European museums to hold Benin Bronze meeting

Benin Bronzes at the V&A Museum in London, via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Benin_Bronzes.JPG

Ben Quinn’s piece in the Guardian sheds light on an interesting forthcoming conference which hopes to “establish a permanent display” of Benin material in Nigeria. The Benin bronzes are in many museums in the West, and viewing them gives me to very different reactions. On the one hand, they are terrific to look at, with wonderful detail. But on the other, many of these objects were seized by the British Empire during an 1897 Punitive Campaign. That campaign was as bad as it sounds. To give a brief overview, a British official and his advisors were sent to uncover whether there was ritual human sacrifice taking place in the Kingdom of Benin. When the official and his advisors were killed by the King of Benin, the British responded by destroying the city, and looting as many as 900 of the Benin bronzes to compensate for the costs of the exhibition. Many of these objects were purchased by museums.

Nigeria has requested the return of much of this material, but the museums and collectors who currently possess them have often refused to enter into a dialogue. These negotiations for the return of material can be difficult and contentious, but they do not have to be. Here is hoping the meeting, which will take place in the Netherlands’ National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden will lead to a productive dialogue in the same way that Yale’s return of material to Peru or the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act operates.

Quinn’s story highlights the ethical case driving the dialogue, but also some of the challenges:

“I think that among this generation of curators there is an eagerness to find ways towards reconciliation,” said Dr Michael Barrett, senior curator at Stockholm’s Världskulturmuseet. “We are one of the smaller participants in this and it is very early but we are eager to continue with discussions.”

Among the issues still to be resolved are insurance costs and security arrangements. European curators and their west African counterparts are also keen to establish a legal framework that would guarantee the artefacts immunity from seizure in Nigeria.

John Picton, a professor at Soas University of London (formerly the School of Oriental and African Studies) and a former curator of the National Museum in Lagos, said: “The moral case is indisputable. Those antiquities were lifted from Benin City and you can argue that they ought to go back. On the other hand, the rival story is that it is part of world art history and you do not want to take away African antiquity from somewhere like the museums in Paris or London, because that leaves Africa without its proper record of antiquity.”

Ben Quinn, Western Museums Try to Forge Deal with West Africa to Return the Benin Bronzes, The Guardian, Aug. 0, 2017, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/aug/12/cambridge-benin-bronzes-loan-deal [https://perma.cc/8YTH-FC4G].
Folarin Shyllon, One Hundred Years of Looting of Nigerian Art Treasures 1897-1966, 3 Art antiquity and law 253 (1998).

Orhan Pamuk calls for a different kind of museum

The Museum of Innocence in Istanbul
The Museum of Innocence in Istanbul

Orhan Pamuk was a keynote speaker at the International Council of Museums conference in Milan this week. In his address to the conference he called for a different kind of museum. He offered a vision for what museums could be if they put aside their universal mission.

The Turkish author of the terrific The Museum of Innocence (Vintage International), set the literary foundation for a very different kind of museum. The museum occupies a house in the Çukurcuma neighborhood of Istanbul, near the Pera Museum. Each display cabinet is full of objects from time depicted in the novel, which echo the neighborhood’s antique shops. The museum highlights the lives of the characters depicted in his novel, and is a powerful argument that museums which only focus on grand universal cultures and themes have missed the mark:

All museums are genuine treasures of humankind, but I am against these precious and monumental institutions being used as models for the institutions to come. Museums should explore and uncover the population as a whole and the humanity of the new and modern man that emerges from the growing economies of non-Western countries. I address this manifesto in particular to Asian museums that are experiencing an unprecedented period of growth.

The aim of the great state-sponsored museums is to represent a state and that is neither a good nor innocent aim. Here are my proposals for a new museum, some themes on which we must reflect now more than ever.

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Will Internal Audits be the New Norm for Museums?

This Kushan Buddha statue, bought by the National Gallery in Australia is one of the "questionable" objects flagged in the museum's internal review
This Kushan Buddha statue, bought by the National Gallery in Australia is one of the “questionable” objects flagged in the museum’s internal review

Good news for those who want to encourage museums to thoroughly examine their collections. The National Gallery of Australia has determined that 22 antiquities from Asia have “insufficient or questionable provenance documentation.”

Chasing Aphrodite has a comprehensive roundup, including the dealers and collectors who had possession of these objects:

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Cambodia and Museé Guimet reunite Khmer statue

7th century sculpture of Harihari
7th century sculpture of Harihari

One of the powerful symbols of the gulf separating museums and source communities are the fragments of sculpture which populate so many galleries. It is the best interest of these museums and the source communities to cooperate when possible, which makes the news from Cambodia welcome.

This 7th-century Khmer head has been in the possession of the Museé Guimet for almost 130 years. But now the Art Newspaper reports the statue and the rest of the statue will be reunited:

The head, which has been in the Musée Guimet’s collection since 1889, will remain in Cambodia for the next five years, says the museum curator Thierry Zéphir. It will be reattached to the decapitated body of Harihara, which the National Museum of Cambodia acquired in 1944, after the museum’s conservation team—led by Bertrand Porte of the French School of Asian Studies—confirmed they were a match.

