Thursday, 31 March 2011

Response to Mary Beard's suggestion

This post originally started out as a comment on Rafael's post called "The looting of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and dispersal of major treasures around the world", but I've put it down as a post now because the blog said it couldn't post the comment because it was too long. Anyway, this comment took far too long to write, mainly because I can’t figure out a way to put my thoughts down without offending someone and partly because I find this entire debate extremely frustrating because there is no easy way to resolve the dilemma that Mary Beard brings up! I feel extremely conflicted about what she says. Like I’m standing with one leg in the ‘nationalist camp’ and the other in the ‘internationalist camp’. However, I promised Rafael that I would comment, so here goes my futile attempt at making a contribution to the debate…

In a way I can sympathise with what Mary Beard is saying (but yes, depending on your viewpoint her timing is either perfect or rotten). After all, she’s calling for a dispersal of major antiquities through the world because it’s not always such a clever idea to keep all your artefacts in one location (as this makes the location an easy target for looting and destruction). It therefore seems logical and sensible to disperse antiquities and it’s far from the first time I’ve heard someone put this argument forward, but I will explain why I don’t think this idea will ever work out.

Before you start throwing stones at me, think about the following for a moment. People seem perfectly willing to support the ideas of ‘world heritage’ and the ‘cultural heritage of mankind’ (1954 Hague Convention) until the matter of ownership is touched upon. Countries such as Greece and Italy, which have made and still make claims to have artefacts returned, seem more than willing to share their heritage by lending objects out to international museums. The issue therefore seems to be the ownership of the artefacts, and perhaps not their actual location? I’m not sure how I should interpret Mary Beard’s recommendation about the dispersal of antiquities. Is she ‘merely’ advocating the relocation of antiquities or is she talking about the transfer of ownership to other countries?

I recently had a very interesting class about the ‘nationalist vs internationalist’ debate at UCL in which Marina Papa Sokal, one of my lecturers, put forward the idea of ‘the international circulation of art and antiquities among public institutions’. She suggested that countries should collaborate more with each other in ‘museum-to-museum exchanges’ in order to ensure the circulation and accessibility of cultural heritage. She even went as far as to suggest that museums should be allowed to sell off their objects to museums in other countries and then use the money in order to enrich their own collections by buying antiquities from perhaps yet another museum.

The problem I have with her idea is that I don’t see how it could work out. Or perhaps the problem is that I can see EXACTLY how this would work out. Where would poorer countries get the money from to be able to acquire these artefacts and conserve and protect them? In the end it would still be the rich Western museums that would end up with the largest and best collections because they are the only ones who can afford to acquire and keep them. And if you follow that up, you have to decide whether what some internationalists in Western countries are trying to accomplish with this is actually, as Prott suggested, a new sort of cultural imperialism ‘based as it seems to be on the activities of those from wealthy countries with each other and with poorer states whose cultural resources are flowing in one direction, without an equal exchange’.

I liked that Marina said that ‘inhabitants of poor countries might want or deserve access to objects from other cultures and not just their own’. But to me it sounds too idealistic and not realistic enough. Which of its major British antiquities do you think the BM will send to Sudan or Congo for safekeeping?

Papa-Sokal, M., 2009. Beyond the nationalist-internationalist polarisation in the protection of archaeological heritage: A response to Professor Merryman. Art Antiquity and Law 14: 237-274.

Prott, L.V., 2005. The international movement of cultural objects. International Journal of Cultural Property 12: 225-248.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Oh those clever Ancient Greek...

I’ve just read a highly enlightening book called “The Parthenon” by Mary Beard (yes, she who advocates the dispersal of antiquities around the world) and found something very interesting on page 123.

“At some point after the building was finished … a shallow pool of water was installed in front of the statue. Referring back to this feature at another point on his travels, Pausanias explains that the idea was to increase the humidity and so prevent the ivory drying out.”

Copyright image: Social Travellers Site - I don’t know how accurate this image is and whether the pool was actually this large, but it still looks rather impressive, right?

So… Does this mean the Ancient Greek ‘invented’ preventive conservation? Has anyone read anything about earlier examples of people trying to conserve material culture in such a manner?

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Aphrodite statue is repatriated to Sicily

Jason Felch (Los Angeles Times) reports the statue, formerly on display at the Getty Villa, was "quietly escorted back to Sicily" last week.

"The 7-foot tall, 1,300-pound statue of limestone and marble was painstakingly taken off display at the Getty Villa and disassembled in December. Last week, it was locked in shipping crates with an Italian diplomatic seal and loaded aboard an Alitalia flight to Rome, where it arrived on Thursday. From there it traveled with an armed police escort by ship and truck to the small hilltop town of Aidone, Sicily, where it arrived Saturday to waiting crowds."

Read the whole article here:

Getty ships Aphrodite statue to Sicily

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