Monday 27 January 2014

Polish Museums as seen in Washington Fantasyland

National Museum courtyard

Arthur Houghton  reckons
there is a lot of cultural property in Polish museums that does not belong there [...] and should [...] be send (sic) back. [...] Next come the private collections of looted objects. He [Paul Barford, apparently] should give us a list. We can then decide how to act.
Now I do not know how many times Arthur Houghton has been in Poland, and what he did when he was here. I suspect it was not visit our museums. It is wholly unclear therefore where he gets his "information" from.  Once again though (" We can then decide how to act") we see that disagreeable characteristic of Washington to see itself as the policeman of the world, able to boss around the other nations and submit them to Washington's will. In reality, these people really have a very distorted view of the rest of the world, including Europe.

I have been meaning for some time to do a post on our national museum and its collections. In short, it is my assessment that due to a series of circumstances, they really do not include anything much which is dodgy. I think some of the medieval panel paintings in the National Museum that have come from the post-Yalta/Potsdam western territories should be displayed there rather than Warsaw, but that I am not alone in thinking this is illustrated by the way that certain items have already gone back. There is a whole load of Classical items from the Grand Tour period, with pukka nineteenth century pedigrees, the same for the (rather nice) ancient Egyptian collections, bulked out with loans. There is enough 'European art' with decent pedigrees to show the main trends. As far as I know there have been no recent Holocaust art claims on our paintings etc. This is how an almost encyclopaedic museum collection should look. There is some controversy about archival material and drawings which found its way to Poland after 1945 (from the Soviet Trophy Teams) which the Germans contest, but most of it came from institutions whose seats are now within Poland - but let's negotiate.

What one must remember is that this is but a shadow of what was destroyed, stolen and lost in the horrors of the Nazi occupation (1939-1945). If Mr Houghton has any first hand knowledge of Polish collections, he will have seen the glass case containing the preserved mass of compacted ashes of the books which is all that remains of one of the most important national library collections in this part of Europe deliberately torched by the Nazis. This serves as a poignant reminder of the untold millions of other pieces of cultural property of all types lost during those six horrible years. Vast numbers of artworks went missing from public as well as private collections, and remain lost (or hidden). Others were destroyed in military action (one of my favourites the Kammen Casket was probably destroyed when the train evacuating it was shelled). The most shocking thing is that much of it was callously and deliberately destroyed specifically to undermine Polish national identity, Warsaw did not have its Dietrich von Choltitz. These experiences are why over here in this part of Europe, we have a somewhat different attitude to cultural property than those collectors who lead a sheltered navel-gazing life in the USA who cannot even begin to imagine what happened here (and I doubt whether the Hollywood version of the "Monuments Men" will do anything to inform them).

Mr Houghton should be aware that post-1945 economic factors precluded rebuilding the lost collections by purchase of looted art on the western markets. The same goes for private collectors, in the period 1945-1989 the tendency was rather sell abroad than buy abroad, and market oppotunities within the People's Republic were "somewhat limited".

So I really do not know what Mr Houghton is on about, this seems the next in a series of spiteful and irrational xenophobic outbursts of his, and like the rest without any substantial foundation. 

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