Tuesday 28 February 2012

Why European Museums Are Going to be Less Happy to loan the US Anything

The American "collectors' rights" lobbyists are always moaning about how loathe those foreign nations are to loan them objects (which they say are their "right" under the US-drafted CCPIA). Yet what happens when they do? We saw an Italian painting seized from a Florida museum which is not going back to Italy. Ancient artefacts loaned and being studied in Chicago were the subject of a court case by people who wanted to get their hands on them and sell them off as assets of the Iranian state. Yale University dragged its feet over giving back material from Machu Picchu loaned decades ago for study. Now the Polish press are up in arms. Auschwitz-Birkenau is a protected site, it is a World Heritage Site, and yet out of the goodness of the heart of the Polish people we lent the Holocaust Museum in Washington half a barrack building from Birkenau.

It was a ten year loan in 1989. That loan was renewed for another ten years, so they've had it twenty years. The loan expired in 2009. Now it is time for it to come home. Guess what? The Americans don't want to give it back. Piotr Cywiński, the Director of the State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau has asked for it back. According to the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita, Washington has stopped answering letters on the subject, and is trying to engage the US Jewish community to put pressure on the Poles to let it stay.

According to the newspapers, they are using all sorts of arguments. the object is "too fragile to travel" (what, it has been in the care of a US museum a mere two decades and is now in a worse state than when it arrived there?).

What really hurts is the other one being reported in the Polish papers which is a pure and simple ignorant insult by simple ignorant people to raise the passions of a simple and ignorant American public (coiney style):
W gazetach pojawiły się zaś sugestie, że Polacy jako współodpowiedzialni za Holocaust nie zasługują na to, aby opiekować się obiektem.
["in the newspapers - ie the American ones - the suggestion has been made that since the Poles were co-responsible for the Holocaust they do not deserve to look after this object"] In that vein, we could add that as a hotbed of Holocaust Denial, the US certainly is not.

[In passing we may note that the US newspapers are not exactly busting a gut to produce an account of the operation of Birkenau which corresponds to reality, the accounts I have seen contain several factual errors]

The segment in Washington is half a prefabricated barrack block from Birkenau, the other half remains on the site.

"We have indicated many times that this half of the barracks must return, that there is no other solution in accordance with the law," Cywinski said. "It's a very important object, not just for Washington but for the integrity of Birkenau, the last authentic site of Holocaust remembrance among all the major death camps." [...] The fate of Cywinski, the Auschwitz museum director, is at stake in the matter. Under the law on protecting historic artifacts, he could be jailed for up to two years if he fails to obtain the return of any object on loan.
The Polish law is designed to make sure that nobody has any leeway in allowing Polish artefacts to leave the country permanently Poland is trying to protect the artefacts in its care, all of them.

Of course nobody here has anything whatsoever against Americans getting on a plane and coming to see the whole Birkenau complex, not just the portable antiquity that they've made of just one tiny bit of it. After all, is that not precisely what they want all the citizens of other nations to do to see the bits and pieces collected in US "universal" (encyclopaedic) museums? Poland was home to Europe's largest Jewish community of some 3.2 million before World War Two, but most of them died under the Nazi occupation. The Auschwitz-Birkenau open-air museum covers more than 200 hectares (500 acres) and 155 buildings, including the gas chambers, 300 ruined facilities and hundreds of thousands of personal items.

Members of my family and the families of several people I know died in Auschwitz-Birkenau. They were not Jews.

America, give back what does not belong to you, please.

Psm, 'USA "pożyczyły" barak z Birkenau. Teraz nie chcą go oddać' PAP 28th Feb 2012
Vanessa Gera, 'Poland, U.S. tussle over Auschwitz barrack on loan', Washingtom Times', 26th February 2012.
Vignette: Washington Holocaust Disneyland: A ten year LOAN from Poland, the Americans want to keep it.


Cultural Property Observer said...

I think you are again showing this is as much an anti-American blog as anything else. The concerns of the curators at the Holocaust Museum seem to be practical ones. It law in question does not seem to have contemplated shipping home such large objects for examination. Their concerns about damage are reasonable one. Why can't you be reasonable yourself?

As to seizures of paintings by US Customs because they were deemed art stolen from victims of the Holocaust, are you against that, and if so, why?

Italy is at the forefront of demanding repatriations of ancient art, but apparently they are not so willing to return Holocaust art to its rightful owners. Isn't this hypocritical?

Paul Barford said...

Hmm, let me say that there is ONE group of Americans which draws my attention to that country on this blog and that is your ACCG. Are the views and actions of members of that group American or Un-American?

There are of course many critics of the values, social institutions and especially foreign policy of your country, I am not by any means alone in my opinions about what I see as wrong. Some of the more outspoken critics however are your own countrymen and women.

Let me assure you that if Argentina or France borrowed an object from Poland and refused to give it back two years after the expiry of the loan, I'd write the same critical things of Argentina and France, but the museum is in Washington.

Answer me a question, if you loaned twenty thousand dollars to your neighbour to buy a new car, and two years after he was supposed to pay you back he says the sum he borrowed was "too big" to give back, would you be the happiest lawyer in town?

The object was not "too big" or "too delicate" for a US museum to accept the loan, only when asked to give it back does it become so? Convenient.

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