Thursday, 29 November 2007

"The right to everything that's in the ground"

It was a coincidence that my posting on Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, appeared the week that he was interviewed by Richard Lacayo ("A Talk With: Philippe de Montebello", "More Talk With: Philippe de Montebello", November 27/28, 2007).

I had commented on a 2006, post Euphronios krater return announcement, where de Montebello had attacked archaeologists for their emphasis on context. And he has once again shown his basic misunderstanding of archaeological stratigraphy:

One can question whether one particular discipline can arrogate to itself the right to everything that's in the ground. There are many different contexts, many different ways to look at these objects. So you have a discipline that goes too far in claiming that an object is of no merit, of no value, the moment it's out of the ground and you don't know who buried it. That's one context. It's obviously a very precious one, because once an object is out of that context the information is not retrieveable. But it's not the only context.

My students will be familiar with the different contexts - I would call them the life-cycle - of, say, Greek pottery. An Athenian red-figured pot could be made in Attica, Greece; transported to Italy; buried in an Etruscan tomb; dug up in the nineteenth century; passed into a private collection; dispersed at auction; and end up in some internationally famous collection.

My students will also be aware of the different ways to study and look at Greek pottery - and that includes iconography and "connoisseurship".

But I would still stress the importance of archaeological context because that provides a chronological, social and iconographic framework for understanding this part of Mediterranean material culture.

And that context forms part of the universal human heritage: a heritage that will be cherished by archaeologists who will be puzzled by de Montebello's suggestion that they have "the right to everything that's in the ground". Possession is more the domain of museum curators and private collectors than that of the archaeologist.

De Montebello also comments on the new world where North American museums take ethics more seriously. In particular he draws attention to the acquisition policy formulated by the
Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). He observes:
Acquisitions of antiquities on the part of American museums have fallen to almost zero. Out of a sense of new ethical standards and a not inconsequential fiduciary responsibility — they don't want to make an acquisition that is likely to be subject to claims — most museums have imposed on themselves standards that, as a matter of praxis, are even more stringent than ten years. And so it's been very effective on one level — if you take pleasure in the fact that antiquities are practically no longer entering American collections.

The suggestion of a ten year deadline is interesting and an idea that I have discussed elsewhere arguing that it is inappropriate. It would have allowed the Met to retain all but two of the pieces - a Laconian cup (1999.527) and and an Attic red-figured psykter (1996.250) - which it agreed to return to Italy last year.

De Montebello also suggests that archaeologists have a "debt" to museums. He claims:
Archeologists presumably became interested in archeology by visiting museums. They forget this very conveniently. They become practicing archeologists and then their only interest is in the "find spot."

I do not know the basis of his claim, though I am sure it is true for some. But that does not mean that archaeologists do not have the right to comment on the destruction of the archaeological record to provide stock for the antiquities market.

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