The head was discovered in the late 19th century in a ruined temple at Phnom Da by Etienne Aymonier, a French colonial administrator and the first archaeologist to survey the remains of the Khmer empire. The Lyon industrialist Emile Guimet acquired the fragment, along with other Cambodian artefacts shipped to France for the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, for his ambitious new museum dedicated to the religions of the Far East.

The head of the Harihara statue, which represents the combined gods Vishnu and Shiva, will be on display to the public at the Cambodian national museum today.

  1. Hannah McGivern, French museum reunites head with decapitated Khmer statue (2016), http://theartnewspaper.com/news/conservation/french-museum-reunites-heads-with-decapitated-khmer-statue/ (last visited Jan 20, 2016).

“Yamatane” and temporary art

Yusuke Asai, "Yamatane", Rice University, Houston 2014.
Yusuke Asai, “Yamatane”, Rice University, Houston 2014.

So much effort goes in to thinking about where art belongs, how it should be preserved and conserved. So in many ways I can be guilty of taking the idea of preservation for granted. But more attention should be paid to thinking through what exactly preservation means. After all, preservation comes with costs. And thinking about how much does not get preserved, and how much effort it takes to preserve art and sites can seem overwhelming. Which is why it can be refreshing to just enjoy some art every now and then. Yusuke Asai, a Japanese painter created a massive installation at Rice University titled “yamatane” (Japanese for mountain seed). But you can’t see it any more, it has been “deinstalled”, which was the idea all along. As a result he gently forces the viewer to enjoy and take in the work while you can.

Asai's soil samples from Houston and Texas
Asai’s soil samples from Houston and Texas

He uses dirt and earth as a medium. In Houston he had Rice students and volunteers collect soil samples from around Houston and Texas, which he used to create 27 different shades.

Of his works he says:

I do not decide on a story or meaning before I start painting. Imagery of figures and creatures comes to me in the moent. Fox, bird, cat, and sunshine – everything has a role; parts disappear and something is added. The world accepts it and keeps changing. I begin each work thinking of the countless small things that come together to make a larger world. I choose to use the earth as a medium because I can find dirt anywhere in the world and do not need special materials. Dirt is by nature very different than materials sold in art stores! Seeds grow in it and it is home to any insects and microorganisms. It is a “living” medium.

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‘Art is Therapy’ at the Rijksmuseum

A blinking neon green sign greets visitors at the Rijksmuseum
A blinking neon green sign greets visitors at the Rijksmuseum

 

What should a museum be? Should it be a collection of the world’s masterpieces accumulated in great cities? Should it be a smaller museum devoted to showing the history of a region, town or culture? We think a lot about these big questions around here by responding to questions like ‘Who Owns Antiquity?‘ or what does property and justice require when resolving art disputes.

But in a new project Alain de Botton and John Armstrong have made the case that art can and should be more. Their argument is simple: art can help people leave more interesting and fulfilled lives. Art History as a discipline has much to offer, but the authors argue it should not be the only way to enjoy and experience works of art. Rather than focusing on art historical periods and dates, we can also think more broadly about how the image resonates with the viewer. That’s a bold claim to be sure, but the attempt is exciting and novel in a way that few art museums are able to achieve consistently. De Botton is known for a string of works including: How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Architecture of Happiness, Religion for Atheists, and the terrific The Art of Travel.

The project takes many forms including a website, apps for your phone, a book which makes the full case, and even a new exhibition at the Rijksmuseum.

The exhibition intervention takes the form of large yellow notes which inform and comment on the works on display. Perhaps most remarkable of all, the Rijksmuseum gave these writers access to intervene in the museum on this scale after a lengthy restoration.

So what exactly did they do? Here is one example which reads:

On the wall behind you, probably behind three rows of people, hangs one of the most famous works of art in the world.IMG_2661

This is bad news. The extreme fame of a work of art is almost always unhelpful because, to touch us, art has to elicit a personal response – and that’s hard when a painting is said to be so distinguished. This paintins is quite out of synch with its status in any case because, above all else, it wants to show us that the ordinary can be very special. The picture says that looking after a simple but beautiful home, cleaning the yard, watching over the children, darning clothes – and doing these thngs faithfully and without despair – is life’s real duty.

This is an anti-heroic picture, a weapon against false images of glamour. It refuses to accept that true glamour depends on amazing feats of courage or on the attainment of status. It argues that doing the modest things that are expected of all of us is enough. The picture asks you to be a little like it is: to take the attitudes it loves and to apply them to your life.

If the Netherlands had a Founding Document, a concentrated repository of its values, it would be this small picture. It is the Dutch contribution to the world’s understanding of happiness – and its message doesn’t just belong in the gallery.

Sickness:

Life is elsewhere.

I have a misplaced longing for glamour.

And here, on the day we visited is the view behind us, jam-packed with visitors eager to see Vermeer’s works:

IMG_2659

And a close-up version of the terrific Vermeer described in the intervention:

Johannes_Vermeer_-_Gezicht_op_huizen_in_Delft,_bekend_als_'Het_straatje'_-_Google_Art_Project

This note resonated with me, and I’m sure many others. How strange that sometimes it is easier to achieve the kind of personal connection to a work of art via technology than fighting cell phones and fellow museum-goers.

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