The Art Newspaper reported last week after examining EU documents, that Italy has been stripped of €151m in culture funding next year because regions have failed to spend funds allocated. This includes the loss of funding for Aidone, which is the village near the ancient site of Morgantina:
The EU rejected a request for €2.4m from the Archaeological Museum of Aidone to renovate its galleries because of incomplete documentation and the lack of an “economic framework”. The museum was due to welcome back the Head of Hades (400-300BC), a Hellenistic terracotta fragment that was restored to Sicily by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in January. But the sculpture, thought to have been illegally excavated from a sanctuary at Morgantina in the 1970s, remains in limbo in Palermo, partly because the Aidone museum has not prepared a suitable display for it.
This is a really sad development. It seems now very difficult to square the argument that works of art must be returned when the requesting nation cannot properly manage funding that is available. The step here needs to be capacity building for these smaller museums and regions to properly instruct the employees the expectations of grant requests and the expectations.
There may be another side to this story. The English-language reporting of happenings in Italy often have a Northern-European bias. But its hard to put a positive spin on such wasted resources.
We’ll hopefully be in Aidone and Morgantina in a week’s time—we are able to sneak away from my cultural heritage law course in Valletta, Malta. I hope to have some images and thoughts on the site and museum in Aidone soon.
The head of Hades, likely looted from Morgantina, to return to Aidone in 2014
I’ve received a press release from the Getty announcing it will voluntarily return this terracotta head to Italy, specifically Sicily. It depicts the god Hades, and may date to 400-300 B.C.
The Getty press release is slim on details of the acquisition and on what circumstances led to the decision to make a voluntary return. The release states that “joint research” with colleagues in Sicily since 2010 has brought new information to light “suggesting that it was appropriate to return the object”. The evidence is the discovery of four other terracotta fragments near Morgantina which must match this head in some way. The only mention of wrongdoing in the release states that these four fragments were uncovered at “the site of a sanctuary of Demeter, which was clandestinely excavated in the late 1970s.”
The language of the release is careful and I guess serves its purpose. I wonder if there is room here for an analysis of the shape and form that these press releases. I think so. Think about how it differs and resists the words we often use to describe this activity. The words ‘repatriation’, ‘Italy’, ‘looting’, and even ‘crime’, are not mentioned. But despite the problem I have with the language, it appears from the release as if the Getty is doing cultural justice here. The object was looted and it is returning home soon. But I’m left wondering how many other objects from sites like Morgantina does the Getty retain. The release ties the return to the discovery of physical evidence at the site, and connects this with the object. But what about the contemporary evidence like who bought the object from who and what questions were asked when an object was acquired. We know from investigative reporting like Chasing Aphrodite how little inquiry was made. But this would be so much more direct, cheaper and useful than elaborate scientific tests. My rule of thumb when visiting a museum is, if they don’t tell you about the history of an object, there is very good chance it was looted.
This head will be transferred over to the Archaeological Museum in Aidone, where it will likely be displayed near “la dea di Aidone” previously known as the Getty goddess, returned in 2010. The head first will be a part of a Getty-organized traveling exhibition titled “Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome” which will start at the Getty, stop off at the Clevelend Museum of Art, and culminate in Palermo in June 2014.
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Malcolm Bell thinks so. He holds a position as emeritus professor of Greek art at the University of Virginia and the co-director of the American archaeological excavation at Morgantina. He has written a long review of Felch and Frammolino’s ‘Chasing Aphrodite’. Morgantina was the site of course where the limestone goddess was looted, and had it not been looted, Bell may well have recovered it and its full context. In 1988 when the goddess was sold to the Getty for $18 million, Marion True sent him photographs of the sculpture, asking if he knew about it. He did not, though he does write that his “lack of knowledge offered no form of assurance that it did not come from Morgantina”.
So it is quite surprising perhaps that Bell comes to the conclusion that the book ‘undervalues’ the contribution of Marion True to efforts at reform. He concludes with the following paragraph:
Today the archaeologist’s belief that ancient sites must be protected, and that ancient artifacts are best studied when we know most about them, is widely shared by our museum colleagues. That there has been a convergence of views is owed in good part to Marion True, whose bitter experience offers lessons to all parties. Her contributions far outweigh her mistakes, and were I today to be asked to recommend someone to fill a major museum position, she would be the first person to come to my mind.
Will partisans accuse Bell of not reading the book because he makes a controversial argument, or instead take his arguments on the merits?