Philosophers, historians and museum professionals more generally have spent a good deal of time and energy debating the utility and purposes of art and artifacts; especially as they are contextualized by display in institutions. However, these discussions are often inaccessible and largely irrelevant to the ways that most people perceive and consume these objects. I read an exceedingly long narrative article by Charles Homans called “The Dead Zoo Gang” this week and found it an interesting exercise in considering the way historical objects are valued and utilized by different groups. “The Dead Zoo Gang” is an article about the theft of rhino horns by a network of Irish criminals, and ties into the tension between utility and philosophical value of historical objects. As museums think about how to make their practices less colonial and paternalistic I think this article and the case it describes offer different perspectives on the ways in which people outside of the academy interact with the objects of display.
There are three major players in the drama of “The Dead Zoo Gang” all of whom have seemingly contradictory positions on the value of the rhino horns. The victims of the crimes described in the article are the museums and private collections that held the rhino horns and heads before the thefts. These institutions were often broken into in ways that resulted in property damage beyond just the lost artifacts and during the time that the Rathkeale Rovers were active it was a real source of fear for staff. Museums would explain their possession of the horns as protecting objects of history. They may be used to teach about the wildlife of far away places or the adventures of figures of the past. However these horns come into museum collections as colonial possessions, they were initially hunted by Europeans in colonized countries and their place in museums could arguably glamourize the life of colonizers while underplaying the devastating impact on the places they colonized. The institutions justify their continued possession of the horns from an educational perspective but unless great care is taken with displays the educational message they impart could easily be upholding damaginge perspectives on the past.
On the other end is the ultimate consumer, people in newly rich Asian countries who value the horn because of its use in traditional medicine. Rather than being interested in each individual piece as a distinct object they buy the rhino horns by weight not unlike the way other consumable commodities are purchased. “The Dead Zoo Gang” points out that the source of the horns isn’t actually important, poached horns are just as valid as stolen historical horns in this use case. The article states that the horns are a status symbol, a potential cure for health problems, and a way to spend newly acquired wealth – the use of the horns as historical objects does not contribute.
The Rovers who committed the crime fall between the two perspectives and seem to view the horns in a purely capitalistic sense as a way to make a profit. They clearly do not see any value (or at least enough value to prevent theft) in the display of these horns for education, and they do not have the belief in the health uses of the horns (or they would be keeping them for personal use). Aside from the illegal way the objects are acquired it is a very typical supply and demand driven economy. Interestingly, “The Dead Zoo Gang” also touches on some of the possible contributing factors to the crime spree, beyond the increased demand from Asia. The Rathkeale Rovers were part of the long marginalized community of Irish Travellers who were looked down on and were historically disadvantaged. So crime becomes a way of accruing wealth that works around the barriers to dominant society. Although not explicitly stated in the article I think it is implied that the Rovers do not view their actions as particularly damaging, they are not stealing someone’s livelihood and humans are not being killed or even severely injured in the process. The father of one of the Rovers who was interviewed for the piece talks about how it is legal to sell rhino horns with the correct permits and the persecution of his son is more a matter of far ranging prejudice against the Travellers (the minority cultural group that the Rathkeale Rovers were from). His reaction points to the ways that institutions build notions of value around their artifacts and how for people who are outside of that system, especially if they are historically at odds with the established system, have very little motivation to accept these paradigms of historical value over ones that could benefit them financially.
I think there are very good reasons why the trade in rhino horns should be stopped, mainly that the theft from museums is tied into a market that leads to the poaching and potential extinction of a species for health benefits that are not proven by science. With that in mind I think keeping the horns in institutional settings is probably the best option – that way they are not perpetuating an illegal market that has huge impacts on nature. But there should also be a push towards using these objects in a more impactful way that acknowledges the role of these objects in the historical colonization of Asia and Africa, as well as the ongoing negative impact on both people and the environment. Working through the positions of various players in situations like the ones in Dead Animal Zoo can force an articulation of museum principles that can be challenged by considering alternate positions even if they are not ultimately adopted.
Notes on sources: This piece is written based off of the article “The Dead Zoo Gang” which was written by Charles Homans and published on The Atavist website in 2014, I did not do any additional research. The reading was assigned as part of Professor Robertson’s course Art, Money, and Crime at Western University in the Fall 2020 semester and this piece is an expansion of the reflection writing that was assigned as part of the course work.
The full article by Charles Homans can be found at: https://magazine.atavist.com/dead-zoo-gang