Saturday, 13 May 2017

Elizabeth Marlowe Replies to Vikan on Museums and the Antiquities Trade

Elizabeth Marlowe has written a piece 'American Museums First? A Response to Gary Vikan', which is a reply to the latter's essay “Why US Museums and the Antiquities Trade Should Work Together,” in the January 30, 2017, issue of Apollo. The response is an excellent one, as one might expect from the author of the excellent Shaky Ground: Context, Connoisseurship, and the History of Roman Art 2013) . The text begins with a brief overview of the development of concerns about Collection-Driven Exploitation of the archaeological record in the 1990s when 'the first clear picture of the staggering scale of antiquities looting' emerged and the direct, knowing collaboration of US museums in it'.
Antiquities and other items of cultural property without clear proof of a legal, pre-1970 export date are now assumed guilty until proven innocent, and very few museums in North America or Europe are willing to acquire them.
 and it is that which Vikan was polemising with. But, as Marlowe notes of Vikan's attitudes to US museum collections:

It is hard not to notice the resonances between this perspective and the “America First” rhetoric of the current US political regime. Vikan appears blissfully un-self-aware, blind or indifferent to the global political and economic inequalities that underpin his worldview. Little can be done about that in this essay. Worth analyzing, on the other hand, are the particular mechanisms he proposes to “unfreeze the pipeline.” Despite his civic-minded claims, the main beneficiary of his “solution” would be not so much the general, museum-going “American public” as the private antiquities collectors, and the unscrupulous ones in particular.
Professor Marlowe then discusses Vikan's idea of a 'database of unpapered artefacts' but concludes 'it is clear that the primary function of this database would be to restore marketability to currently unsellable orphan antiquities'. In addition she remarks that 'I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say that the amnesty component effectively transforms Vikan’s orphan database into a laundering operation'. Marlowe questions the assumption that owners, motivated by a desire to sell their collections and/or to obtain legal “amnesty” for their stolen contents, would 'volunteer compromising or unflattering details in a public record'. She is of course right.
Vikan presents his proposal as a fair, innovative, broad-minded solution to a relatively new problem. In fact, what he offers is a system weighted even more heavily in favor of the collectors and the collecting institutions than the pre-2008 status quo. His basic maneuver is to take the onus off the purchasing institution to prove that an object wasn’t stolen and to put it back on the aggrieved source country to prove that it was.
She then goes on to justify the view that 'the actual harm the database could cause is, in fact, tremendous'.

Professor Marlowe then turns briefly to Vikan's second solution to the problem of the 'frozen antiquities pipeline'. He proposed that museums should deaccession the 'second- and third-tier antiquities' in their reserve collections which could be sold to collectors and other museums. Marlowe suggests that museums could redirect resources toward the stewardship of and research into the objects they already own, which she argues is as much a function of a museum as the old ideals of mainly staging spectacular exhibitions of eye-catching trophy artefacts.
Even “second- and third-tier” artworks have stories to tell, and often they are stories that can reach different audiences from those reached by the standard art-museum narratives about beauty and style.
My blog post on the same subject is here: 'Clearing the Vaults and Whitewashing the Taint: Vikan on US Museums and Trade 'Partnership'' PACHI Monday, 30 January 2017

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