Museums Antiquities and Archaeology News USA

New deal for donors with problem antiquities

US museums promise to be more open about lack of provenance, but are new rules too flexible?

Just the kind of object that museums don’t want to acquire unwittingly: a looted pot recovered by the Carabinieri in 2005. Photo: Chris Helgren/REUTERS

How art museums across North America collect archaeology and ancient art in an ethical way, avoiding the harm to institutional reputations and financial losses incurred if an item turns out to be looted, is under the spotlight after the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) changed its guidelines for its 200-plus members at the end of January.

Along with the new guidelines, the AAMD is improving its online database of objects without a cast-iron provenance that members have acquired: now, full disclosure about an object’s past and the reasons for its acquisition is obligatory. Of particular concern are the objects bequeathed or promised by donors before 2008, when the association tightened its rules on antiquities.

State of limbo

Such works exist in a “limbo or orphan state”, says David Franklin, the director of the Cleveland Museum of Art and one of the 15-strong task force of directors who developed the new guidelines. ­Before 2008, the AAMD deemed ten years’ provenance sufficient for an acquis­ition, but since then, the ­association has asked its members, and any would-be donors, to show a history going back to 1970 for their objects.

The new guidelines “mean there’s a lot more transparency and make conversations [with donors] much more positive and proactive”, Franklin says. “It will allow more objects to be brought into the public domain. It’s something that we need to keep stressing, for these objects to be researched.” He accepts that more objects may be returned to their countries of origin.

Changing the guidelines and compelling members to be more transparent is welcomed by Neil Brodie, a senior research fellow at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow, but he is underwhelmed. “It’s pretty hard to fall foul of the guidelines. They say something along the lines of: ‘If the object doesn’t have a complete provenance back to 1970, you should not acquire it, unless there are good reasons.’ And then it gives a list of six facts that you might take into account, but also says it’s not limited to that. So basically you can think up any reason you want.”

Brodie wants museums to appoint a person responsible for due diligence, with the power to decide on the legality of an acquisition. “The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has moved a bit towards this,” he says. (Cleveland’s first provenance researcher starts work this month.) At present, accountability is typically “dispersed” among museum trustees, which Brodie says gives cover to “people who want to act irresponsibly”.

Greater transparency

Laetitia La Follette, the vice-president for professional responsibilities at the Archaeological Institute of America, says greater transparency about acquisitions is a good thing. Referring to the object registry, she says: “The justification field is really important. [When] the Walters [Art Museum] acquired 300 objects from the Bourne Collection, it did not explain its justification for acquisition. Now museums will have to, so that’s an improvement.” Gary Vikan, the director of the Walters, says: “We account for 60% of the registry.” He stresses that the museum is addressing the “tough question of provenance” that is hanging over the promised gift of controversial Pre-Columbian artefacts.

Critics fear the AAMD’s new guidelines offer its members leeway to make more exceptions to the rules when acquiring antiquities. Richard Leventhal, the director of the Center for Cultural Heritage and a professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, says: “My biggest concern is not to open up exceptions to the 1970 rule to a huge number of objects that came out afterwards. Are these new guidelines being strengthened, as people say they are, or, in fact, have they opened up a series of exceptions to the rule that allow museums to take on many objects that came out after 1970 but have been in private hands?”

In response, a spokeswoman for the AAMD says that the revised guidelines “apply only to a limited group of objects, and do not represent a proliferating group of potential ­acquis­itions”.

There are others who feel that US museums have gone too far in repatriating objects to appease countries such as Italy, Greece and Turkey. “Looting is a terrible scourge,” wrote Hugh Eakin in a comment piece published in the New York Times just before the AAMD’s announcement. “But in zealously responding to trophy hunting from abroad, museums are doing little to protect ancient heritage while making great art ever less available to their own patrons.”

Maxwell Anderson, the director of the Dallas Museum of Art, who led the AAMD’s task force, says it is irresponsible to argue that US museums should collect as they please. “As a director, you are responsible for the people you work with,” he says. “It’s not just a philosophical question; it’s a very real question about doing what’s right. People who are sceptical [of the guidelines] find their scepticism vanishes when a federal marshal visits.”

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15 Mar 13
15:14 CET


Political corectness may make museum directors feel good, but it's damaging scholarship. "National patrimony" has a really checkered record. Many of the countries yelling the loudest - Egypt and Peru, for example - have allowed destruction of the artifacts they were supposedly "protecting". (Tut and the Gallo Musuem, anyone?) And the people claiming this as their "unique heritage" aren't the same people - the Quechua indians or ancient Egyptians - as the folks who created the pieces. This policy is causing destruction on antiquities and driving them from public view. It's a seriously bad idea.

12 Mar 13
18:57 CET


Museums and collectors need to begin to take a broader view of what it means to "do what's right". Having clean hands is morally right but as Eakins notes does little to address the problem of looting going forward. The right thing for museums and collectors to do about that problem is to push for and contribute to funding in support of archaeological site protection (more guards, involvement of locals in securing sites, technological tools to monitor sites, etc.). In short, it is not enough to do no evil -- active engagement against it is also called for.

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