Saturday, March 8, 2008

Museums and Professional Responsibilities

The discussion about returning antiquities raises the role of museums in our cosmopolitan world. The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) in North America has as its mission:
The purpose of the Association of Art Museum Directors is to support its members in increasing the contribution of art museums to society. The AAMD accomplishes this mission by establishing and maintaining the highest standards of professional practice; serving as forum for the exchange of information and ideas; acting as an advocate for its member art museums; and being a leader in shaping public discourse about the arts community and the role of art in society.
Antiquities are covered by part of the Code of Ethics:
A museum director should not knowingly acquire or allow to be recommended for acquisition any object that has been stolen, removed in contravention of treaties or international conventions to which the United States is a signatory, or illegally imported in the United States.
...

AAMD members who violate this code of ethics will be subject to discipline by reprimand, suspension, or expulsion from the Association. Infractions by any art museum may expose that institution to sanctions, such as suspension of loans and shared exhibitions by AAMD members.
Antiquities are also discussed in their 2006 Report on Incoming Loans of Archaeological Material and Ancient Art (which I have discussed elsewhere: "Loan Exhibitions and Transparency").

Among the Values of the AAMD are:
The Public Trust: AAMD's members hold their collections in public trust. Commensurate with this responsibility and recognizing their accountability to their institutional missions, their trustees, and their communities, AAMD's members perform their professional duties with honesty, integrity, and transparency.
There continue to be issues over antiquities acquired by, or on loan to, three museums that are members of the AAMD.
  1. Houston Museum of Fine Arts (HMFA). The museum has the long-term loan of a bronze krater from Shelby White. (See also "A Bronze Krater in the Levy-White Collection".) Although a member of the museum staff has confirmed the presence of the krater, a further request for information about the krater has been ignored. (See "Loan Exhibitions and Transparency".)
  2. Cleveland Museum of Art. There are said to be some 23 antiquities acquired after 1970 that are on a list under discussion with the Italian authorities. These are in addition to the discussion over the Cleveland Apollo.
  3. Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA). In its collection is an Attic red-figured volute-krater attributed to the Methyse painter. It was purchased in 1983 from Robin Symes. It has been reported, "A Greek vase owned by the Minneapolis museum appears to match a photo of a vase that Italians say was looted" ("Italy claims Minneapolis museum holds looted vase", Star Tribune, November 9, 2005). Apparently the krater features in the dossier of Giacomo Medici's Polaroids seized in the Geneva Freeport. In 2006 it was said that the MIA was researching the krater: "The MIA is researching the vase, and has not been contacted by Italian authorities ..." (Steve Karnowski, "To protect the treasures, museums find detective work pays", AP, June 14, 2006) Is there documented evidence to show that the krater was known prior to 1970? Will the MIA release its findings?
It also needs to be remembered that antiquities from member museums of the AAMD have been returned to Italy:
It seems that there has been a willingness in recent decades to acquire recently surfaced antiquities --- and to ignore the damage to the archaeological record. And there continues to be a lack of transparency in the way that information about acquisitions and loans is not released to the public domain. Are such actions damaging the Public Trust of these institutional members of the AAMD?

Perhaps one of the best expressions of the debate has been by Mary Abbe ("Principle is at heart of antiquities crackdown", Star Tribune, November 4, 2007):
In pursuing the return of antiquities from the Getty Villa museum, the Italian government is acting to reinforce an important principle, more than its need for antiquities. For decades art collectors and archaeologists have been at odds. Collectors and art historians value antiquities primarily for their aesthetic qualities - the beauty and refinement of their design. Archaeologists are especially concerned about context, that is, what the objects reveal about the lives and customs of their makers, which is best divined by studying them where they're found, typically in graves or other archaeological digs.
Members of the AAMD are emerging from the recent negotiated returns of antiquities to Italy with a tarnished reputation. But it is also clear that the some members of the AAMD continue to have an unhelpful and unreformed view of their acquisitions. Will there be change?

2 comments:

phrygian said...

I’d like to draw attention to yet another bronze krater from the Levy-White collection.

The bronze and silver inlay calyx krater that was part of the exhibition "History Contained: Ancient Greek Bronze And Ceramic Vessels" held at the McClung Museum, September 17, 2005 - January 2, 2006.

It would be interesting to know if this krater is still at McClung. Is Shelby repeating the method applied on the bronze volute krater at the MFAH? McClung doesn’t seem to be on the AAMD members list, but hay, MFAH is and still they ignore the "New Guidelines on Loans of Antiquities and Ancient Art" that they should feel bound to.

At the very least Shelby allowed for the calyx krater to be presented on-line. But alas, no collecting history or find-spot declared. Michel van Rijn claimed back in 2006 over his now defunct site, that this krater was looted and spirited out of Macedonia. He probably had mistaken it for the bronze volute krater on loan to the MFAH that can be clearly connected to the tomb looted near Koreschnica.

David Gill said...

For the bronze calyx-krater in the loan exhibition see:
http://lootingmatters.blogspot.com/2008/03/shelby-white-greek-bronze-vessels.html.

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