Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Exhibition Argues that Western Museums Destroyed History

It's a circular argument sort of question really: If Western museums had not created a market for antiquities, when would the nations now blaming them for destroying their history have begun to notice the importance of the world buried beneath them and taken steps to protect it from the armies of home-grown looters who sold it off? I suspect that's not one of the questions raised in the traveling exhibition "Lost History" which has recently moved from the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia to the Benaki Museum in Athens, but I wish it were:

The trade in looted antiquities has been a controversial topic among museum heads and cultural patrimony officials in recent months, with Greece and Italy demanding the return of illegally excavated artefacts from major museums, such as the Getty in Los Angeles and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Now, a multi-media exhibition examining the trafficking of antiquities is travelling from the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia to the Benaki Museum in Athens. Organised by the Greek documentary and television production company Anemon, History Lost (until 22 October) traces the looting of archaeological sites around the world and aims to demonstrate how objects lose their historic value when taken out of their native setting. The show implies that the market for smuggled antiquities is largely due to the establishment of Western institutions such as the Louvre, the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum.
There's not much more information than that on the Anemon website, but there are a number of photos of children and a few adults with headphones on staring at a small screen, suggesting a good chunk of this exhibition could be delivered online and not require anyone to travel to Greece, but....

Getting back to that notion that "the market for smuggled antiquities is largely due to the establishment of Western institutions," though, I can't see any reason to argue with that, but the underlying indictment is that the establishment of institutions created to protect and cherish history has, in a large sense, had the opposite effect. From the Anemon website:

"The looting of archaeological sites is still widespread, and in some countries so severe as to undermine any hope of establishing a proper history of these lands.

Let us remember that the most important loss occasioned by looting, is the loss of information. With the destruction of such sites the context of the finds is lost, even if the finds survive..."

---Lord Colin Renfrew, archaeologist
Sidebar: Lord Colin Renfrew is listed on Cambridge's website as "Formerly Disney Professor of Archaeology and Director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research" (I'm sure they're not the same Disney and McDonald that spring to mind in the US, but it was too amusing to not point out in the context of someone quoted on what's destroying culture.)

So essentially, Western institutions are responsible for the destruction of the context of the objects looted to fill their coffers and that makes it much harder, if not impossible, to establish a proper history of these lands. I can accept that argument, although it seems a bit too convenient for those original countries, who now stand to benefit from the awareness of the importance of their culture that the dreaded Western institutions raised, not to mention the value of those objects they restored, cataloged, wrote about, and created an appreciating price tag for.

More than that, I wish countries like Greece and Cyprus could find ways now to collaborate with the Western institutions, without all the finger pointing. I in no way support the illegal practices we know brought many objects into the museums of Paris, New York, and LA, but I don't think it will benefit the modern states sitting over ancient cultures to continually alienate them in the long run either. There's a wealth of experience and information that could be shared to a mutual benefit. Prosecute criminals as appropriate, but stop short of hosting these traveling "shame on you" circuses, which could find as many villians in the original countries as they do overseas if they looked hard enough.


Anonymous ml said...

I wonder what percentage of looted objects have found their way into museums, what percentage are in private hands. Looting, after all, has a long history, not just in the West, not just in the past 150 years with the rise of museums.

We all covet beauty.

9/13/2006 02:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Edward -

You sound an awful lot like a neo-con expecting those third worlders to be grateful for the "benveloent" intervention of Westerners...shame on you!

9/13/2006 03:25:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Shame on me?


I don't like imperialistic impulses any more than the next card-carrying member of the ACLU, but, agan, there are more productive ways to conduct the dialog on looting than pointing fingers and a lack of careful framing that will serve to paint any Western museum with some artifact as guilty of the most criminal of them.

And to be really specific it, it borders on illogical to asserr that "the market for smuggled antiquities is largely due to the establishment of Western institutions," when clearly it wasn't the establishment of the those institutions, but rather their collecting practices. Nothing prevented them from conducting themselves under the strictest of ethical standards, then or now.

But from what's available on this exhibition, it looks like they're working off a simplistic equation: western institutions = destruction of history. For people in the antiquity business, you think they could raise the bar a bit.

9/13/2006 05:21:00 PM  
Anonymous ml said...

But still - where does most of the work in museums come from? Collections donated to the museums.

9/13/2006 07:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Karl Zipser said...

In The Netherlands, there are many medieval cathedrals that are white inside and empty of artwork and sculpture. It was mostly destroyed in the Beeldenstorm ("sculpture storm", or iconoclastic fury) in the late 16th century. What did this lost religious artwork look like? If a foreign culture had stolen some of the artwork before it was destroyed, we might know the answer better than we do now.

Most ancient bronze sculpture was recycled for the metal. What remains is from odd circumstances (ship lost at sea, sculpture that was struck by lightening buried for superstitious reasons, or mistaken identity (for Constantine)). It would be interesting to see what gets preserved from our culture.

9/14/2006 03:20:00 AM  
Blogger kurt said...

You sound an awful lot like a neo-con ... shame on you! - anonymous

I love it when people throw rocks from the safety of anonymity.

And I really love it when people try to stop a discussion through shame. It's the impulse that connects the politically correct and the religious right -- faithful enforcers of the herd mentality.

Both substitute knee-jerk self-righteousness for thought. And lack of thought -- lack of the desire to think -- is what's landed us in this mess.

Anonymous, you sound an awful lot like the mirror image of a knee-jerk right-winger.

9/14/2006 07:14:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Europa took America many years after the arabs took what is now Israel, yet we haven't yet considered the possibility that America belongs to the Natives
(like we gave Israel back to the Jews). Canada does have all the native names for cities! Just
like Israel cities had jewish names.

