Sunday 20 May 2012

Bourne Collection Exhibit Closes in Baltimore

Over in Baltimore, the Walters Art Museum has been presenting a temporary exhibition, on view February 12–May 20, 2012: Exploring Art of the Ancient Americas: The John Bourne Collection Gift.
This is an exhibition of 135 artworks from cultures that rose and fell in Mexico, Central America and Andean South America from 1200 BCE–1530 CE. Drawn from the collection of John Bourne recently gifted to the Walters, this exhibition [...] expresses each culture’s distinctive aesthetics, worldview and spiritual ideologies. Exploring Art of the Ancient Americas touches on the performative nature of politics and religion—performance being a key mechanism for strengthening bonds of community and religious belief. The exhibition features the imaginative musical instruments used during these events and emotive portrayals of performers—from kings to commoners. This exhibition features selections from collector John Bourne, who was among the initial explorers to probe deep into the hilly jungles of southern Mexico. Bourne was among the first Westerners to visit Bonampak, the now famous Maya site. Bourne became enamored of the creative expressiveness of the Maya—and of all peoples of the ancient Americas— perceiving the works as equal to any artistic tradition in the world.
I presume the meaning of the last bit is that the brown-skinned folk across the USA's southern border should be jolly glad that their artefacts were dug up to enlighten an American.

The website features a a frenetic slideshow, flashing a rapid succession of images of (just) the faces of disembodied figurines accompanied by drumbeats intended - no doubt - to make this exhibition seem fresh and exciting.  It suggests to me that this art appreciation goes little further than gawping at exotic faces and costumes depicted in clay and stone.


The Chasing Aphrodite blog has an extremely thought-provoking guest post on this exhibition by Roger Atwood (author of  “Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers and the Looting of the Ancient World” - who has written extensively about archaeological looting in Latin America, initially on a fellowship from the Alicja Patterson Foundation. He was not overly-impressed by what he saw and the manner in which the museum presented it ('Artifacts and Fictions in Baltimore: Roger Atwood on the Walters’ Pre-Colombian Collection', Chasing Aphrodite Blog May 18th). He details the collection's long and chequered history (including FBI seizures of some items) and notes the number of fakes on display (though labelled as such):
I came away thinking that, perhaps without realizing it, the organizers have given an object lesson in the dangers of collecting antiquities that have no record of archaeological excavation. What I wrote in Stealing History – that “not a single piece on display” in the Bourne collection “gives a specific provenance, archaeological history or other sign it emerged from any place but a looter’s pit” – remains true but needs some amending.
It turns out that after the gift, two conservators worked full-time for two-and-a-half years analysing the pieces, Atwood suggests that "the museum is trying to compensate for the lack of any archaeological information about the pieces by running them through gauntlets of laboratory tests. It’s as if the museum is trying to scratch its way to some information – any information – about pieces that are so patently lacking any hard archaeological data".
And that leads me to the second problem associated with undocumented artifacts that this exhibit so richly demonstrates: the lack of information. For all the museum’s months of laboratory work, we know strikingly little about where these pieces came from, in what context they were found, and what function or meaning they had. This is because they were, presumably, all purchased from the cast of looters, dealers and assorted hoodlums that make up the supply end of the Latin American antiquities market. Whatever information those sellers claim to have on the origin of the artifacts they sell is usually conjecture or lies.
Atwood notes that "the show takes pains to stress that Bourne purchased many artifacts on trips to Latin American hinterlands starting in the 1940s, before most current rules on removing and selling cultural property were in effect. The catalogue describes Hiram Bingham-style adventures [...]  finding artifacts in situ".
but other facts make you wonder if he had other sources. Bourne himself told the FBI in 1998 that he bought merchandise from the late Ben Johnson, a notorious Los Angeles dealer in high-end pillage whose dealings were exposed in the Sipán trial of 1989.What little information we’re given on the origin of the Bourne pieces amounts to a roll call of the most pitilessly looted parts of Latin America: the north coast of Peru, the Petén lowlands of Guatemala, rural Veracruz.  Commercial looters erased incalculable amounts of archaeological data and a valuable economic resource to gather prizes for middlemen and collectors. It’s a story of exploitation and greed that is still rarely acknowledged  by big collecting museums.

Atwood is more explicit in a way which will no doubt get dealers' lobbyists hot under the collar:
A clear example of that destructive cycle – collectors buy loot, looters destroy sites to get more loot to sell, over and over – was the pillage at Sipán in northern Peru in 1987. Before the Getty’s Aphrodite, before the Marion True trial, the case of Sipán showed everyone the power of the antiquities trade to consume heritage.  That case led to the 1990 emergency ban on the import of a long list of types of Peruvian antiquities, arguably the most important step by the federal government to tackle the illicit trade up to that time, and, later, a bilateral agreement between Peru and the United States imposing broad import restrictions that remains in effect today

He says that the presence of some of these pieces "at the Walters would make a mockery of the museum’s policy (stated by Vikan here at minute 18) of not acquiring pieces that do not have a clear chain of ownership from before the UNESCO agreement of 1970". So what that it says in the catalogue that the museum will “promptly and openly respond to any claims for repatriation … from possible source countries” if such items which could possibly be challenged should not be in the Museum in the first place?
But why wait until source countries make repatriation claims? You wonder what other controversies over title might lurk behind the Bourne collection. This would be a good opportunity for a major American museum to recognize proactively a source country’s title to dubious objects, rather than make Peru or Guatemala jump through hoops — or wait for the storm as the Met did with the Euphronios krater, today recognized as property of the government of Italy.  Museums badly need to get the provenance problem past them and institute policies they can live by, permanently and consistently.  At its heart, the question is about more than ownership.  It’s about accountability, a subject on which the Walters exhibit demonstrates how far museums have come. It also shows how far they have to go.

Podcast from Maryland Morning:

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