Thursday, December 9, 2010

AAMD President "taken aback" on cultural property debate

I am grateful to Lee Rosenbaum of Culturegrrl for her comment on Kaywin Feldman's letter to the New York Times (December 7, 2010) on the return of material from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art to Egypt. Feldman is president of the Association of Art Museum Directors and director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art. She was responding to a NYT editorial, "Repatriating Tut" (November 29, 2010), that drew attention to Hawass' attempts to reclaim the mummy mask acquired by the St Louis Art Museum.
Egypt has rightly been demanding that governments and museums return fundamental parts of its patrimony that have disappeared from ancient troves. It has had no success thus far with a 3,200-year-old burial mask at the Saint Louis Art Museum, a bust of Nefertiti in Germany, or the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum.
Hawass takes the view that the mask was removed from one of the archaeological stores in Saqqara.

Feldman claimed to be "taken aback" by the editorial, and wrote "to stress that American art museums responsibly manage their collections of ancient art from other countries and cultures". She claimed that members of the AAMD "subscribe to the highest principles of collecting and stewardship of their collections". Yet it has to be remembered that at least five AAMD members (Boston's MFA; Cleveland Museum of Art; Malibu, J. Paul Getty Museum; New York's MMA; Princeton University Art Museum) have returned antiquities to Italy.  Feldman claims that all the other 199 members of the AAMD would do the same as the MMA if research showed that there was a question over an acquisition.

Feldman is no doubt contemplating the photographic evidence of one of the Attic kraters in her own collection. Just in case Feldman is unaware of what to do:
If a member museum, as a result of its continuing research, gains information that establishes another party’s right to ownership of a work, the museum should bring this information to the attention of the party, and if the case warrants, initiate the return of the work to that party, as has been done in the past. In the event that a third party brings to the attention of a member museum information supporting the party’s claim to a work, the museum should respond promptly and responsibly and take whatever steps are necessary to address this claim, including, if warranted, returning the work, as has been done in the past.
In other words, Feldman needs to contact the Italian authorities ("the museum should bring this information to the attention of the party") and investigate the claim.

Of course Minneapolis is not alone in failing to respond to photographs of recently-surfaced antiquities. Take the Minoan larnax in one North American university collection (and AAMD member).

Is this what Feldman interprets as "the highest principles of collecting and stewardship"? Does she understand the issues relating to recently-surfaced antiquities? Would she be better advised to remain silent?


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1 comment:

Phyllys said...

It seems many museum professionals take it personally when other countries want their cultural history repatriated. However, in many cases, a "recently-surfaced" antiquity has in fact existed in the collection for years, if not decades, and just recently come to light through inventory/exhibit planning/study. WE may have not put the piece in our collection, but it's our duty to try to right the situation. In the US, repatriating artifacts to the Native American tribes is now a standard and expected practice; we must give other culture groups the same respect.

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