Pratchaya Phinthong: Broken Hill
Chisenhale Gallery, London
26 July - 1 September 2013
Review by Yvette Greslé
A skull, subsumed by a vast exhibition space, is mounted on a display stand. The skull on its stand rests on a museum pedestal, which is illuminated from beneath its base. But the glass case (that would ordinarily protect the museum object) is displaced. It sits on the floor alongside the pedestal, and inside it is a wooden packing box. Presumably this is used to transport the skull. The box and glass case are banal, functional objects, taken for granted, and not really thought about beyond their purpose. Disassembled within the context of an art gallery installation, we are asked to think about them and their meaning. The skull (which the glass enclosure would be expected to preserve) is unencumbered, open to the environment. Pratchaya Phinthong’s irreverent displacement of skull and museum paraphernalia, within an echoing, emptied out space, destabilises how cultural institutions construct and measure value.
Pinned to a wall is an official document: an ‘export permit of relics’. It states that this skull is a cast of the Zambian ‘Broken Hill’ skull, and that its composition is plastic. This replica belongs to the Lusaka National Museum, where it is ordinarily displayed. The original is housed at the Natural History Museum, London. It was discovered in 1921 in the limestone caves of Kabwe (‘Broken Hill’) then Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia. Tom Zwiglaar (a Swiss miner) is credited for the discovery made while searching for metal ore deposits. Subsequent to its discovery the skull was sent to the English palaeontologist Sir Arthur Smith Woodward who designated it a new species.
Phinthong loaned the replica, and invited a professional museum guide, employed by the Lusaka National Museum, to narrate the history of the skull at the Chisenhale gallery as he would in Lusaka. The guide, Kamfwa Chishala, tells the story of the skull’s discovery, and its removal from Zambia to the Natural History Museum in London. Chishala draws attention to the object’s artifice, turning it around and upside down as he narrates the story of its provenance and manufacture. The fake recreates the characteristics of the original: discolouration, fractures, protrusions and hollowed out spaces. The reproduction originated at the British Natural History Museum, the export permit states. Chishala points to the Museum’s authenticating tag hidden at its base.
Relations between reproduction and original (between which version lives in Lusaka, and which in London) go to the heart of tensions that fracture the histories of museums. The Zambian government has requested the return of the original, which the Natural History Museum contests. Despite the critical advances of post-colonial thought, insidious assumptions remain sedimented in debates about objects acquired during colonialism. But the meaning of historical authority, truth, value and possession cannot be taken for granted by either African or Western knowledge systems, which are neither discrete nor sacrosanct. The value of museum objects in the twenty-first century is also informed by economic interests (interrelations of capital, heritage and tourism). The ‘Broken Hill’ skulls are objects with public lives which constitute their meaning.