Friday 21 September 2012

"Alexandria’s Library and Bamiyan Buddhas Would be Safe in Private hands"

Wayne Sayles suggests that "Alexandria’s Library to the Bamiyan Buddhas" provide lessons that "governments and public institutions are not the best stewards" of the world's cultural property. Kimberly Alderman apparently considers that an "eloquent" argument for entrusting the world's cultural heritage to the tender mercies of scattered private collectors.

Quite how Sayles would see the Bamiyan Buddhas being placed in a private collection (or how their private ownership would have saved them from Taliban iconoclasts) is not explained. Neither is what good splitting the collections of the Alexandria Library between a myriad of private collectors (were there not copies of exactly the same books in private libraries all around the Classical world? Of course there were, where are they now?).

I do not think this is an "eloquent" argument, just demagogically simplistic. Scattered cultural property is at the risk of being damaged in domestic accidents (kids and animals, quite apart from unforeseen events like fire and flood). There is a risk that it will be lost because it is not being recognised for what it is by those into whose hands it falls after the death of a collector. Not every collector keeps proper documentation of all their accumulations from which the uninitiated can work out what it is and why it is important. A painting by Renoir found in a seven-dollar box of rubbish at a garage sale not so long ago could just as easily have been discarded.

I think there is far more of the world's cultural property preserved, better documented, much of it digitalised and disseminated through being curated in well-managed public collections. Like many of the museums and institutions of the US. Is Sayles' suggesting that US collectors who donate items to those collections (often for substantial tax breaks) are in fact endangering those items in some way? If so why does his ACCG have a "museums purchase fund"? Is "philanthropism" in fact destructive? The manuscripts of Timbuktu which were the subject of Ms Alderman's post were in the process of being digitalised - funded (in part) by UNESCO. These efforts however were hampered rather than helped by the US cutting off their funding to UNESCO over some far-off political issue.

In cases when we have destruction of property and human life, misery, social disorder and huge flows of refugees, as we see in places like Mali, Syria today, how many collectables  in people's homes does Mr Sayles think are being saved, and how many are being destroyed without record? Some cultural property is more prone to this than others, if Warsaw was invaded and I had to flee, I cannot imagine taking my library with the same ease as Mr Sayles could pack up the core of his coin collection. Enormous quantities of cultural property was destroyed in the private flats and villas of Warsaw inhabitants in military action and other events in 1939-44 before the rest was looted by the Nazis. Even a lot of the latter (Sayles might suggest the objects were "saved") vanished irretreivably in the chaos of the collapse of Germany and the Soviet advance. Museum collections were destroyed (both deliberate and total destruction as well as looting and theft) during the War here, but surprising quantities of this material was evacuated and hidden for safety, and much of what was taken could be identified from the inventories and has returned. Much has been lost of course. But nobody in Poland who lived through that is suggesting that museums are a bad thing, a bad way to ensure the survival of a nation's (the world's) cultural property heritage. Indeed it was the generation that lived through the event of those dark days that has been the most active in helping to rebuild the collections of the nation's museums and libraries through donations and sponsorship. Mr Sayles is lucky to live in a country which has not had such experiences, so who is he to say those who have not had that luck are wrong in wanting to preserve the heritage through public institutions?

Part of the problem is the stubborn perception of US collectors that what is at stake is NOT the import (into their country) of illegally exported items from elsewhere, their focus instead is on the fact that when this stuff is detected and seized, it leaves the US and is sent back to the country from which it has been illegally removed. The US dealers' lobby persist in representing the efforts to combat dodgy dealing as merely the issue of "repatriation", that is simply a cynical attempt to mislead.

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