Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Cuino in Praise of "Encyclopaedic Museums" (Again)

It is wrong to Repatriate Museum Artefacts says Getty's James Cuno, back to singing from his old and discredited songsheet from yesteryear ('Culture War: The Case Against Repatriating Museum Artifacts
' Foreign policy Nov/Dec 2014). Disappointingly, we see the same old arguments trotted out:
governments are increasingly making claims of ownership of cultural property on the basis of self-proclaimed and fixed state-based identities. Many use ancient cultural objects to affirm continuity with a glorious and powerful past as a way of burnishing their modern political image -- Egypt with the Pharaonic era, Iran with ancient Persia, Italy with the Roman Empire.
Yes, and England, Scotland and Wales, the USA, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland and a about 180 countries like them have of course never done anything like that have they Mr Cuno? They are all immune to the allure of seeing their identity in some form of a shared past in your eyes? Come on, pull the other one and open your eyes. Another indication that the bloke has his blinkers on is the remark that, according to Cuno: "in order to use cultural objects to promote their own states’ national identities"
Rather than acknowledge that culture is in a state of constant flux, modern governments present it as standing still.
Not true. The picture of cultural flux represented by the array of objects in any national collection is really nothing of the kind. We have museum complexes which show cultural development of the culture of a country from prehistory to modern times in many big cities all over the world. Take Berlin, London, Washington, Warsaw, Paris, Madrid, Cairo as just a few examples that this attempt to pass nonsense off as a general truth is simply at odds with the facts. Cuno then trots out the tired old whine on "encyclopedic (sic) museums" which serve to "encourage curiosity about the world and its many peoples". Just a minute ago Cuno was arguing that objects do not represent peoples. Now he says they do. And so on. He proposed exactly the same ideas back in 2008, and seems not to have profited an iota from the subsequent discussion. So what's the point in discussing what he says? It is the same old old story as with other areas of the pro-collecting lobby - a complete waste of time trying to engage with their specious self-interested arguments.

Cuno in this text fails adequately to differentiate the two quite separate reasons why objects are "repatriated". the first is because they were acquired illicitly, immorally after the 1970 UNESCO guidelines. For this there is no excuse and the objects should in every case be forfeit. The other issue is stuff taken before 1970 which the 'source (exploited) entity would like back, please'. (I treat cases like this in my separate 'Cultural Property Repatriation' blog. I really cannot see why there is any confusion). I personally think such claims should be considered on their merits, and I assume that many of my readers will agree on this. Cuno obviously does not. He dismissively refers to calls for repatriation of some of them as  "frivolous" and "stubborn", and to "combative and sometimes dubious claims for restitution", even if the removed objects are now recognized as cultural property that a state deems to have “fundamental significance from the point of view of the spiritual values and cultural heritage of [its] people”  taken out of a country through “colonial or foreign occupation or as a result of illicit appropriation”. Cuno complains that
individual countries alone determine when something is part of their cultural heritage: there is no international institution with the authority to make that determination. A national government or state-backed entity can even declare a preceding state’s or regime’s self-proclaimed national cultural property idolatrous and destroy it, and there is nothing any other country or any international agency can do to stop it.
Lenin statues in Ukraine and post-independence Poland come to mind here. I wonder byt what right Cuno imagines he or anyone else has the right to decide what stands in our streets and public places and why. The whole point of the 1970 UNESCO Convention was as a recognition of states' right to self-determine its own heritage, not have Cuno or anyone else dictating from outside what it can and cannot be. Yet that is precisely how the US reads their accession as a state party to the Convention. They alone among states parties imagine it somehow gives them the 'right' to dictate to other states parties what they are allowed to treat as their heritage and how they are to go about protecting it at the dictates of Uncle Sam. Obviously that is an utter perversion of the aims of that Convention.

