Saturday, 9 July 2016

Evacuating America's Refugee Artefacts

Olivia Paschal, following Cuno, postulates in her piece  'Syria, Colonialism, and the Yale Art Gallery' (The Politic, 9th July 2016) on the "Repatriation Debate" (primarily a US obsession)  that "as conflicts escalate in many of the regions to which artwork would have been returned [....m]any experts and historians now wonder if the best place for these artifacts in an era of conflict may not be in their homelands". One option, she says, "would involve relocating historically and culturally significant artefacts out of regions of conflict until it is safe to return them".

Let's follow that through, laying aside US attitudes of entitlement and exceptionalism and apply that to the country most vociferously proposing this model of action. American society seems pretty precarious at the moment, based on eighteenth century principles, filled with inequalities and violence. One of the leading candidates for presidency is running a successful campaign based on division. Observers might be justified in questioning whether in fact the USA is likely to remain stable in the long term.

An increasingly violent and divided
society - what does the future hold?
Assuming, for the sake of argument, social tensions build up in the USA and social conflict breaks out across the whole country - which "historically and culturally significant artefacts" would the proponents of the refugee artefact  model ship "out of regions of conflict [in this case the entire USA] until it is safe to return them"? And where would they be sent, what (at what stage of the conflict) and how? Obviously the most suitable countries to send these precious objects to would be on reciprocal grounds those countries with which the USA has (or maybe has had) bilateral cultural property MOUs under the CCPIA. So who would get what? Would there be some items (the Declaration of Independence, say, which would not be sent to Guatemala or Belize) because their leaving the country would be taken as a defeatist affront by US society? What would happen to US cultural property if conflict breaks out in one of the safe haven host countries before the US has regained social stability and repaired the damage done to public buildings and institutions?   Who'd cover the insurance, and how would the monetary value for which items are insured for in foreign storage and during transport be calculated?

More to the point, what objects would be evacuated?  Does Dr Cuno envisage the evacuation of a token few dozen artefacts, a few hundred, or a few thousand? How would they be chosen and apportioned? Would each state make a selection from its own territory, or would there be a federal (national) database? Or would the host nations be asked/allowed to make their own selections of objects from the list which they are most keen to look after (perhaps on display as loans in their own national museums) or have the best qualified staffs to look after.

One assumes Dr Cuno would have in mind the saving of "the cultural property of the US", so the cultural property imported from outside the US, Poussins and Rypins (and Leutwitz Apollo and the Ka Nefer Nefer mask in St Louis) of the national galleries and museums would stay in the US. So what is left?

I am particularly intrigued just how much Native American material would  find itself in those shipments out of crisis-torn USA. I was shocked on my own visits to some of the eastern states to find a number of instances where Native American ethnographic material and archaeological objects were stored and displayed in Natural History museums along with the stuffed birds and shell collections. That seems pretty insulting to me, but begs the question whether such material is even treated in those states as cultural property at all and would be evacuated in times of crisis. What about Hopi masks and Ancona shields? Where would they go?  

And one other issue. What about excavation archives in museum stores? This was what was affected most by the Egyptian 'Revolution' and also Second World War in places like occupied Poznan and Warsaw. I am thinking here about the stored material from excavations at Colonial Williamsburg, would the refugee artefacts consist just of those photographed nicely-lit by National Geographic , or would the evacuees consist of the archive as a whole which tells the story of this iconic site? What about the entire assemblage of metal detected material from Montpelier or Little Big Horn?

What I think would be a good thing, before Dr Cuno and his supporters again air their ideas about this in respect to what foreign countries "should do" (ie, it seems they are suggesting  send the best bits to "safe haven" in America), they should produce a book which addresses the salvation of US cultural property by the same means that they would impose on others. A book Dr Cuno, a book on the proposal you so happily make -but focussed on how you yourself in America would set about organizing a scheme, but not for others, but for yourselves, on behalf of the people(s) of your own nation.

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