Elephant or Irrelephant

Carved elephant tusk, Louvre
Carved elephant tusk, Louvre

Apologies for the title, but I do love a good pun. Okay, let’s talk about the elephant in the room.

In this month’s issue of National Geographic, writer Bryan Christy and photographer Brent Stirton put forth a well written piece on the ivory trade in Africa, along with stunning photographs of the poachers, the rangers who fight them, and the elephants. This article reminded me of the impact the ivory trade has had on museums in many Western countries as of late, and how after a 23-year ban on international ivory trade, this is still an ongoing problem. Now, time for some info that most people know. Elephants are dwindling in populations. They are a species that is sexy enough for environmentalists to sell, and scientists have proven that they are capable of extraordinary intelligence and emotion. They recognize the bones of their deceased relatives, and remember each other after fifty years apart. We know that the poaching of them for illegal trade is wrong and unethical.

Before I proceed, this blog post is not about museums who are supporting the ivory trade by unethically purchasing or selling ivory products (there are allowances for pieces sourced before 1976, the year when elephants were listed as being ‘endangered’). If museums are doing this, they know who they are – shame on them. I instead would like to draw attention to the recent string of thefts from museums of ivory tusks from elephants and also horns from rhinoceros specimens.

My MLitt class visited the National Museum Scotland back in December, and one of my more observant class mates asked about a posted sign underneath an elephant on display that said ‘NOT REAL IVORY’. What? Why? Why would it even matter, we ask…

SO THAT PEOPLE DO NOT STEAL THEM. The National History Museum in Paris was broken into by a man with a chainsaw to steal the tusk from the preserved pet elephant of Louis XIV. In the Massachusetts  Ipswich Museum a rhinoceros that had been on display since 1907 had its horn stolen. A Museum in Liege, museum storage rooms in Ireland, and the Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Sciences have also experienced rhino horn robberies recently.

stollen rhino horn, Gothernberg Museum of Natural History
stollen rhino horn, Gothernberg Museum of Natural History

Museums now have to replace their horns with replicas, and post signs to dissuade thieves. Theft in museums has always existed, but why the ivory and horns? According to the National Geographic article I read, most recently countries to involved in the trade and demand include China, Kenya, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. They are carved into trinkets and jewelry, and ground down for their medicinal properties. The Sudanese shelter many of the poaching organizations that are active in Africa. The men who guard these animal preserves are always in danger, and many lose their lives on the job.

It is easy for myself to read about these events – I live on the other side of the world. But it does affect my life, and the museums I visit. People are devoting their lives to protecting these creatures in life, and museums protect them in death. THIS IS VERY RELEVANT to people in the museum industry. Other objects such as pianos, fake teeth, and the Lewis Chessmen are made of ivory. Some anti trafficking groups have even called for their destruction and or removal from display. What do you think about this?

Take note of how interconnected our world really is. I am personally going to make a point to more actively take interest in these stories (beyond reading an article) that emerge from the far side of the world, and to see the reality of this ‘globalized interconnected world community’ of the present and the future.

Let’s talk about this. Let’s be real. Museums do not exist in isolation from the real world, and what is happening ‘out there’.

Peace and long life.


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