Wednesday, 15 May 2013

"Art" that Should not BE in US Museums

Some people just do not get it do they? There is, as a lobboblogger gleefully announces, a new website whining about "Art You Will Not See in US Museums". This announces that it:
was created and is maintained by current and former professional members of the U.S. art museum community. 
Who are of course nameless. The site at the moment consists of a rolling slideshow of a few dozen pretty pieces. The "problem" with them is, as the "professional members of the U.S. art museum community" admit is that:
If they were offered today, however, even as a donation, the AAMD says they should be rejected by the art museums of America.
The pieces shown are said to be "of importance", though, apart from being decorative,  nowhere is that "importance" categorised. Neither is it at all clear why each of those objects can be photographed (by whom, where?) and shown anonymously on a website, but not accepted by a US museum. There are no details given, "the pictures speak for themselves" say the American authors - - addressing the superficial attitudes of the Disneypap-bred. I think the rest of us, if the site really is to "educate", would appreciate some background information, on how each of these rather notable items so carelessly lost their "legitimacy" (assuming we are asked to believe that they all had any at some stage in their collecting histories). Where is the transparency? What have the owners got to hide if the objects were acquire legitimately from legitimate sources? Why can they not be stated?

Neither is it clear in what circumstances these "current and former professional members of the U.S. art museum community" came into possession of the photos of these objects, presumably they are in private hands. What is the nature of the contacts between the museum professionals and these collectors? Are any of these objects owned by "members of the U.S. art museum community"? 

I have an idea how those objects can be seen, and appreciated, be used to educate and inform. Instead of being shut up clandestinely in some Wisconsin or Maryland back room, seen only by the owner and his family. Let each of them be sent back to the region or country from which they were removed. To the regions from which they were removed, potentially clandestinely, in order to end up ("orphaned" [sic]) on the no-questions-asked markets where they were purchased, by collectors unconcerned by them being without their collecting histories. So why not donate them to the museums of Greece, Italy, Egypt, India, Southeast Asia and China etc.? There they'd be shown and the nation's gratitude to the donor recorded.

There would be no US tax benefit of course (to what extent is that the main stimulus for the concern about inability to donate such objects to US collections?)

"This must change" the website rants. The authors do not state outright why, nor do they make plain how (or indeed what they will do to make the change compulsory). While private collectors will buy such stuff with apparent alacrity, why should US museums consent to continue filling themselves with stuff which has no known licit origins when public opinion is now turning definitively against it? Is "Art that cannot be seen", dinosaur-like, trying to turn the clock back?   An object acquired by a US museum before 1970 will have the documentation preserved about its origins in the collection's archives. Collectors keep no such archives. Why should museums lower themselves to the substandards which currently satisfy private collectors? That is where they have come from in the revised AAMD guidelines, they've "been there, done it" and "got the teeshirt" of shame. They have now decided that this is not the image that becomes them. Why should they go back? Would they do it to accommodate private collectors so they can claim their tax relief? Or so the latter will not feel so bad about the knocked off bits from unknown sources they have at home?

The "Art You Will Not See in US Museums" website implies that the AAMD heritage professionals who discussed and formulated the guidelines were morons, resulting in guidelines "that were enacted by an organization with little understanding of their consequences". I would imagine the intended consequences are precisely what is happening, it is helping keep stuff of potentially dodgy provenance out of responsibly-created collections, leaving it in the hands of collectors who now discover it's getting increasingly difficult to get someone to take it off their hands. It is time to see some responsible approaches to antiquity collecting outside (and influenced by) the museums. I guess that's what the authors of this self-serving nonsense are afraid of.

The website shows a lot of stuff that has been dug-up, or knocked off, or ripped out (for example of tombs) somewhere at some time and "surfaced" (from "underground") at some place and at some time on the ever opaque and ever-secretive no-questions-asked market, with no exchange of information about where it came from, how it got on the market, and what deals it has participated in. Shocking. It is a shocking thought that in this day and age people would be willing to buy such things on the nod and a wink of some dealer or other. What is even more shocking is the scale of the private possession of these clandestine artefacts. They are "only [the] tip of the iceberg, however: beneath them lies an extraordinary depth and breadth of material in private hands". The depicted items represent, the webpage suggests "by reasonable estimates, many hundreds of thousands of objects".

You wonder about the intelligence of the authors of this stuff. They go on to tell the reader (in total conflict with what elsewhere collectors give as their reasons for collecting no-questions-asked stuff in the first place) that the AAMD guidelines affect "the collecting, conserving, displaying and publication of cultural artifacts", because in private hands,
"objects excluded from acquisition by member museums cannot be subject to professional museum study, exhibition, publication, or conservation. [...]  Over time, many will deteriorate, or be destroyed, or go into the trade in other countries
And how terrible, imagine those Chinsese artefacts going back to China and being appreciated there by Chinese collectors and members of the public, being used there to educate and inform (Chinese and visitors to China) rather than Captain America's fellow countrymen. The very idea!
If the American public, American museums, and our own understanding of the ancient past is to be served, change must be made.
Sort of forgetting that there IS actually a world outside the USA and one with many other publics in it (you know, "global" heritage and all that). America-this, America-that, America-the-centre-of-the-world attitudes are really doing very little here to foster intercultural understanding and respect.  

So, who is behind this self-serving agitation?  If you do a Whois query, the identity of the creator of the webpage is revealed, it is Peter Tompa's sidekick, Arthur Houghton of the CPIA. 

I wonder too how Jamie Braman Web Design feel about getting involved in the defence of no-questions-asked acquisitions of antiquities potentially of questionable origins? Did they think through the possible consequences of their involvement?

Vignette: a former members of the U.S. art museum community.



kyri said...

hi paull,are you sure it is arthur houghton,he has trouble posting comments on peters blog,is he capable of creating a webpage.i read his comments on peters blog and dont agree with many things he says,especially when he was excusing the behaviour of a certain dr.weise but i cant help but admire and respect the man for his stand against jiri frel and the gettys acquisition policys in the mid 80s.this guy resignd on a matter of principle, he could have just put his head down and got on with sure i read somewere that he said %95 of antiquities on todays market are illicit,im sure even you dont think that things are that bad.nowdays he does seem to have gone off the middle road,which i hope im on and leaning to much on what you would call "the dark side"

Paul Barford said...

Well, that's what the "whois" brings up. Why not ask him or Tompa? (Transparency).

I suspect either his "problem" with posting comments on CPO is a game, or he might have a problem with eyesight, Tompa's blog has a fiendishly-difficult-to-read anti-spambot code to enter. I can easily imagine somebody getting really ***ed off with it and posting it direct to the author to post on his behalf.

Mr Houghton these days does indeed seem to have gone a long way from "middle road".

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