Monday, 12 November 2012

Who Owns Antiquity?

I was astonished today to read a headline in a Halle (Saale) Germany newspaper that the Archaeology Department of that city’s University was shipping back to Australia their unique collection of Aboriginal skeletons! It reminded me of Blake Gopnik’s perceptive essay,” Who Owns Antiquity?” (Newsweek, September 17, 2012, pp.52-53). It began with the fascinating detail that in 1966, the archaeological museum at the University of Pennsylvania bought a unique collection of gorgeous Bronze Age gold pieces from a private dealer in Philadelphia. They didn’t know about how this purchase would revolutionize future museum behavior, globally.

Penn had no idea about where or how these 24 gold objects had been found. That left the researchers with few clues as to where or when the gold had been worked or by whom. They suspected it had been dug up by looters! In their frustration they decided to prevent such “homelessness” for other antiquities! In 1970 they declared that the Penn museum would no longer acquire ancient objects if their legal provenience could not be determined. Later that year, UNESCO declared a convention on cultural property that other responsible institutions have followed to this day.

Last month Penn declared a corollary. It rejected the 1966 rule of thumb, by returning the acquisition of the Trojan Gold to Turkey on indefinite loan, to be displayed in a new museum near Troy itself.(They reached a bargain with the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism.) Chemical analysis had determined that a speck of dirt lodged in the 2,600 year old jewelry came from near Troy, although long before Homer’s war there. What did Penn get in this deal? Its museum will host shows about great Turkish excavations as well as have priviledged access to those digs. 

How civilized a solution to a world globally shrinking as its intellectual heritage deepens. Brian Rose, a Penn archeologist involved in these negotiations, argues that his museum is interested like others in the “archaeological narratives” that go with such objects which should be displayed near the site where they were excavated. He noted that Penn wanted to make a strong statement about looting and cultural preservation. “Archaeologists,” he argues,  "have to be diplomats as much as they have to know the archaeology of the ancient world, because there’s a political dimension to everything we do now.”

Take the Cleveland Museum of Art’s recent purchase of a beautiful head of Drusus Minor, the bloodthirsty son of the Roman emperor Tiberius, the “Caesar” Christ wanted us to “render unto”. The museum’s director, David Franklin, believes this marble sculpture will be among the CMA’s top 50 treasures. Alas, he also recognized the 2000 year old object had no solid paper trail of acquisition. The French family which put it up for sale in 2004 brought it to France in 1960, where they moved from Algeria, and they had already owned it for almost a century. 

Franklin argued “that they did as much if not more than anyone could have done to research the this object. . .if all the arrows are pointing in one direction, you can make a reasoned assumption.” The inevitable risks that this assumption might turn out wrong are balanced by the open access visitors and scholars now have to enjoy the work. He argues that such works were not created as “antiquities”. They were meant to please from Day One. And great museums take better care of such masterpieces than most private owners.

There is another downside to the tradition of repatriation begun at Penn. They play into the ambition of every member of the U.N. to possess any and all objects created within their current boundaries. Except that over centuries a marble bust like Drusus belonged to many different countries, not all equally qualified to protect their great value to the greater “nation” of art lovers.

James Cuno, now the head of the Getty Museum in L.A., has perhaps made the last and most credible judgment about “possession” in his classic book, “Who Owns Antiquity?” Cuno rejects the assumption that “modern nation-states own the cultural remains of antiquity that lie within their boundaries simply because they are found there.

These claims are motivated by nationalist politics intent on strengthening government claims of political legitimacy by appealing to racial, ethnic and cultural pride.” One could argue that in an intellectual struggle between individual groups and the entire human community, the larger trumps the smaller. We value great art because it civilizes the free. And we value all human communities, whatever their size. We all “own” antiquity when we freely learn from it and share our esthetic joys with others. So down with looters and up with lovers!

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