Thursday 20 November 2008

Angel in my hallway

Reuters (U.S. museum returns 14 stolen artifacts to Italy Wed Nov 19, 2008) recently covered the recent announcement that Cleveland Museum of Art is surrendering recently acquired looted archaeological artefacts (they call it “art”) to the Italian authorities. The news agency points out that:

Italy's approach has provoked international debate. Critics say large U.S. museums can often care for pieces better than institutions in the country of origin.
This is not really a matter of who has the prettiest, airiest galleries to display “artworks”. Groups like SAFE are aguing that we need to be making sure that the public is fully aware that their concern should be focussed on the process (looting) rather than the products (loot). Too often have the ‘repatriation’ and ‘whose heritage’ debates dominated at the expense of the real conservation issues that underlie them, which is the continued destruction of the archaeological and cultural heritage of many regions of the world to serve a voracious no-questions-asked collectors’ market.

Museums have an educational role too, but the Cleveland Museum’s press release skips over the question of why they finally agreed these objects did not belong in a museum which they say has a “commitment to build and maintain a collection of art from around the world and across time that is acquired in good faith using the highest ethical standards and after rigorous provenance research”. The Italians showed convincing evidence that these items had come from recent looting (and thus wanton destruction of) of ancient archaeological sites.

Whether US museums are nicer, individually or generally, than Italian ones is immaterial here. The “our museums are better than theirs” argument is just a version of the “only giving them a good home” one discussed by Colin Renfrew (2000: Loot, legitimacy and ownership).

Basically its like somebody clandestinely taking an otherwise unthreatened sculpted angel from a monument in a nineteenth century graveyard and putting it in their hallway, saying it looks nicer there and is “better looked after” than standing on the top of a pedestal in the open. It is still stealing, it is still destruction of the heritage.
Photo: Angel from the old cemetery in Powązki, Warsaw. Poland (not in my hallway).

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