March 30, 2006

New paradigms in antiquity ownership & display

Posted at 12:36 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

I have often argued that the British Museum needs to see beyond its current mode of existence – to innovate & lead a new movement forward in the same way as it was once at the forefront of the creation of museums during the Enlightenment.
This article looks at the way that the display of artefacts is argued over between museologists & archaeologists – generally with little consultation with the source country from where the exhibit originated. It the goes on to look at some museums that have looked at alternative ways of creating a collection to the methods generally employed by the great national museum of the western world.

New York Times

Who owns art?
Published: March 29, 2006

KARMA never sleeps. When people steal from other people, redress always comes, though maybe not for a long time and in unexpected forms. Because the history of art is, in large part, a history of theft, karmic action is always at work. Somewhere, it’s always payback time.

We got a juicy taste of this recently, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art, after decades of stonewalling, agreed to return several possibly stolen — that is, illegally excavated — objects to Italy, one being the famous Euphronios krater. Yet the Met affair was small potatoes compared with orgies of art larceny in the not-so-distant past.

Under Napoleon, French armies hauled ton after ton of Pharaonic sculpture from Egypt and back to Paris. Around the same time, the British were shipping the Elgin marbles to London. Later in Africa, in 1897, British troops, in a punishing mood, stripped clean the ivories and bronzes from the altars and palaces of the West African kingdom of Benin and sent those exquisite objects home, too.

Our own time is even more pillage-happy, if only because transportation is easier. Monumental Khmer sculptures were airlifted from Cambodia during the Vietnam War and flown to destinations unknown. Nok sculptures, among the oldest-surviving African artworks, are being dug up and smuggled out of Nigeria. Using aerial surveillance, looters have found Mayan temple sculptures deep in the jungles of Guatemala, then sliced them up and carried them away.

More visible to the world through photojournalism was the pillage of icons and murals from Greek Orthodox churches in the Turkish-occupied section of Cyprus and the depredations of the Taliban in Afghanistan. China’s single-minded rape of Tibet’s temples and monasteries is the stuff of legend. The plundering of Iraq’s archaeological sites in the present war — preventable because it was long predicted — is in calamitous progress.

And, frankly, we have read so much about looting and high-level squabbles over who owns what that we’re getting tired of the whole business. So the Euphronios krater will be in Italy instead of in New York. So one more Iraqi pot disappears or Buddha bites the dust. Do we really care? I probably wouldn’t if I didn’t relate to the matter personally.

As an indoorsy child growing up in Boston, I clocked up a lot of museum time early. By age 11 or so I had a list of favorite objects in local collections, the ones I thought of as “mine.” Heading the list was a small painting in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum of two women and a man gathered around a clavichord in a sun-touched room. The painting was called “The Concert,” by Jan Vermeer.

At the time I knew nothing about Dutch art. For me, it had very particular, localized resonance. Its silver-blue tones around a central patch of rich rust-red were the colors of a New England autumn, foliage in mist. Its immaculate interior was an image of home perfected, beyond change. Someone told me that Vermeer paintings were rare. That my city had one was a wonderful thing. The Gardner treated it as special, too, placing it on a small table near a window, so you could contemplate it one on one.

Then in the early morning of March 18, 1990, “The Concert” was stolen from the museum by two men who cut it from its frame, presumably rolled it up like a scroll and took it away. I was living in New York by then, but I felt bereft and angry. Why on earth did they do that? They could never put the painting on the open market. The best they could do is sell it to someone who would keep it hidden, or destroy it? Sixteen years later, “The Concert” is still missing, and I still miss it, because I associate it with my hometown, which means my childhood, with who I was and who I am.

I think of the Vermeer, and about the important emotional role certain objects can play in our lives, when I hear talk about art being looted and about demands for the return of cultural property. I observe with interest how people deal with this peculiarly disorienting kind of loss.

In Tibet, in what might be called a campaign of aesthetic genocide, China tried to destroy an entire culture by obliterating its religious art. And rumor has it that the Dalai Lama, living in exile in India, welcomes the collecting of Tibetan art in the West as a way to physically reconstitute a culture that no longer has a home of its own.

Other people in other cultures take a far less philosophical view of having their “cultural heritage,” otherwise known as patrimony, on the international market. Demands for restitution and the prevention of further plunder have grown more insistent. No wonder that questions about who owns art, and what ownership actually means, are looming large in the museum world.

Some observers attribute this patrimony consciousness to a resurgent nationalism. Art is, and has always been, a political power supply. It functions competitively, like wealth: I have a lot, and you do not. It speaks the power language of “authenticity” and “quality”: what I have is better (older, bigger, classier, rarer, holier) than what you have. Art can be recruited to shape and advertise culture identity, to create a history, real or artificial.

Most recent public debates over cultural property have approached the subject in terms of power politics. And the terms of the arguments, however passionately voiced, tend to be as concrete and unsubtle as corporate spread sheets, and just as intent on yielding profit.

