Tuesday 27 October 2015

The Role of Museums in Facilitating Dodgy Antiquities Dealings

"The slack protection of cultural artefacts makes it hard for museums to protect themselves from fraud" says  Ong Sor Fern ('Walking an ethics tightrope: The business of collecting antiquities' Straits Times Oct 27, 2015) on the back of the the recent news about Singapore's Asian Civilisations Museum returning a stolen 11th-century bronze sculpture of the Hindu goddess Uma Parameshvari to India. She sees the "business of antiquities collecting" as a fraught one, museums as "bastions of knowledge" have to acquire objects (citing the recent finding of 20 new lines of the Epic of Gilgamesh on a looted cunie bought for a bargain US$ 800 in 2011 as justification) but she says:
this case is an extreme example of how the preservation of cultural heritage is not just the responsibility of a few hallowed, underfunded, overworked academic institutions. Countries too need to take responsibility for protecting their cultural artefacts and monuments.
I would rather say it is the role of museums to aid states in this rather than replace them. Ms Sor Fern seems not to have heard of "due diligence" and the various mechanisms in place to prohibit and prevent the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property and where acquiring institutions fit into that. She does not mention how it is that a museum bought an object for itself (not to "save it" from anything except being stuck in New York) which turns out to be recently stolen.
 India is rich with heritage, but poverty and lack of dedicated enforcement and protection resources mean that its cultural treasures are easy pickings for unscrupulous thieves, or simply poverty-stricken villagers. [...]  This issue especially plagues Third World countries where governments, struggling to deal with more urgent issues, have no resources or the will to tackle the looting of art and history.
Which is precisely why we should be careful in buying objects, no matter how desireable, from these areas. And what if it had not been Mr (now-under-scrutiny)  Kapoor that sold the object, but some other dealer - with exactly the same kind of assurances?  How many objects in these miuseums bought from other dealers would be suspect if they too had been turned-in to the authorities by a jilted lover (as Kapoor's fall from grace began)?
There is no short-term cure for this problem. And the long-term solutions have to be multipronged - from governmental intervention in the form of proper legislation and enforcement to grassroots- level action in terms of educating people about heritage and history.
How about starting with the staff of museums and the other people who buy the stuff?

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