Saturday 31 October 2015

Vikan on the Green Collection "ex post facto due diligence"

Teaching collectors respect
On the subject of the problematic provenances of some of the Green Collection items, Gary Vikan former director of the Walters Art Museum writes in the Washington Post's (religion section): "What’s done is done. Now is the time to look toward the future, and to act" (Probe of Steve Green’s antiquities may be inevitable; his response is not (COMMENTARY), October 30). Referring to the story of the impounded cuneiform tablets which has been tossed around the internetosphere all week,and quoting Steve Green as saying, it’s “possible” that some of the artifacts were not properly bought, he discusses the implications of the staggering process of buying some 40,000 works acquired worth tens of millions of dollars - all in just a few years, beginning in late 2009.
Forty thousand works in about 40 months; that rate and scale are unprecedented in the history of American collecting. And given their emphasis on Bible lands, including Iraq and Syria, it is hardly surprising that provenance problems are now beginning to emerge. [...] It is inevitable that the Green Collection will be discovered to contain some unpleasant surprises, including looted and illegally exported antiquities, fakes, and many genuine and legally acquired works that they will discover to be of little value. But in my view, the real question — the one that will reveal Steve Green’s character as a collector in service of the public good — is what next?
Vikan argues apparently seeing here a task for the Green Scholars Initiative, that running a newly-founded private museum based on this accumulation of items entails a set of obligations to bring the Washington Museum of the Bible in line with modern professional museum norms. He postulates that the full inventory should be catalogued, photographed and:
Those photographs, along with as much of each object’s dealership history as the Greens possess, should be posted online, not only for academics, but as a means for governments or individuals from whom some of them may have been looted or stolen to identify them and make appropriate property claims.
and, apparently noting the employment of just one conservator states the obvious other fact about what curation (stewardship) entails:
The collection in its entirety must, of course, be properly conserved and safely preserved — including those works the staff does not plan to exhibit, both for scholars, and in anticipation of possible repatriation claims.
He sees the proper execution of these obligations by the collector as "going a long way toward repairing the Greens’ reputation as responsible stewards". Sadly, Vikan suggests:
there is a place in the profession for ex post facto due diligence on high-speed collecting: if you can’t get it right at first, make sure you do it right later. Full transparency is also the ticket price for membership in the museum and academic worlds to which the Greens aspire. I urge Steve Green to announce that this approach is part of his strategic agenda, that it has his full support, and that its urgency is no less than that of his new museum. Should these efforts reveal specific evidence of illegally excavated and/or exported works from, for example, Iraq, I would urge Green to initiate an open, good-faith dialogue with officials in the country of origin and with the U.S. State Department, with the aim of repatriation.
and turn over to the authorities the full details of from whom he bought it, so the dodgy dealers can also be held to account. No. Mr Vikan is wrong. This is not about that endemic American cardboard cutout notion of  "repatriate and everything will be all right".

In the case of a collection bought 2009-2015 there is no place for any wishy-washy "ex post-facto-due-diligence". Absolutely none, and there is no such thing. As Mr Vikan says, it turns out that the Green collection was (as he put it) "learning as they went on". Frankly, anyone serious about collecting and "learning" about antiquities in 2008/2009 would have come across at the click of a mouse button a whole load of material for guiding thought towards questions like licitness, legitimacy, accountability and warning about dodgy dealers and their methods. There is no shortage (and in 2008/9 was no shortage). From what happened here, it seems clear that nobody connected with the acquisition of this material was a bit interested in "learning" about the issues (one wonders how one can set up a museum to teach, when it is not based on prior learning). What is needed here is naming and shaming to increase public awareness of the issues with portable antiquities collection - that's what this blog is all about.

If a member of the public, who happens to be a billionaire, decides to start collecting something as sensitive as antiquities, let them have their attention directed to the issues not by some pious hopes by hand-wringing jobsworths and sycophants in our profession that "they will learn". They won't. Half the population is average IQ or below. Carrots have been tried, now let's apply the stick. A lot of people in the US would be very happy I am sure to see the state take action here. They'd like to see the Feds search Mr Green's antiquity storeroom, and his 'compound', let them impound anything where the documentation is unclear. It'd be all over the media and the next person who wants to start up a collection will have a cautionary tale to ure him more strongly to think about just how he's going to go about doing that and stay the right side of propiety. That. Mr Vikan is what we need to do to start "to look toward the future, and to act". We do not need a "patch it up" remedy for now, we need to use this case to ensure that we reduce the chances of something like it happening again and again in the future. 

1 comment:

lalbertson said...

Its interesting that this commentary was posted first on the Religion News Service and not on the Washington Post where it was later picked up and reposted Also interesting was Vikan's comment "In 2013, I toured the Green Collection storage facilities on the Hobby Lobby business campus in Oklahoma" City as a candidate for a job they did not offer me."

Given the total lack of director-level experienced museum staff among the numerous directors currently employed in operational roles for the Museum of the Bible, could Vikan's words imply hthat e wants to be reconsidered?

Or have the Greens hired a public relations firm representing high-profile clients facing crisis, conflict, and controversy to help them bounce back from this scandal. If so, this would be the door opener to the widely promoted "apology strategy" and I wouldn't be surprised if the next thing you see from the MoB is a plethora of new museum ethics and collection trained staffers, all hungry to forgive and forget, eager for a lucrative long term contract on Green's payroll.

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