The Race to Reform in the American Museum Community

The DMA returned ownership of this red-figure krater (4th century BC)—
Italian officials allowed the piece to remain at the museum on loan

Max Anderson is leading the way towards reform in the American Museum Community. The Director of the Dallas Museum of Art has an OpEd in yesterday’s Dallas Morning News responding to recent criticism in the New York Times of the decision by museums to return looted works of art. Here’s the introduction to the piece:

Protecting the world’s cultural heritage is essential to all of us. Like the natural environment, the material record of the past is irreplaceable and easily damaged. Whether you live in a country rich in archaeological finds, or a country with curiosity to learn about the past, every citizen wants to protect archaeological sites from intentional or accidental destruction. And every scholar and museum professional wants to share our most complete understanding of the objects and beliefs that people treasured in the past. The illicit trade of these objects is responsible for one of the largest international black markets, and the destruction of archaeological sites is often the result. It is not museum purchases that have been fueling the damage in recent years: As a result of strict, self-imposed guidelines, those acquisitions have slowed to a trickle over the last decade. However, private purchases are not subject to such guidelines and take place invisibly. Additionally, the construction of public works, from roads to buildings, causes undocumented harm to historic sites every day around the globe, not to mention accidental discoveries on private property, quickly hidden or destroyed. Natural disasters and armed conflict also take their toll on the world’s cultural heritage.

With this and other statements, Anderson is distinguishing himself and his institution from the old days of optical due diligence and the acquire-at-all-costs attitude of so many other American museums. Those policies have slowly been reformed, bu many still cling to that old idea, that these museums should acquire beautiful objects, despite the looting and theft which brought them to a shady international market. I hope that more and more museums look for more creative and sustainable means of acquisitions in the way Anderson has done. Nations of origin and foreign museums really do need each other. Now the mark of a great museum is not how many ancient objects it can acquire— in the past Anderson has called this lust for acquisition the desire to make museums ‘treasure houses’. Instead cooperators with nations like Italy will find collaborative relationships and long-term loans in exchange for cooperation in returning looted objects. Rather than hoard the ill-gotten acquisitions of the past, I think museums will find themselves working quickly to get at the head of the collaborative line with these nations. Anderson’s opinion piece, and the recent nudge towards reform in the AAMD guidelines are the most recent indication of what one hopes will be a positive shift.

  1. Maxwell Anderson, Giving back art — how museums see it, Dallas News, Feb. 8, 2013.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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