Wednesday, October 3, 2007

"A long tradition of philanthropy related to archaeology"

I have already drawn attention to last week's Times Higher Education Supplement [THES] (September 28, 2007) report on the repatriation of cultural objects and, in particular, the discussion surrounding the Attic psykter and the Apulian loutrophoros in Princeton.

Point three in the box on "Shadowy Origins and Compensation Claims" highlights the proposed Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University. The THES notes opposition to the US$200 million gift "from a couple whose private art collection allegedly includes looted artefacts".

The NYU press release makes it clear that the gift comes from the Leon Levy Foundation and that its trustee is Shelby White.

One of the aims of the new Institute (due to open in 2008) is "to advance the understanding of the ancient world".

It is a pity that the antiquities which form part of the White/Levy collection have lost their archaeological context. If they had been excavated by archaeologists under scientific conditions this knowledge would have advanced the understanding of the ancient world.

The actions of some private collectors have at least drawn attention to the sleaze surrounding the looting and marketing of antiquities. Philanthropy, even on this grand scale, needs to be seen against the irreversible loss of knowledge.

The New York Times ("$200 Million Gift Prompts a Debate Over Antiquities", April 1, 2006) commented:
"many archaeologists and scholars argue that by accepting the largess of a controversial collector, N.Y.U. is showing indifference to the way the art market fuels the looting of ancient sites and prevents objects from being studied in their historical context."
The European Journal of Archaeology noted:
"There is of course so much more at stake here than American academic policies, and the debate deserves some European perspectives, not only because it is European heritage that is the focus of White’s donation to the NYU, but also because of its wider implications for the discipline."
One of the defenders of the new Institute is John Henry Merryman who wrote a letter ("A Clash Over Antiquities") to the New York Times (April 5, 2006). In it he attacked any archaeologists who were critics of the scheme:
"Their growing habit of character assassination of acquisitors is unattractive and unwarranted, and should cease."
He is silent --- significantly --- on Lawrence Stager's unhelpful and provocative attack on archaeologists with some ethical scruples as "jihadists" (NYT).

Perhaps Merryman should call for the cessation of the destruction of archaeological sites to provide antiquities for North American private collections.

Looting is about stealing our common history.

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