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Former Metropolitan Museum director talks about restitution of artefacts

Former Met director Philippe de Montebello has given a talk in which he speaks about the issues of restitution affecting museums. Based on previous comments [1], it is unsurprising that he is against the idea of restitution. What is puzzling is that even after the return of the Euphronios Krater from his own museum he still doesn’t seem to understand the problem – he sees it as something that should only ever be dealt with when legal reasons dictate that an artefacts should be returned & never for a philosophical / ethical reason. This skips neatly over the fact of why many of the laws allowing return are what they are, whereas legal action should be the last resort after other more amicable negotiation methods fail. He also introduces an odd idea of entitlement – that people should be able to see artefacts in locations other than their original locations (e.g. New York), but with little explanation of why this should be the case or who decides this.

Bangor Daily News [2]

Former Met director talks at Strand
By Jessica Bloch – BDN Staff

ROCKLAND, Maine — Philippe de Montebello is considered one of the most powerful men in the world of art. Yet de Montebello, who recently retired after 31 years as the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, joked Thursday evening that he grew to dread the renowned art experts who worked under him.

“I have the utmost respect, and fear, of curators,” said de Montebello, who participated in a question-and-answer session at the Strand Theatre with Roger Dell, the Farnsworth Art Museum’s director of education, as part of the museum’s Farnsworth Forum series.

“The curators know far more than you do,” de Montebello continued. “The directors who stumble in their jobs are those who don’t appreciate the value they bring. … [Curators] also have to realize they are in the real world and that the mission of the institution has to be elastic and that the public had to be taken into account. So, you put them on a pedestal, but you make sure the pedestal is a little unsteady.”

The witty, urbane de Montebello addressed issues such as economic struggles facing museums around the country and the controversial return of artifacts to countries of origin.

That issue was brought into focus this summer when Greece opened its new Acropolis Museum, and asked Great Britain for the return of the portions of the façade of the Parthenon which have been in London since the early 19th century.

The Met itself agreed in 2006 to return the Euphronios krater, or wine vessel, to Italy.

There was no way around returning the vessel on a legal basis, de Montebello said. But he disagrees in general with returning items on a philosophical basis for several reasons. Some countries asking for their artifacts, de Montebello said, such as Italy and Iraq, didn’t exist when the items were unearthed in modern times.

At the Met, he added, the artifacts were seen by thousands of visitors each day while some of the items, now in their home countries, are seen by a few hundred a year.

“[What] would it be if, in order to know the art, you always had to go to Greece, to know Mesopotamian art you had to go to [the Middle East]?” de Montebello asked. “What kind of a world would that be?”

Dell and de Montebello also discussed the issue of low funding levels for the arts.

Dell pointed out the hundreds of millions of dollars other countries allocate for arts and culture, but de Montebello said government support means answering to a government entity.

There may be low government funding for art in the U.S., he added, but also more accountability to donors and the public.

The former Met director also encouraged the teaching of art in the broader context of humanities rather than in specific arts programs, which often are cut in budget crunches. For example, he said, a teacher could use a work of art to illustrate a moment in history.

“Making people try to understand why art matters is the key and far more important than trying to inculcate art history, …” he said. “It strikes me in some ways, if you can bring art stealthily into the classroom, it would seem much better than through the arts teacher.”