Moving Cultural Property

Alasdair Palmer has half a good article titled The greatest art should not be moving in yesterday’s Telegraph. Why half? He only gives one view of the argument against transporting cultural property (though Italian Senator Paulo Amato surely agrees).

The background for the article is the exhibition at the British Museum of 20 terracotta figures from the grave of Chinese emperor Qin Shihuangdi. It is the largest number of these figures to ever leave China. Palmer does a good job of giving the argument against transporting works. But only by summarizing the work of Michael Daley and Michael Savage in the ArtWatch UK Journal, which I have been unable to track down.

Palmer cites the following:

In 1994 the Tate lent two Turners to a Frankfurt museum, but they were stolen and were not returned until a £2 million ransom was paid.

  • Canova’s Three Graces developed a crack when it was transported to Madrid in 1998.
  • A Swiss Air jet carrying Picasso’s Le Peintre was lost when a Swiss Air flight crashed off Nova Scotia.
  • Speculation exists that some of the 251 Assyrian objects the British Museum shipped to Shangai in 2006 were partially damaged.
  • The Goya which went missing last year is cited as well. Though it was incorrectly assumed it came from Spain. It was actually on its way from Cleveland. It was also recovered.

Those are some good examples of the drawbacks; but these traveling exhibitions do a great deal of good as well. It promotes cultural internationalism, improves access, allows institutions and source nations to raise funds. Most importantly traveling exhibitions allow for compromise between ardent cultural nationalists, and those who think art should be accessible internationally. There are right and wrong ways to go about it to be sure, and there are risks. But Palmer gives only half the picture, and even that is inaccurate. Perhaps the biggest inaccuracy: there are 1,000 of these figures excavated, and perhaps as many as 6,000 more which have yet to be unearthed. Are the risks of damage to a select few enough to outweigh the benefits? I think not.

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