Thursday 6 September 2018

Museums and the Dirty Art

Professor Elizabeth Marlowe (Program Director, Museum Studies Colgate University, Hamilton, NY) has written a powerful piece of public scholarship for Hyperallergic  ('Seizure of Looted Antiquities Illuminates What Museums Want Hidden' 6th Sept 2018). This talks about the seizure of over 20,000 precious art objects by the Italian Carabinieri’s Division for the Protection of Cultural Heritage in Operation Demetra, and its implications for museums. In her text though, she focuses on a photo of a lopped-off marble head (how do the necks often get broken like that?), probably a 1st century CE portrait of a member of the Julio-Claudian imperial family. She draws attention to the way the thing is shown ('not at all how we’ve become accustomed to seeing ancient sculpture presented').
Museum and art market photograph[s] usually features pieces like this  [...] situate the piece in an other-worldly realm, one far removed from any actual specific, physical location. The non-space of these official photographs complements the museum rhetoric of universality. [...] Sometimes the rhetoric of universality takes on a more literal and pragmatic meaning, as when self-proclaimed “universal museums” claim the right to own — and retain — objects from every corner of the globe, regardless of the dubious circumstances by which they may have acquired them. 
She draws attention to the details of the Europol press release photo, 'teeming with details that anchor the ancient portrait in a very particular and very mundane realm'. The object lies on a carpeted floor among dilapidated furniture, the 'photographer was apparently untroubled by the disarray surrounding it'.

These details not only root the image in a specific earthly setting; they also introduce a concept art world insiders usually take pains to hide from the general public: the inevitably messy human agency behind the removal and relocation of artworks or cultural objects from their original context to their end destination in a gallery display. [...] The Europol photograph is a stark reminder that many of those polished marble masterpieces on their spotlit museum pedestals were once merely raw goods on the floor of a crook’s cluttered living room. The alchemy is usually carefully hidden from view; museums do everything they can to keep our attention away from the men behind the curtain. [...]  The truth is that the route to the gallery is often ugly, built on crime, brute force, and lies. When we catch a glimpse of that reality, we must not look away.
Indeed not.  I think it’s worth pointing out that it’s not just museums that do this photographic ‘not-of-this-world’ thing, but a lot of dealers – not just top-end ones also indulge in it.

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