Cuno favours a client-patron relationship between the Oriental Gentlemen who have no 'encyclopedic museums' of their own and loans bestowed by the gracious patrons of the countries that have. No strings attached of course.  
For encyclopaedic museums to fulfil their promise of cultural exchange, they should be established everywhere in the world where they do not now exist.  
A laudable aim in itself, as long as they are stocked with objects of wholly (and demonstrably) licit provenance. Cuno suggests that a loan programme
would lay the foundation for a greater understanding of the values represented by the encyclopaedic museum: openness, tolerance, and inquiry about the world, along with the recognition that culture exists independent of nationalism. These ideas can flourish everywhere, not only in the United States and Europe but wherever there is a spirit of inquiry about the world’s rich and diverse history. 
I would question whether museum displays of trophy objects exist somehow outside chauvinism of any kind, it seems to me that the accumulation of objects in the British Museum (note the name), the Metropolitan Museum, the Getty even seem to be carriers of message about the relationship of those who put them together and the heritage of the past which is represented by the objects in the collection. These collectors have appropriated the past to serve their own purposes. It may not at all times be labelled 'nationalism', but these accumulations are far from neutral in significance. Neither is the taunting suggestion that third world countries are failing to meet the standards (set from outside) of US-compliant 'enlightenment' if they do not strive for an encyclopaedic museum of their own.

National Gallery of Australia Writes off 5.6 million on Shiva Return

Australia: civilized values
St Louis in the USA has not the guts to say it made a mistake and that it will rectify it. Thankfully not all museum professionals in teh English-speaking world are like that. The National Gallery of Australia has written off 5.6 million on the return of the looted Shiva bought from Kapoor.
The NGA’s annual report reveals the gallery wrote off the loss of the piece last financial year, after having accepted without challenge India’s request for its return.

The Shame of St Louis

Credit really belongs to the art museum and
its leadership for not caving in to the government's
threats and, after winning the case, for compelling the
government to pay the cost of defending a lawsuit that
never should have been filed."

St Louis, 'senseless lawless farce'
The amazing case of the Ka Nefer Nefer mask which was accepted by a US court as having been in two places at once has come to an end, when the federal government paid $425,000 of taxpayers' cash in attorney fees and costs to Dentons and Husch Blackwell for their work on behalf of the Saint Louis Art Museum, which is about what the museum had paid for the mask in the first place (Jenna Greene, 'Feds Lose Fight Over Ancient Mummy Mask', The National Law Journal October 21, 2014).

Mr McInerney (above) is quite right, the lawsuit should never have had to be filed. The museum, on it transpiring that there was documentation showing the mask could not have reached the European market in the manner in which the supplied collecting history asserted, should jolly well have sent it back either to the seller, or to Egypt. At the same time issuing apologies to the good folk that forked out the purchase funds in good faith (trusting the Museum's trustees to do the job of preventing dodgy acquisitions). Museum ethics and professionalism and simple civilised honesty require nothing less. Instead SLAM decided to be confrontational and brazen it out and they and their lawyers are now congratulating themselves on having trampled all over common decency in pursuit of their trophies. Shame on all involved. Watch this bit:
In 2006, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities realized it was in St. Louis—and asked for it back. The museum said no.
But it's not a simple as that, is it? This story and the shaming of SLAM and the people of St Louis are not over yet. There is at least one more untold story here. As the Buddha is reputed to have said: "Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth".

Art sellers benefiting from war looting, experts say

"One needs to be very clear, this market is soaked in blood"
Michael Muller-Karpe

DW: Art sellers benefiting from war looting, experts say There are fears that global art sellers may be profiting from the looting of archaeological sites in war zones.

DW video here
This is a summary of the Film: "Plundered Heritage" which I discussed yesterday. It features an auction house in Munich which refused to comment ("many pieces are said to come from private collections, all the catalogue says about this five thousand year old miniature chariot is it comes from the near east"). No doubt the antiquities traders associations will be issuing their answer to this, maybe a behind-the-scenes video showing where the antiquities they sell in Munich and elsewhere really come from, and why they cannot be more transparent than "somewhere in the Near East at some time - don't ask". 

