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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Cultural Property Internationalism: A Raw Deal for Afghanistan? (UPDATE)

Cultural property internationalism is the idea that cultural objects have a value for all mankind. Unfortunately, sometimes taking that position can produce unsatisfactory results for source nations.

Robin Pogrebin has an interesting article in today’s New York Times on the traveling exhibition of Afghanistan’s Bactrian Gold. The National Geographic Society has reached a deal which pays $1million to Afghanistan for display of the hoard, plus 40% of all profits. Sounds like a great deal for Afghanistan to generate revenue and engender some international appreciation for its heritage.

That’s not the case apparently:

Lynne Munson, the former deputy chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which helped finance the cataloging of the Afghan treasures, said the arrangement would leave Afghanistan with “40 percent of absolutely nothing,” because expenses would be significant.

“This is a travesty,” she said in a telephone interview from Washington. “The Bactrian hoard is simply the most valuable possession of the poorest people on earth. To ask them to lend it and give so little in return is unconscionable.”

She said she had ceased working for the endowment in 2005 because of internal conflicts within the agency over arrangements for the show.

The protocol accord signed over the weekend says that the exhibition revenue going to the Afghans will be derived from the fees paid by the museums as hosts of the show and from corporate sponsorships. It does not guarantee them proceeds from ticket, catalog or merchandise sales.

A similar exhibition by the Egyptians in 1994 earned that country over $10 million in every city visited. Some of the pieces were displayed in Paris and Turin, but the details of that exhibition were not made known.

I don’t know very much about how much a source nation like Afghanistan should expect to clear in an exhibition like this. Thomas Hoving and Lynne Munson certainly feel Afghanistan got slighted.

Though the Egyptian exhibitions seem to indicate that Afghanistan should have held out for more money, this may also serve a very important cultural mission for Afghans. Many foreigners view that nation as a hostile place with mountains and terrorists, or the source for much of the heroin trade. In reality it was once a very important stop on the silk road and the home to some very advanced ancient civilizations. Everyone knows that Egypt has a great archaeological heritage, perhaps this exhibitions will change the perception of Afghanistan and allow other exhibitions in the future to garner more funds for Afghanistan in the future.


I missed Lee Rosenbaum’s excellent criticism of the Pogrebin article. I’ve come to increasingly rely on RSS feeds, and that site doesn’t have one. Here’s an excerpt:

There are so many problematic aspects surrounding Robin Pogrebin‘s story in yesterday’s NY Times about the allegedly “unconscionable” financial arrangements between the National Geographic Society and the government of Afghanistan, for a proposed tour of that country’s Bactrian hoard, that it’s hard to know where to begin. Critics cited in the article charge that Afghanistan is being shortchanged in the deal although, from the Times account, it’s difficult to ascertain exactly what the financial parameters of the arrangement are.

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