Monday 30 January 2017

Clearing the Vaults and Whitewashing the Taint: Vikan on US Museums and Trade 'Partnership'

Gary Vikan
Gary Vikan attempts to explain 'why US museums and the antiquities trade should work together' Apollo Magazine 30th January 2017. He considers antiquities collectors to be part (with what?) of an 'ecosystem' that created encyclopaedic museums. His article is overly America-centred, he seems not to see an outside world, and when he does it is as a source of trophy artefacts for Americans to gawp at or making annoying claims on the artefacts that American collectors have somehow amassed. Thus he comes to formulate the view that the cumulative effect of:
steps to impede the trade in looted antiquities – and thus to preserve the integrity of archaeological sites and to maintain the authority of state ownership over national cultural assets [...] has been to destroy the system that created America’s great museums: from dealers to collectors to museums and for the benefit of the American public.
If looted artefacts are what makes 'American museums great', then perhaps we need to ask ourselves about the America-First values they represent. Vikan of course employs the usual Two Wrongs Argument ('There are many other buyers in other countries, who are guided by different sets of rules and different values – and each of the antiquities-rich countries has its own internal market. So looting will go on without us') and wants to see US museums prosper
especially in parts of the US that did not benefit from the cultural philanthropy of the last century.

By this he means rich collectors who bought trophy items from goodness-knows-where and then left them to museums, ostensibly altruistically but in reality in self-glorification. He suggests that in the USA:
Our challenge is to create a new culture of collecting, which will be sustained by the vast number of antiquities already within borders of the United States.
The problem for him is that those objects consist (only?) of two categories of such works, 'which both require basic policy changes in order for their value to be realised in the public interest'.
The first is comprised of the hundreds of thousands of ‘orphan’ antiquities, which have been privately assembled by American dealers and collectors over the last 40 years or so. I call them orphans because, even if they arrived in the US before 1970, they likely lack full documentation [...] Unless we find a solution, these collections are likely soon to be sold and dispersed, in many cases to foreign buyers. The American public, of course, will be the loser.
Heaven forbid, eh, that some of them should find their way back, perhaps, to the Old World countries they were taken from... Note that it is the part of the trade dealing with private collectors that in this passage is the producer of those 'orphan' (sic) items. The second  category 'of antiquities inside US borders that is effectively frozen out of the trade is that unseen by the public, in museum storage'. So, what Vikan is saying is that collectors collected, and collected and donated too much stuff to museums which really see no need to put all those thousands of (apparently) excess items on display. One wonders then why the collectors collected so many excess random undisplayable items anyway. Greed maybe. Or maybe some inferiority complexes came into play here. Anyway, museums are lumbered with them Vikan says:
what they represent to the museum, and thus to the public, is an ongoing expense [...] AAMD guidelines should be revised, and incentives found for getting these works swiftly to public auctions, so that they can re-enter the marketplace of dealers and collectors, and eventually find their home in other museums, where they will be prized and exhibited. Our encyclopaedic museums must shake off their culture of hoarding, so that when they sell from storage they will be seen to be offering value to the public.
I guess the mistaken ambition that a museum can truly be 'encyclopaedic' (a notion that also results from some sick ambitions and rivalry) led them to accession stuff they cannot possibly use. That is of course (Museum Studies 101) not how a responsible museum accession policy should work. But why on earth Mr Vikan sees the answer as flogging everything off is unclear. First of all, what about the wishes of the original donors (and their heirs)? Are not the museums legally obliged to respect those - and the things that they do not want perhaps should be offered back to the heirs (vide the case of  Sekhemka in the UK, where museums in general are prevented from disposing of material because of clauses in the contracts drawn up at the time of their deposition). Indeed, many donors would have stipulated that their collections were not split up. The British MA guidelines stipulate that objects that one museum wants to clear out of their storerooms should not be sold on the open market, but relocated to a museum that wants them and can properly house them. US museums bellyache about foreign nations who do not want to loan them stuff when they have a MOU, but then (to judge from this) seem not to be all that willing to even loan each other stuff.

As for all those paperless 'orphans' bought no-questions-asked by assorted private collectors, Vikan's suggestion how to legitimise them is telling:
The solution, I believe, lies in a comprehensive internet database with images of all orphan works along with all information known about their history. Aggressively marketed to their countries of likely origin, with adequate protection of privacy, this would be where potential claimants could find large numbers of searchable antiquities in the hands of American collectors and dealers, and make whatever legitimate claims they might have for restitution. But inevitably, as time goes by and when no claims are made on the vast majority of posted works, there will be a marked thawing of that channel connecting collectors to museums to the public – a de facto ‘repose’ of title borne of transparency. The orphans will, in effect, be granted an amnesty. 
Bollocks. An illicit antiquity is an illicit antiquity whether somebody catches you with it or not. This is a typical example of the 'they-can't-touch-you-for-it-legitimacy' so favoured by American collectors - in other words, no legitimacy at all. The fact that a given Polaroid from the Medici archive has not yet been found by Christos Tsirogiannis does not make an artefact licit until he does come across it. That is not what legitimacy is about.  Vikan obviously knows that - Internet database or no Internet database -  there is little chance that objects which are clandestinely dug up and sneaked onto the market where they 'surface' (from underground) with no papers will ever be claimable by a 'claimant', let alone be in a position to 'make whatever legitimate claims they might have for restitution'. Shame on him. This is a topic that has been widely enough discussed for him to be aware of that issue - he is simply ignoring it in order to make a trite point. So, for example, which country is going to 'claim' this anonymous pot 'from an old Swiss collection', and on what grounds? The fact that middlemen and dealers deliberately (prove it is not so) discarded the documentation to make its origins impossible to determine makes it very unlikely that more than a small fraction of stuff on the postulated Vikan Orphan Artefacts Legitimation Database (VOALD) will ever be repatriated. But then, we are seeing here anyway the pathetic US cardboard cutout fixation on repatriation. Any items not claimed by a foreign nation is an item not claimed by a foreign nation, that does not equate with being an item which left the ground and source country licitly. Vikan's suggestion is therefore just a fudge, in order to produce apparent legitimation of objects that should never join any self-respecting museum collection, not in the States, not anywhere. These objects are tainted by the treatment they have received at the hands of the no-questions-asked market (and I'll bet, many of them well after 1970). You cannot just launder them by putting a picture on the internet hoping nobody's waiting with a 'gottcha'.


Paul D., Paderborn, Germany said...

I find the internal contradiction of the text weird: On the one hand the dude is complaining that the museums can't buy objects. But then he goes on to say that they have more objects than they know what to do with, so much so that he would even want to sell some.

I would want to see something different: Let's use the objects in the museums' storerooms and build more enzyklopedic museums in ... let's see: Mexico, Tansania, China etc.

The USA could easily pay for it by cutting their military budget by 1% !

Paul Barford said...

Well, I wonder how sincere the author is anyway. But yes, it would be nice to see western resources being used to support cultural activities in so-called Third World countries.

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