Monday, December 1, 2008

Sharon Waxman on Transparency

Sharon Waxman was written a short piece in the New York Times ("How Did That Vase Wind Up in the Metropolitan?", December 1, 2008; see also "NYT Op-ed: Thoughts for Tom Campbell at the Met", December 1, 2008). Some of the examples are derived from her new book, Loot!

Waxman comments on the importance of the 1970 UNESCO Convention and relates it to the recent returns of antiquities from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York:
The Association of Art Museum Directors has already readied a path for Mr. Campbell [the incoming director of the MMA]. This past summer, the association finally issued new guidelines, which recognize that buying unprovenanced antiquities encourages their illicit trade and recommend that its members purchase only antiquities that can be proven to have been legally exported after 1970, or else removed from their country of origin before that date. (It was in 1970 that Unesco adopted an international convention barring the illegal export and transfer of cultural property.)
Waxman also calls for more transparency from the Met.

Mr. Campbell could also undertake a project more fundamental, and more profound. The Metropolitan needs to come clean about its past of appropriation of ancient art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And it needs to tell a much fuller story about its more recent role in purchasing looted and smuggled antiquities.

The Met’s galleries and Web site are mysteriously devoid of recent facts about the provenance of many artifacts. Most visitors have no idea how the treasures on display in the Greek and Roman rooms, the Egyptian antiquities department, or the Byzantine, African, Asian and Oceanic collections came to be housed in the museum.
The full collecting histories of the items returned to Italy have yet to emerge. However things are changing as seen in the details histories provided for items in the Philippe de Montebello exhibition.

Some histories are complex such as the capital from Sardis acquired in 1922 in the aftermath of the Smyrna tragedy. (For a similar history see the pieces in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.)

Waxman concludes with a call for transparency to counter claims for repatriation:

This state of affairs must not continue. Mr. Campbell can inaugurate a new era of transparency for all museums, and to recalibrate the Met’s relations with countries that feel aggrieved.

By publicly acknowledging the controversial or otherwise dubious histories of some artifacts and by making the recent past as much a part of the artifacts’ stories as the ancient past, Mr. Campbell can set an example for all museums and build new bridges of respect and cooperation.

Transparency may not end every demand for repatriation. But it will disarm those critics in source countries who know — but rarely acknowledge — that regardless of past transgressions, their treasures may be safer, better preserved and more widely adored in the world’s great museums like the Met.
Will transparency disarm calls for repatriation? Or will it allow a more meaningful dialogue to take place so that our cosmopolitan heritage can be preserved?


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