). According to the British authorities all the paperwork was in order and legitimate, nothing untoward had been done. I am not going to go into the minutiae of the Elgin Marbles case, but I want to highlight the longstanding debate about having cultural objects in museums.
I felt that my understanding of this issue was highlighted when I saw Henry VIII’s armour in the Met Museum in New York. I knew it was in there, I had seen it on a (admittedly trashy) tv show. However, when I stood there in front of it, I had a feeling of resentment. Why was it in this museum? What did they know about Henry VIII? Why wasn’t it in the Tower of London or at the Royal Armouries? It is housed in a room with armour from all over the world, but I didn’t have the same feeling about the other pieces in there. It was because it felt personal. I then realised that I was a little more enlightened about how other people must feel about the Elgin Marbles, and now the Banksy.
There are many objects that are in museums that are from other cultures, that must have a specific meaning to peoples and cultures. These objects are part of what makes museums places to go, all part of the experience. I don’t have an answer to the long standing debate, I am a supporter of original objects in museums, but also support the legitimate acquisition of these objects. I just feel that everyone should see something in a museum that gives them the feeling that it is theirs in order to better understand this debate.