Sunday, 1 May 2011

Looting, exhibitions & conservation

Various interesting debates emerged this week. Although they are not directly concerned with conservation they are certainly relevant.

First there were news of illicitly acquired artefacts being returned to Egypt by the Mexican government. It is interesting to see Mexico at this end of the negotiation. As Mexico is one of the countries that had its material culture plundered in the past, they certainly know what it is like to be at the opposite end.

There were also news about the reconstruction of four halls at the Baghdad Museum despite the fact that it is closed to the public until further notice. One of the halls will display artefacts recovered after the 2003 looting. According to the reports the museum managed to recover more than 750 objects from Syria, 2,000 from Jordan, and unclosed numbers from the US, Holland, Sweden, Germany, Poland and Peru.

Quite a lot of space has been dedicated to the discussion of an exhibition organized by the government of Singapore in collaboration with the Smithsonian Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. The material to be displayed was salvaged by a privately-held German company from a shipwreck off the Indonesian coast. It includes pottery, rare pieces of porcelain , silver and gold. Although there has not been a final decision, the exhibition is tentatively scheduled for the spring of 2012. The company  is said to have sold the salvaged material to the Singapore government. It is worth to note that Indonesia has not ratified the 2001 UNESCO convention, therefore, this kind of operation is considered legal.

This has generated a lot of concern in the last few weeks and the Smithsonian is being asked to terminate the collaboration. The NYT, for example, reports that the Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology said that by proceeding with the exhibition the Smithsonian would be violating its own set of professional ethics and promoting the looting of archaeological sites. Various archaeological organizations have expressed similar views.

The board of directors for the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is said to be studying the case and a final decision is expected for May. Given the amount of planning necessary for an exhibition of this scale I cannot even begin to think of how much pressure this is generating for the conservators behind the scenes!

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