Some of the players who sit at the table are archaeologists, people who recover the history of the ancient past through its material remains. On the other side are the dealers, collectors and museums — the art market — who buy and sell such art, with or without a documented history.

Archaeologists insist that objects should remain where they are found until they can be studied in their original context: what they meant in the past is their most important meaning in the present. The market, on the other hand, wants to get objects moving, circulating, selling, valuating. Archaeologists assert that by turning freshly excavated material into an instant cash crop, the market essentially underwrites looting. The market replies that archaeologists, by insisting that objects remain in what are often unstable parts of the world, expose the artifacts to potential destruction.

Last to speak are the “source” countries, the places where the objects under dispute are actually found. Often poor and embattled, the countries were long excluded from the discussion. But beginning in the 1960’s, with the rise of colonial independent movements worldwide, they began to assert their right to control the fate of the art that they claim as their own. In later years, multiculturalism and identity politics strengthened their case and fortified their resolve.

For a brief time, the art establishment seemed to be adjusting itself to the countries’ position, which was popularly perceived as holding an ethical high ground. But with the present era of political reaction, that moment has passed. The concept of cultural heritage is being dismissed by many as politically correct manipulation. The new mainstream agenda is geared less to restoring art to its claimants than it is to distributing it in ways that benefit “everybody.”

But the claimants are unlikely to fall silent. Some of them understand well the political effectiveness of their claims; many of them know from experience that “everybody” has always meant, and will doubtless continue to mean the West. At the same time, the more that Western influence grows, the more certain that threatened cultures will insist on preserving their patrimony for themselves.

It would seem, in fact, that debate about art and ownership, at least as it is being conducted, has reached a stalemate. International laws to combat cultural theft seem to be stimulating rather than reducing black-market activity. Recent images of archaeological sites in Iraq, pockmarked with looters’ trenches, offer sobering evidence of the health of the trade in illicit antiquities.

Surely the only thing to do at this point is try to turn karma around, to transform a history of theft into an experiment in sharing — to replace debate and legislation with cooperation, to replace implacable suspicion with trust, or at least gestures of trust.

Any place would be a good place to start. Implicit in the idea of one culture preserving another, ascribed by some to the Dalai Lama, is another idea: that of stewardship as opposed to possession. This assumes that museums and individual collectors alike regard themselves as keepers instead of owners of art, responsible for conserving it in the present, and responsible for letting it go when circumstances are auspicious to do so in the future.

Certain art projects, like the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum in Houston, supported by the Menil Foundation, already operate on this model. When Byzantine frescoes from a Greek Orthodox church on Cyprus were ripped out, smuggled off the island and then came on the market, the foundation, with the approval of the Church of Cyprus, bought the paintings. The foundation agreed to conserve them and install them, on long-term loan, in a consecrated chapel in Houston. The idea is that the frescoes will one day return to a less politically volatile homeland.

Other initiatives have been designed to ensure that art that would ordinarily end up on the market has at least a chance to remain, profitably, within its country of origin. A project called the Culture Bank, founded in Mali by a Peace Corps volunteer, Todd Vincent Crosby, helps create cooperatively-run village museums. Villagers are invited to bring significant family objects to the museums and leave them as collateral against cash loans. The more historical information the owner can provide about an object, the more “value” it has.

As long as loans are repaid, more loans can be taken out against the object, which remains on view in the museum, accessible to local and foreign visitors. Thus, instead of leaving the village as a one-time sale to a dealer or foreign buyer, historical objects have a continuing economic value, and remain where they were made, a living connection to the past.

Even with such art-retaining grass-roots initiatives, Western institutions will never want for new material. They are rich; much of the rest of the world is poor. But perhaps in return for the privilege of continuing to gather acquisitions, Western cultural institutions may consider being more forthcoming about how their collections were formed.

A significant example of such self-disclosure was the 2000 exhibition “ExitCongoMuseum: A Century of Art With/Without Papers,” organized by Boris Wastiau at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium. The museum has one of the finest collections of African material in the world, much of it acquired in acts of outright colonialist theft from what was once the Belgian Congo.

Mr. Wastiau aired this long-unarticulated history of exploitation through displays of objects, photographs and archival documents from the Tervuren collection. The exhibition roused a chorus of protest from those who took it as a smear on a monument. To them, a venerable institution had been lost to revisionist history. To others, the time was long past when the museum as it had existed should go or be transformed into a cautionary artifact.

You might think of this as karmic closure. The ideal resolution of karma is enlightenment. Enlightenment has been described as the ending of desire, the acceptance of transience. And art, of course, is transient. Ask the people of Cambodia, Guatemala and Nigeria; ask the archaeologists who are staring at miles of empty holes in Iraq and at the museum with a suddenly empty vitrine. The reality is, no one owns the earth or what comes out of it. The earth owns us, and will have us back in its time.

As for enlightenment, I am not there yet, far from it. I think of that little table beside a window in the Gardner Museum, which now has an empty frame and a small card with the printed words: “The Concert” by Jan Vermeer, stolen March 18, 1990. And I want the painting back. It’s mine.

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