Have American Museums Initiated "Real Change"?

Lee Rosenbaum has a very interesting post detailing her thoughts of the “Return of Cultural Objects” conference held in Athens this week. She participated in the panel titled “Museums, Sites and Cultural Context”, and described her own presentation as follows:

[I] lampooned (and occasionally praised) strategies used in labeling and installing antiquities by American museums, which often have scant information about the archaeological context of objects in their collections. I was struck by the contrast between American labels and those at Athens’ National Archaeological Museum, where almost every object is accompanied by information on where it was found.

I ended by championing the view that I share in common with my hosts, singling out two examples from U.S. museums that fit the Parthenon marbles theme—ancient objects that had been fragmented and should be reassembled through the amicable cooperation of the different owners.

However she expressed a more unpopular view when she argued, in sharp contrast to Ricardo Elia, that “there had been substantial recent changes in American museums’ antiquities-collecting policies, which had been implemented to varying degrees.” It’s great to get this kind of quick reaction to the discussion. As to the substance of the claim, whether there has been real change, I think Rosenbaum is probably right, but only for a limited number of museums. A couple institutions, the Getty and the Indianapolis Museum of Art have very strict acquisition policies that are the gold-standard. However these kinds of policies are still voluntary, and there are a number of other institutions who are still dragging their feet. Look to the recent raids in California of LACMA and other institutions for evidence of a failure to reform. Ultimately, both Elia and Rosenbaum are correct, depending on which institutions they might be discussing.

This calls to mind the recent string of repatriations from North American institutions, which can be seen as responses to earlier acquisition policies which may have been lacking. Stacey Falkoff, a third-year law student at Brooklyn Law School has published an interesting student note, Mutually-Beneficial Repatriation Agreements: Returning Cultural Patrimony, Perpetuating the Illicit Antiquities Market in 16 Brooklyn Journal of Law and Policy 265 (2007). She does a great job of describing and compiling the recent string of repatriations, and draws some conclusions. She argues two things essentially, that these Mutually Beneficial Repatriation Agreements (MBRAs) actually perpetuate the illicit trade by mitigating the damage which these institutions suffer when a repatriation takes place, thereby making it easier for museums to acquire potentially-looted objects, and second they hamper the formation of judicial precedent utilizing international conventions.

Certain aspects of these MBRAs may be questioned, however she doesn’t do a good enough job showing how the judicial interpretation may be needed, and she falls into the trap many student notes have of relying too much on secondary sources and other articles. I would give the piece high marks for thoroughly analyzing these recent agreements, and its well-researched as far as many of these secondary sources.

I’d argue the law may be complex in this area, but more judicial interpretation is not necessarily needed. I would come to a different conclusion. I think these repatriation agreements are a good thing, and I certainly think the Met will think twice before acquiring another “orphan” such as the Euphronios Krater, which was seen as suspicious when it was acquired.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

8 thoughts on “Have American Museums Initiated "Real Change"?”

  1. This debate begs an important question. When are source countries like Greece going to reform their own laws to limit government control to what one can reasonably expect will be adequately studied, preserved and displayed by the State? I understand that Greece is in the process of amending its antiquities laws, but from what I have read, it appears all they are planning is more of the same, i.e., more stringent laws over anything and everything that is “old” with ever more severe punishment for law breakers. The problem of course is that in countries such as Greece, there appears to be little appetite for committing the resources necessary to preserve “everything” as well as a different application of the law to the public based on “who you are” or “who you know.” (See David Gill’s recent post about the collection of a former Greek PM, by way of example.) Countries like Greece need to be “incentivised” to change their laws to recognize there are legitimate interests out there other than archaeologists and the cultural bureaucracies of the State and to focus their control on only the most significant artifacts. As you have suggested elsewhere, investigation of the UK’s PAS and Treasure Act would be a good first step. Unfortunately, as long as the archaeological community provides uncritical support to the jingoism of governments like that in power in Greece,real reform will never happen.

  2. No changes in either laws or acquisition policies, in themselves, will make very much of a difference to the looting of archaeological sites for the illicit market. What is needed is to link any such changes to some tax mechanism that will impose costs on the dealers and collectors and will dedicate these tax revenues towards site protection and enforcement efforts. Dealers and collectors should be calling for such a system, and in the meantime should show their good faith by creating and funding foundations focused on the problem of how to secure sites.

  3. Though it’s over two years old now, an article that gives the opposite view is N. Brodie and C. Renfrew, ‘Looting and the World’s Archaeological Heritage: The Inadequate Response’, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 34, 2005, pp.343-361. Brodie and Renfrew say that American institutions have actually gone backwards since the good intentions expressed in earlier years:

    “Despite clear calls from many archaeologists, anthropologists,
    and museum curators and directors —
    and the clear positions adopted and energetically advocated, for instance by the AIA, the SAA, and ICOM, which will be noted below —
    most museums continue to lack clear and transparent ethical acquisition policies. Some museums continue to purchase or to accept
    loans or gifts of artifacts whose origin and history has not been clearly established. And yet they manage to do so without the widespread public condemnation and apparently without the evident concern among their trustees
    which might be expected, and which may be the only way of putting an end to such trafficking, and of reducing the looting upon which
    it feeds. Although nearly all museums proclaim that they will not acquire cultural material
    emerging from Iraq in the aftermath of the war, we predict that, within a few years, some museums will do just that, either claiming ignorance of the origins of the objects, or perhaps even claiming that they are saving
    the cultural heritage of humankind. Some museums have already acquired material from Afghanistan.”

    I wonder if people think this is still valid? After all, it was the threat or reality of legal action and diplomatic spats rather than any ethical motivations that have forced (some) museums to change tack.

    W.Anderson

  4. Will, I think you raise a good point. Brodie and Renfrew are respected voices. However, I think a great deal has changed since this article. When we’re speaking about the practices of “American Museums”, I think its crucial to be specific. Again, the Getty and the Indianapolis Museum of Art have set the gold standard, and will not be able to acquire objects recently looted from Iraq for example.

    Other institutions have not held themselves to such a standard, and as a result may indeed acquire some of these objects. Of course museums are just one aspect. Individuals buy these objects as well, and these acquisition policies have little to do with them, unless of course these people donate them to a museum for tax and other benefits.

    As to the earlier comment by Professor Rothfield, I think we do need to find a way to use the antiquities transactions which do take place help fund protection, enforcement or site security. Such a proposal presents tremendous logistical problems: who implements the tax, will it be international, will it be voluntary, who allocates the funds, etc. However, there is a precedent to be found perhaps in contemporary art sales in the EU through something like the droite de suite.

  5. Individuals buy these objects as well, and these acquisition policies have little to do with them, unless of course these people donate them to a museum for tax and other benefits.

    Absolutely, and it is through this process – looter to dealer to individual to institution – that stolen goods are consecrated as legitimate. Which is why it has everything to do with the standard that prestigious, ‘reputable’ institutions set. In the end, many antiquities bought by individuals do end up in museums. I think closing the tax incentives would be good, but this only covers the ‘high end’ of the market, and doesn’t address the other, less tangible benefits – prestige, connections, access to networks, self importance – that donors might enjoy.

    I stand by my point that many museums, not all, but especially those with substantial collecting budgets, would be unwilling to change if they were not forced to. And I can hardly see dealers and collectors making life difficult for themselves. This is why whatever schemes or mechanisms are brought in, they will not be as effective as changing attitudes to antiquities collecting, to make it socially unacceptable.

    W.Anderson

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  7. I read the other day about how many pieces of art are lost in the “black market”, things that belongs to museums are in private collections or rich people own them.

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