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Who owns history

Once again, Richard Lacayo’s latest article in Time Magazine presents an insightful & balanced analysis of the current state of the restitution issues affecting museums.

Time Magazine [1]

Thursday, Feb. 21, 2008
Who Owns History?
By Richard Lacayo
Update Appended: February 21, 2008

Over the past few months, I made what you could call a farewell tour, except I wasn’t the one going away. What I did was set out to bid goodbye to a few favorite works of art that would soon be departing the U.S. for good. First I headed to California and the Getty Villa in Malibu, a museum devoted to the ancient Greeks, Etruscans and Romans. I wanted a long last look at its statue of a goddess from the 5th century B.C. Scholars are divided over just which goddess she represents, but whoever she is, at 7.5 ft. (2.3 m) tall, she’s a formidable woman, one of the most powerful works in the Getty’s rich collection.

Or she was. Two years ago, Francesco Rutelli, newly appointed as Italy’s Culture Minister, embarked on a campaign to demand the return of dozens of objects held by U.S. museums, ancient works that he said had been looted from archaeological digs in his country and smuggled out. In the months that followed, one museum after another went through something like the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross stages of accepting death. They bridled, they denied, they negotiated. Finally, they came to terms. In the case of the Getty, it agreed to return 39 objects in short order but got a temporary reprieve on the goddess until 2010.

Right after my visit to Malibu, I headed back to New York City and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This time I was paying my last respects to the Euphronios krater, a magnificent painted Greek mixing vessel from the 6th century B.C. The Met bought it in 1972 for what was at the time the enormous sum of $1 million. But even as he was haggling over the price, Thomas Hoving, then the Met’s director, suspected the jar had been looted from Italy. He even said so years later in his very cocky memoirs.

Late in 2005, the Met’s current director, Philippe de Montebello, a much more saturnine character, duly began negotiations for the return of the krater and 20 other pieces from the Met’s great collections. One week after I last saw it, the krater was in Rome, along with 68 other objects recovered from the Met, the Getty, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and other places, all on display as part of “Nostoi: Recovered Masterpieces”–nostoi is Greek for “homecomings”–a victory-lap exhibition of repatriated treasures.

I’m betting now it will be a long time before a U.S. museum director buys another ancient treasure with a wink and a nod or anything less than a documented-ownership trail longer than an Old Testament genealogy and much more credible. But the givebacks of recent years are just part of an accelerating worldwide struggle over the past. It has complications brought to the table by archaeologists, who say any commercial market for antiquities is an incentive to looters who plunder archaeological sites. And then there’s the ordinary museumgoer, who has a crucial stake–being able to see the widest spectrum of culture that humankind has produced. Among all these bristling claimants to the past, is it possible to strike a balance between protecting history and unfolding it, between safeguarding it and making it available for our own pleasure and instruction?

Don’t think for a moment this is a problem just for a few museums in the U.S. Last fall Rutelli told TIME that he planned to turn next “to European institutions, starting with Denmark, as well as Japan and other parts of the world. And it goes for [Italy] too. We have returned hundreds of stolen archaeological artifacts from Pakistan, Iran and Iraq.” In January he made his first successful claim against a private collector, Shelby White, a trustee of the Met, who agreed to give back 10 items from the collection she had formed with her late husband. And Italy is by no means the only nation making demands. Egypt wants the bust of Nefertiti from the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. Peru says Yale must return artifacts from the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. And China has asked the U.S. to ban the import of almost anything of aesthetic interest–scrolls, paintings, furniture–made from the prehistoric era to the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911.

In this climate, the question of ownership of the past has taken on a real edge. “Source nations” like Italy, Greece, Egypt, Turkey and China–homes to the world’s ancient civilizations–think of antiquities as national property, essential to the construction of the modern nations’ identity. Which in part they are. The problem is whether that idea can accommodate the no less plausible notion that the products of ancient civilizations are also the heritage of all humanity. Our encounter with Shang-dynasty bronzes, Central African carvings and Aztec-calendar stones is part of how we construct for ourselves a human identity that transcends mere nationality. To put it mildly, in a time of rising nationalism, that’s an urgent project. Why shouldn’t things produced by all civilizations be widely available, not just as traveling blockbusters but on a permanent basis, to impress on people everywhere the greatness of other cultures?

