February 8, 2009

Ancient artefacts in foreign museums

Posted at 1:37 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

Another review of Sharon Waxman’s new book about the looted ancient treasures from around the world that fill many of the great museums of the West.

The Star (Toronto)

That which was stolen shall be returned
The complex story of the fate of ancient artifacts in foreign museums is packed with smugglers, intrigue and Imperialism
Feb 08, 2009 04:30 AM
Hans Werner

Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World
by Sharon Waxman
Times Books, 414 pages, $33

If you’ve ever stood there awestruck in front of Nefertiti in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum (London), or the Denderah Zodiac ceiling in the Louvre (Paris), you may get a sinking feeling to imagine them gone, vanished or replaced with replicas. That goal of some powerful people is the subject of Loot: The Battle of the Stolen Treasures of the Art World by Sharon Waxman, a former culture correspondent for The Washington Post and The New York Times. Also the author of Rebels on the Backlot, about the new Hollywood, Waxman presents a lucid and intelligent investigative report into the dilemma of what the great museums of the world are to do in the face of demands to return signature artifacts to the countries of origin.

With unsparing forays into smuggling and dirty museum politics, Loot takes us to Egypt, Turkey, Greece and Italy, as these countries go nose-to-nose with the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the British Museum and the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles).

These guys play hardball. Zahi Hawass, the energetic head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, is apparently fond of saying he likes “dancing” (negotiating) with the British, “before I f— them.” In Italy, the former curator of the Getty, Marion True, was the subject of a relentless prosecution since 2005, which devasted her life.

Demands for repatriation got a real boost with the UNESCO agreement of 1970, aimed at stopping the global trade in smuggled antiquities, which some museums were still buying. Italian prosecutor Maurizio Fiorilli has since won the return of 21 artifacts from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and 40 from the Getty. True has clearly been hung out to dry by the Getty, whatever her guilt or innocence, taking the rap for her bosses and previous administrations.

Most of the great museums got their antiquities in the heady days of 19th century Imperialism, when the looting was facilitated by colonial administrations, often with the connivance of local authorities. Some “archeologists” were little better than smuggler-adventurers. Even the famous Egyptian Book of the Dead was spirited out of Egypt in a military baggage train by the British Museum’s revered scholar E. A. Wallis-Budge.

Museums usually acquired this stuff in good faith, or at least in the belief they were doing mankind (Europeans, chiefly) a big favour by rescuing artifacts from desert sands, obscure mounds of earth and local sewage run-offs. The issue gets even more complicated when we consider that claimants don’t extend the same rights to their own victims. Waxman says Italy still resists demands for repatriation of antiquities from Libya. So does Greece reject Bulgarian demands.

To be fair, Greece has been demanding the return of the Elgin Marbles since 1835, shortly after it threw off the Turkish yoke. The English version is that Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin and Ottoman ambassador, had permission to take the Parthenon sculptures.

But he didn’t have quite all the permissions required for what he took. While the Turks had already done a pretty good job of mucking up the Acropolis, the place looked a lot worse after Elgin got through with it. Even locals were aghast.

The British Museum claims ownership of the marbles because it has preserved them all these years. It didn’t do such a great job of it when, in the 1930s, it literally skinned the sculptures to make them conform to popular conceptions of what classical Greek sculpture was supposed to look like.

Repatriationists argue that some artifacts must be seen on site, meaning an increase in the tourist buck. Trouble is, the more tourists go tramping through an archeological site, the more the site deteriorates. Besides, I have to wonder how much of our desire to visit Egypt, Italy or Greece isn’t whetted by what we’ve already seen in museums elsewhere. Would we still care if the stuff wasn’t there to awe us? Interestingly, British popular support for Greek independence in the 1820s had a lot to do with the Elgin marbles turning up in London.

We haven’t even touched on the sensitive issue of shoddy curatorial practices that repatriated artifacts are sometimes subject to.

Loot deals with many such aspects of a sticky question to which everyone will have an answer and no one will be right. Self-serving as the argument for preservation may be, don’t you just wish somebody, somehow, had heisted those colossal Buddhas out of the cliff faces of northern Afghanistan before the Taliban blew them to bits?

Hans Werner is a frequent contributor to these pages.

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