Monday 9 April 2012

American Museum Directors Want Shopping Lists from the Colonial Peripheries

 The statement by Stephen J. Knerly (Jr.) on behalf of the Association of Art Museum Directors to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee concerning the extension of the 2007 bilateral cultural property agreement between The Government of the United States of America and The Government of the Republic of Mali reveals much about US attitudes to their global neighbours. I've discussed more general issues in the text above. Here I'd like to draw attention to their demand for museum exhibit shopping lists.

The AAMD "urges the Committee to review the status of cultural exchange as required by Article II of the 2007 MOU".  They urge the CPAC to declare that the US will not stop the import of smuggled Malian cultural property into the US market unless the Government of the Republic of Mali (despite all the other problems the country has on its hands right now) makes efforts to seek to expand the exchange of its archaeological materials with the US. Right now. The AAMD is concerned that "even before the recent coup there existed challenges for American museums that wanted to undertake loans".
In order to have a meaningful dialogue about loans, one must have an idea of what is available to be leant (sic) and Mali has few if any publically (sic) available inventories. Furthermore, access to storage areas to determine what might be available to borrow is severely limited.
So they want the Malians to present them with a shopping list of objects to pick and choose from.

Roslyn Walker, the African art curator at the Dallas Museum of Art, making a statement "on behalf of the DallasMuseum of Art and the Association of Art Museum Directors" has a shopping list too. She moans that the Dallas museum has few works of art which are from Mali:
Ideally, I would like to display objects that reach back in time, for example a Djenne-jeno or Bankoni-style terracotta figure or a Tellem ritual vessel or wooden headrest from Mali. Exposure to such objects would enhance our visitors’ appreciation for African art and culture and foster a deeper sense of pride in the thousands of African peoples who have made the Dallas metroplex their home.
Sadly for her "the only way the Museum can obtain Malian antiquities is to borrow them from the National Museum of Mali". Now that of course is not true. Many US collections have objects from Mali, many European collections too. I am sure she could borrow a "Djenne-jeno or Bankoni-style terracotta figure or a Tellem ritual vessel or wooden headrest" from a wide number of public and private collections much nearer to Dallas than Mali. But insisting on getting her curatorial hands on objects actually from Mali, she complains: 
I do not know what the process is and I do not know what is available for loan. The National Museum’s website offers little information about the permanent collection beyond the first page of the website. I understand the Museum’s being protective of its collection, but I would like to offer a suggestion. The Museum could post a form of loan application on the website with an invitation to only accredited museums. If the National Museum of Mali is satisfied with the applicant’s credentials, the National Museum can make their inventory available electronically or on-site
A shopping list. She proposes that the Dallas Museum of Art can offer "expertise, training, conservation, and to collaborate on exhibitions of mutual interest in exchange for loan-term loans of no less than ten years with the option to renew". So basically she is not interested in mounting a temporary exhibition on the 'arts and cultural history of West Africa' but decades-long addition to her collections making them more 'encyclopaedic'. All this in exchange for the US agreeing to look out for smuggled artefacts (as the 1970 UNESCO Convention requires it to anyway). Note that these "exhibitions of mutual interest" seem to solely be objects from Mali exhibited in US museums.  Thus it is that she dangles the prospect that "there might be a collaborative effort among the museums that have expressed interest in long-term loans from Mali that would maximize exposure of the objects visiting in the United States of America and be of greater benefit to the National Museum of Mali". Eh? Having their objects out of their hands exhibited across the sea is to their "benefit"? Of more benefit to Mali would be tourists (both black and white) going to Mali to look at these artworks in their geographical and cultural context and spending their dollars over there.

Were the Malians presented with a similar shopping list of all the material available in all US museums and cultural property collections - or even the full inventory of a single one, like the Smithsonian, with the offer, "ask for what you want from this list and we will send it to you"? Were they? The AAMD can surely answer that question. How tempting an offer they were able to propose to the Malians?

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