The Age of “Cultural Property”

Today it’s the source nations that have the whip hand. Nearly all of them have so-called cultural-property laws that lay claim to any ancient objects found in the ground on their territory after a particular year–the cutoff year varies from one nation to the next–and make it a crime to export such material without a permit. A 1970 UNESCO convention has given those laws force in the courts of other nations, like the U.S., that have accepted it. Cultural-property claims by foreign nations are also enforceable in the U.S. under the ordinary law governing stolen property.

Unsurprisingly, having endured the Rutelli campaign, even museums that may have once played fast and loose have tightened their practices. But curators and museum directors complain that cultural-property laws prevent virtually anything from being exported lawfully, guaranteeing a continued black market even if museums don’t take part in it. And they’re exasperated by demands to return objects that entered their collections many years before the adoption of laws that bar their export. “We’ve acknowledged that some claims are reasonable,” says Michael Brand, director of the Getty Museum. “But if you start claiming everything, it becomes impossible.” The Met’s De Montebello likes to ask whether Italy will return the bronze horses of San Marco, which arrived in Venice as war booty from Constantinople in 1204. “And at what point is Turkey going to return the Alexander Sarcophagus to Lebanon?” he wonders. “In the 19th century, it was brought from there when Lebanon was part of the Ottoman Empire. Where do you stop?”

Naturally, there’s a good measure of international payback here. For source nations, the idea of cultural property is a way to assert their sovereignty against those great powers that once picked through their treasures. It’s also a defense against the suction of the present-day free market, which could easily vacuum up whatever the colonial powers haven’t carted away. Zahi Hawass is the very vocal head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities. “While I believe that Egyptian monuments are the shared heritage of mankind,” he told TIME by e-mail, “I also believe that as a sovereign state and the home of this great civilization, Egypt has a right to protect its legal and moral rights in regard to its antiquities.”

Museum professionals have counterarguments. Some places–think of the Met, the Louvre or the National Gallery in London–are “universal museums,” worth cherishing precisely because they permanently display the works of many cultures side by side. Neil MacGregor is the director of the British Museum, founded in 1753 as the first and now one of the greatest of those. “The idea,” he says, “of having in one building things from the whole world, there for free, is just as important now as it was 250 years ago.”

Dimitrios Pandermalis knows all about the idea of the universal museum. He doesn’t think much of it. “A translation of the imperialism of the 19th century to the globalization of the 20th century” is what he calls the concept, and his view counts. Pandermalis is president of the organization behind the New Acropolis Museum in Athens, conceived as a standing rebuke to the British Museum’s continued possession of the most passionately disputed cultural property of them all, the 5th century B.C. Elgin Marbles. Those are carvings taken from the Parthenon in the early 19th century at the direction of Lord Elgin, who was then British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Together the Elgins constitute roughly half of the surviving figures from the Parthenon. Most of the rest remain in Athens.

To MacGregor, whose museum displays the marbles in galleries near its great collections of Egyptian, Near Eastern, Asian and African art, the division of the work between London and Athens is ideal. “The sculptures are part of two separate stories,” he says. “One is the story of architecture and sculpture in Athens. The other is the story of sculpture in the world.”

To the Greeks, it’s not so ideal. They want the marbles back, and the New Acropolis Museum is an ingenious part of their lengthy campaign to retrieve them. It will display the Greek portions of the Parthenon frieze side by side with pale plaster copies of the portions in London, like empty chairs at a banquet table. Meanwhile, the Greeks have also proposed that the British Museum might simply lend them the Elgin Marbles for the official opening of the museum later this year. There’s just one problem. The British Museum insists that Greece must first recognize, formally, that the marbles are its property. “The conversation,” says MacGregor, “cannot even begin until that has happened.”

