Thursday, August 18, 2011

Why did North American museums acquire recently surfaced antiquities?

I have been reflecting on how major North American museums managed to get themselves into a situation where they acquired recently surfaced antiquities. Indeed they have exposed themselves to criticism from foreign governments, academia and the media.

I presume the motivation was to build a collection of classical antiquities that would rival other museums. Curatorial careers were built on the finest Greek pot, or should that be vase?, or the most unusual archaic marble statue. but did those curators never stop and think about the sources? Had these genuinely unknown objects really resided in some anonymous villa beside Lake Geneva? Or did these same curators suspect that they were derived from the deliberate destruction of archaeological sites? But did they care? Or were they just naive?

The move to address this problem was brought to the world's attention by bodies such as UNESCO and the AIA. From the North American museum community we should also note Maxwell Anderson's pioneering and visionary EUMILOP scheme.

We continue to note a significant lack of transparency from within the North American museum community over the failure to address concerns over recently acquired and loaned objects.

Have some of the legal and art historical commentators forgotten that there continue to be a number of unresolved issues?

But I should return to the question. Why were these objects acquired? Was it because there was a disregard for the information derived from careful scientific excavation?


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4 comments:

Avatar said...

I would not think curators are naive, if they have studied archaeology or art. At least in recent years every well-read art historian/archaeologist teaches about the impacts of acquiring unprovenanced objects, something that perhaps has not been taught back when Montebello and others went to school. It is the media, people like Karl Meyer who began to inform the public and we should continue to do so. This is why Chasing Aphrodite is so important.

To return to your questions: because Museums are part of the Market system. Because the individual curators were/are under financial pressures, not too different from those the poor guys who dig up the objects have. Because the very same person from whom the objects are acquired are often sponsoring other things in the museum.

David, Thank you for reflecting and asking these important questions. As always!

David Gill said...

Dear Avatar
You raise an interesting point. If the museum curators had received a training that included archaeological ethics, and if they were not naive, it surely follows that acquiring antiquities that had probably been looted and removed by illegal means from their country of origin was a conscious decision.
David

Avatar said...

Hi David,

100 % in agreement. It is a conscious decision made by the curators. I understand that curators who acquire antiquities without provenance are actively supporting the terrible system. But how can we stop this? I suggested to put more the public media into it. For some reasons it does not seem to reach the right people ... How can we do outreach to curators and museum staff and board members in decision making positions?

Avatar said...

Argh, David. I just realize. It is the word "probably" you used that is always the trouble. "probably been looted" is not too different from "probably in a Swiss collection in the late 1960s." Probably is the problem.

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