Last week, in an attempt to counter illegal elephant poaching, Prince William announced his intention to destroy Buckingham Palace’s collection of ivory, a collection of over 1,200 artefacts that date back several centuries. The move, which has been called everything from “extremely significant” to “bonkers beyond belief”, has left me torn. On one hand, my inner environmentalist appreciates the gesture; the fact that the royals are making a pointed attempt to address the horrors brought on by colonialism, conspicuous materialism, and the illegal animal trade is piercing. But truth be told, the budding art historian in me cringes at the thought of these priceless and irreplaceable items, from such an important artistic era, being destroyed.
Even a cursory examination of just one blacklisted item, Queen Victoria’s throne, as gifted by the Maharaja of Travancore ahead of the 1851 Great Exhibition, reveals more than a piece of illegally poached ivory. This throne is a one of a kind, a perfect example of Indian Keralite artwork from the period, and was not in violation of any poaching laws at the time. The piece is ornate and beautiful, and shows us that in an artistic sense, colonialism during the British Empire constituted a two way relationship. To destroy an artefact as artistically and politically significant as this would leave a great hole in the collection of art from an already artistically unappreciated area. To treat these items as such would undermine the artistic history of former colonies in an unprecedented way.
All this said, it would be insensitive and verging on abhorrent to claim that the killing and violence is entirely justified by the artistic value of a decorative whim. At worst, the piece constitutes a symbol of imperialist domination. How, then, can we find a centre ground – a way to condemn the now-illegal ivory trade while saving these pieces of art for their aesthetic and historic qualities? My answer to this is one taken directly from the colonialists’ book – re-appropriation.
Writing in regard to the Duke’s remarks, conservationist Dr Paula Kahumbu referred to the conscious conflagration of Kenyan ivory stockpiles in 1989, a watershed moment that led to the international ban on ivory poaching, as an example of how effective symbolic acts like this can be. The fact is, however, that these are not simply stockpiles, these pieces are art. Art comes with meaning, and meaning can always be used for other motives. If we do not burn the ivory, but burn away the meanings of imperial might and aestheticism which surround it, we can remove these pieces from their original context and creative a more constructive ‘symbolic gesture’ about the ivory trade.
If the Travancore was removed from a throne room in Buckingham Palace, and loaned to, say, the Natural History Museum, the throne would take on a whole new identity. No longer would it be a symbol of a glorious bygone age; it would be placed in the context of its environmental impact. Exhibited amongst images of elephants and rhinos, the victimized raw material of this art, the aesthetic value of the piece would still be visible for what it is worth, but the other side of the coin would also be starkly apparent. The barbarity that humans are willing to do for the sake of art would be plain for all to see.
There seems to be a belief that destruction will simply make the things that we are none too proud of go away, but really it bears no real meaning. The simple fact is that at one point, Britain was as just involved in the ivory trade as today’s poachers. Destruction of the evidence may make a ‘statement’, but it isn’t going to cover up, much less excuse, what has transpired. If you lay out the mistakes of the past for all to see, but place them in a context that marginalizes, exposes, and condemns the truth of the matter, I believe you can make a much greater statement on the barbarity of poaching. You cannot burn history, but you can reveal the truth.