Digging for History

It isn’t just source nations like Greece that have it in for the museums. So do archaeologists, who complain that simply by providing a commercial market for ancient objects, museums and private collectors encourage looters who vandalize archaeological digs, removing the artifacts from surroundings that hold clues about the culture that made them. To most people, a Mesopotamian cult figure or a Maya stela, before it’s anything else, is a work of art. To an archaeologist, it’s first a crucial piece of a much larger puzzle, the puzzle that is history itself. And theft breaks the puzzle into pieces that can never be put back together. “Archaeologists are concerned about all the other information that goes along with [found objects],” says Alex Barker, who directs the Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “And that’s a very fragile thing.”

Site destruction–and the consequent loss of knowledge–is a cultural disaster for everyone. But is prohibiting almost any lawful export the best way to protect sites? Despite the spread of cultural-property laws, looting is on the rise. “The laws have failed,” says James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago and author of the forthcoming book Who Owns Antiquity? “What they are doing is driving this material underground into black markets.”

But is there any reasonable way to permit the movement of antiquities across national borders and still protect archaeological digs? Cuno wants to revive the practice of partage, the system that prevailed in expeditions through the first part of the 20th century. Under partage, the source country kept much of what was found, but archaeologists took home a share for their affiliated museums and universities. Today the source nation keeps almost everything, despite the fact that a foreign museum or university is usually paying for the dig. “If archaeologists were to say, ‘We’re going to withdraw our expertise until you say you will re-establish partage,”’ says Cuno, “it seems to me [source] nations would respond to that.”

Possibly, but given that archaeologists depend on the goodwill of source nations to conduct their digs, it’s not very likely they would cooperate. However, Michael Kremer, a Harvard economics professor, and Tom Wilkening, a grad student at MIT, have another idea. They published a paper last year suggesting that source countries might, in effect, “lease” their treasures to the museums of richer nations on a temporary basis while retaining title to them. The cash produced by such a scheme could be used to beef up site security.

All this still leaves open the touchiest of all controversies: whether museums should ever acquire, either through purchases or as gifts, antiquities that have no clear record of how and when they came out of the ground. Some museum directors argue they should be able to take in the most important of these. To do otherwise would mean the object disappears into private hands, where it’s denied to the public and to specialists for study. Cuno suggests the establishment of an outside advisory panel that could rule on whether an object is so significant that a museum could acquire it even if its papers are not in order, so long as there is no evidence that it was dug up during the period covered by the source nation’s cultural-property laws. “We can’t just have a policy that prohibits those acquisitions,” he says. “We’ve got to exercise informed reasonable judgment.”

As museums crawl out of the blast crater produced by the Rutelli campaign, it may be that the conversation on these possibilities will get seriously under way. In November, U.S. museum professionals met with their Italian counterparts in Rome to discuss ways to increase cooperation, for instance, by simplifying the process for loans from Italy. Meanwhile, the full-court press to enforce the laws continues. In January scores of federal agents raided four museums and an art gallery in Southern California in connection with an investigation into trafficking in Asian and Native American art.

And Italy is still demanding that the Getty return one more of the key works in its collection, an ancient Greek bronze, Victorious Youth. Stately and supple-looking, with his right hand upraised to place on his own brow a laurel wreath that disappeared long ago, he was discovered at sea by Italian fishermen in 1964 and purchased by the museum 13 years later for a reported $3.95 million. The Italians say the bronze was smuggled out of Italy. The Getty insists it was discovered in international waters before being taken to Italian soil. For good measure, the boy was never Italian to begin with. He was probably at sea, perhaps 2,000 years ago, because he was being carted away by the Romans from Greece. Has he found a permanent home at last? Perhaps, but I never look at his upraised hand without wondering if he’s getting ready to wave goodbye.

The original version of this article stated that the museum opens “later this year or early next.” Since then, the Greek Minister of Culture has announced that it will open this fall.

with reporting by Andrea Dorfman / New York, Jeff Israel / Rome