So yes, it's true that we could enter the Metropolitan or the Louvres and say "ok..give this backs to greeks, give this back to Egypt, give this back to Thailand, etc" but...

Where do you draw a line?
Where would it end? How far back
back should we move into scrutinizing historical guilt?

Also this brings in mind this alarming point: recently a Museum in Canada had to give back many paintings to a descendant of a victim of Holocaust looting.
Of course, we all know this is the right thing to do. The sad part for culture though is when the person decides to sell these paintings back in auctions and they get lost in private collections.

My father's family was victim of stallinism too, you know? Should I go back to dig all what was stolen?
Should I do this now?

I mean if there was a way to loot the Frick Museum so that all the art shown there would belong to the public (say, the Metropolitan)..I am not so sure I would be so much against that looting. In the end I guess I am more concerned about a war private VS public than anything specifically geographic.

Give that statuette back to Brazil if it really needs it but at least put in a public museum over there (near Sao Paulo Biennial, please, not Rio).

This question is very tough to answer. Estates of rights kill art. I think art should be public domain after 400 years.


Cedric Che Che

(what's wrong with Frick? Nothing really, apart that they don't allow non-flash photography which I find irritating in context of historical masterpieces)

9/14/2006 03:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Andrew Kreps said...


"I love it when people throw rocks from the safety of anonymity."

I love it when people are naive enough to believe that a name someone uses to post comments on a blog is any more legitimate (or "truthful" or "brave") than using "anonymous."

"And I really love it when people try to stop a discussion through shame."

Two things - first, it was not an attempt to stop discussion, but to spark it. Secondly, try to square your disdain of "shaming" with your subsequent profusion of insults - way to set an example. Yes, you clearly show a "desire to think..."

It is clearly "knee-jerk self-righteousness" to object to the patronizing "benevolence" of the West. Yes, what a blowhard one must be to object to colonial looting of indigenous artifacts. Those people should be grateful that Western Civ. cares enough to steal, and thus, preserve their culture...yes the primitives should be so lucky!

Kurt, you sound an awful lot like someone desperate to steer traffic to their web presence to stoke interest in an otherwise irrelevant painting career.

9/15/2006 03:37:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Edward, I had no idea you were in such a rough neighborhood. Next time I visit I'm going to be very careful.

9/15/2006 05:12:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Well, I'd be flattered to think Andrew was commenting here, but I'm not at all convinced that's him there either (call me a skeptic...I don't think Andrew would insult an artist's career). Andrew if that is you, send me an email.

Include an explanation, if you don't mind, for why it's neo-con-ish to import another culture, elevating and celebrating it (I thought the idea of neo-conservatism was to export one's own culture).


9/15/2006 07:32:00 PM  
Anonymous anemon said...

dear edward,
thank you for your passionate interest in our exhibition -although it's a pity you haven't actually seen it, and are misinterpreting it's position (all texts are written by archaeologist Neil Brodie (University of Cambridge), investigative journalist Peter Watson and author Andreas Apostolidis).

History Lost does not suggest that western institutions = destruction of history.

Quote from the exhibition: "The tension between these two ways of viewing antiquities -as objects of art or as objects of historical knowledge- has persisted until the present day. And although the two viewpoints are not mutually exclusive, the blind pursuit of antiquities for their artistic value alone has entailed the destruction of archaeological sites around the world."

The exhibition focuses on the post-1970 period (after the signing of the UNESCO Convention about the protection of cultural heritage) and shows how most of the objects appearing on the antiquities market today have been illicitly excavated. The problem with this is that illicitly excavated objects have no historical provenance and have lost most of their historical value. Many of the examples we refer to,such as the "Aidonia Treasure" and the Corinth Museum theft, show that the tomb robbers or thieves were Greeks. Relax! we are not throwing all of the blame on you!

Hope you will be able to see the exhibition one day.

9/17/2006 05:10:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


Thanks for your thoughtful response to the post. I'm sure I would enjoy visiting your exhibition (will it travel to the US?).

I did, however, try to make it clear that my understanding of what the exhibition is about was taken from the little information about it I could find. The equation (western institutions = destruction of history) was taken from a news story about the exhibition [The show implies that the market for smuggled antiquities is largely due to the establishment of Western institutions such as the Louvre, the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum.] not your actual press release, but I could find nothing on your website or the museum's website to contradict it.

I'm still stuck on that idea, however, and wonder if you might clarify it. You note that

The exhibition focuses on the post-1970 period (after the signing of the UNESCO Convention about the protection of cultural heritage) and shows how most of the objects appearing on the antiquities market today have been illicitly excavated.

I'm not sure how that can be pinned on the establishment of Western Institutions, which were clearly established long before 1970 (isn't it more likely that greed on both sides created the looting problem, not the institutions' mission to protect and educate?) Or is that not a statement your exhibition asserts?

If not, there's confusion out there that perhaps your website could clarify.

9/17/2006 09:38:00 AM  
Blogger Karl Zipser said...

Hi Edward Winkleman,

I've looked around for your email address, but I can't find it. It occurred to me that maybe you don't want to get email, or maybe you want to encourage people to comment in public on the blog. I'm not sure which is the answer, but I would like to know.

[I put this in an older post," Exhibition Argues that Western Museums Destroyed History" so as not to get the latest thread off topic.]


Karl Zipser

9/20/2006 08:09:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

hi Karl

you can always email me via the gallery website

all the best,

9/20/2006 10:49:00 AM  

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