In war against ISIL, a fine line between facts and artifacts

Jessica Holland, 'In war against ISIL, a fine line between facts and artifacts' Al Jazeera America October 22, 2014
On Sept. 22, a few hours before U.S. airstrikes began against Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targets in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry gave a speech at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It was the opening of an exhibition of Middle Eastern treasures dating back to the early Iron Age [...] Against this backdrop, Kerry voiced a lament that quickly became a battle cry. “We gather in the midst of one of the most tragic and most outrageous assaults on our shared heritage that perhaps any of us have seen in a lifetime,” he said to the assembled crowd. “Ancient treasures in Iraq and in Syria have now become the casualties of continuing warfare and looting. And no one group has done more to put our shared cultural heritage in the gun sights than ISIL.”[....]  He then argued that this destruction demanded action, repeating the same basic idea over and over: “How shocking and historically shameful it would be if we did nothing”; “the civilized world must take a stand”; “if you don’t stand up, we are all complicit”; “those who deny the evidence or choose excuses over action are playing with fire”; “we believe it is imperative that we act now.” Later that night, the military campaign that has now been dubbed Operation Inherent Resolve expanded into Syria with the help of with Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar but without formal congressional approval. 
Holland puts the speech into the context of other US initiatives attempting to use culture as a political tool (US collectors and lobbyists, are ya'll taking note?). She notes that Kerry's pep-talk falls into the same model as the "same foreign policy narrative that President Barack Obama has been telling, in which ISIL’s atrocities are stripped of context".
Kerry referred to these crimes as “ugly, savage, inexplicable, valueless barbarism” and not the most virulent symptom thus far of two countries that have fallen apart in a mess of poverty, infrastructure failure, corruption and opportunistic power grabs.[...] The most glaring omission of all was the looting and destruction of Iraqi cultural and archaeological sites that has been persistent and devastating ever since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
What I do not find mentioned here is any discussion of the glib claims that it is ISIL responsible for the bulk of the looted and smuggled artefacts reaching the market, while that patently is not the case, other militias and militants have been doing it too and being financed by the greed of dealers and collectors.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Fitz Gibbon Stop the War and the Looting will Stop - duh

Kate Fitz Gibbon ('Heritage Protection Depends on Stable Governments', New York Times 8th October 2014) imagines she has a solution to Syria's looted artefact problems:
art and artifacts from Iraq and Syria flow unchecked to Turkey, the Gulf States and other nearby nations. Export control should start at Syria’s borders. The U.S. should provide assistance either directly or through international organizations to bordering nations in order to stop smuggling where it starts. [...]  Heritage protection depends upon stable governments and the rule of law. [...]  The only way to halt the destruction in Syria and Iraq is to rebuild civil society in both nations and make on-the-ground protection of museums, monuments and archeological sites a priority. Feel-good actions within the U.S. only distract from taking meaningful steps in Syria itself, which is ultimately the only effective means to halt looting. 

ADCAEA Officer: "Boycott Turkish Antiquities"

An officer of the Association of Dealers and Collectors of Ancient and Ethnographic Art (ADCAEA) which aims to advance the responsible and legal trading and collecting of ancient and ethnographic art has called for a boycott of antiquities passing through Turkey to be established. This would last until such time as that country seals its borders to prevent antiquities looted in areas of Iraq and Syria held by rebel warlords and Islamist militants reaching outside markets. According to the New Yorker, such  artefacts are openly available for sale in Turkish border towns. Responsible dealers should be  pressuring the Turkish government (which ratified the 1970 UNESCO Convention April 21, 1981) to help the licit trade address the problem at the source. Since there seem to be problems with closing the borders at the moment (allowing refugees through), the only reasonable solution seems  to be for responsible dealers to boycott antiquities leaving Turkey and increased transparency to show that they are doing so. 

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