Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Setting high ethical standards for collecting antiquities

Ka Nefer Nefer mummy mask. Source: SLAM
Victoria Reed, from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has been discussing the need for due diligence in museums ("How should museums respond to art smuggling scandals?", Apollo January 24, 2017). This is clearly an important issue for the museum as it was one of the first of the North American museums to return objects to Italy in the wake of the Medici Conspiracy (see  "From Boston to Rome: reflections on returning antiquities").

Reed makes an important point about 'verified' information; I choose to talk about 'authenticated' documentation. How to we chart the collecting history of an object? What are the confirmed sources?

I was taken by this section:
If, however, an investigation turns up looted antiquities in a museum collection (for example, if photographs show an object shortly after it was illicitly removed from the ground, or if its provenance documentation was demonstrably forged), then a museum has an obligation to redress the break in the chain of that object’s ownership in some way. Usually such a resolution is achieved through a financial settlement with, or physical return to, the country of modern discovery. Museums hold their collections as public trusts, and no museum should wish knowingly to retain stolen property on behalf of the public.
It is worth returning to the case of the Ka Nefer Nefer mummy case at the St Louis Art Museum ("The Case of the Ka Nefer Nefer Mummy Mask"). Now that the email discussions have been made public it would be appropriate for the museum to revisit the acquisition and to start negotiating with the Egyptian authorities.

Minoan larnax. Source Becchina archive, and Carlos Museum
And what about the Minoan larnax in the Carlos Museum at Emory University? Why has there been no attempt to resolve this claim from Greece that has been on-going for so many years? Is the imagery from the Becchina unconvincing for the museum curators? How do they explain the images and the documentation?

Reed, I am sure, is sincere in what she writes. But her writing does not take full account of museums in North America that have yet to adjust their ethical positions in defiance of their public and educational roles.

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1 comment:


We share entirely the view that a museum has an obligation to return artefacts in its collection which are undoubtedly looted or stolen. However, apart from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, we do not have many examples of Western museums voluntarily returning looted or stolen artefacts to their countries of origin. Can we hope that Western museums will ever accept that keeping looted or stolen objects cannot be considered as good behaviour for respected institutions? Can we hope that the positions taken by Phillipe de Montebello, James Cuno, Neil MacGregor and others, will be seen as what they were: attempts to justify the unjustifiable looting of artefacts of others and in some cases- Asante, Beijing, Benin, Ethiopia- with incredible violence?
There should be no attempts to introduce some form of limitation of actions or time limits in a matter where morality sets no limits. Once there is abundant evidence that an artefact in its collection has been looted or stolen, a respectable museum should seek contact with the owners to arrive at some acceptable settlement. We should avoid the unseemly situation where the history books all concur that certain items, such as the Benin bronzes, have been looted and yet the museum deploys several baseless arguments for not returning the object. Morality cannot be subject to convenient time limits as western museums and their supporters have so far been trying.
Kwame Opoku.


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