BMCR 2008.05.28

The Acquisition and Exhibition of Classical Antiquities. Professional, Legal, and Ethical Perspectives. A symposium held at the Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame, February 24, 2007

, The acquisition and exhibition of classical antiquities : professional, legal, and ethical perspectives. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007. 1 online resource (xii, 175 pages) : illustrations, maps. $25.00 (pb).

1 Responses

This work brings together the ideas of a number of prominent cultural policy scholars in a lively and accessible manner. The source material stems from papers and responses presented at a symposium held on February 24, 2007, in the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame. Contributors include the usual collection of professionals one would expect at such a cultural policy symposium: art museum directors, museum curators, legal experts, archaeologists, art historians and an architect.

The Italian prosecution of former Getty curator Marion True and Robert Hecht is noted by the editor Professor Rhodes as a driving force which initiated the gathering. The work serves as an introduction to the issues involved in the illegal and illicit trade in classical antiquities. In a few cases, these papers move beyond an accessible summation of the entrenched positions of cultural policy partisans. Most notably perhaps, in his conclusion Rhodes argues for “the increasingly important voice of university museum directors, whose constituency and mission inevitably place them in a position of compromise between the encyclopedic museum and the field archaeologist”. Much of the material is a summation of the other scholarly work of the participants, and as such this collection belongs in any good cultural heritage policy bibliography, but it should certainly not be seen as a defining collection. The useful way in which the arguments were set against each other via papers and responses deserves some attention, before we can turn to some of the arguments by the participants.

Cultural heritage scholarship is notorious for intense disagreement. Perhaps mindful of this potential problem, the organizers of this event used an excellent strategy in allowing one paper to be followed by a response. Take for example the contribution of Kimerly Rorshach, director of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, who points out the dilemma of the American university museum director. These directors find themselves in a unique position, Rorshach argues. They are driven by the needs of classical studies departments which encourage the collection of antiquities for study; however there are also archaeologists and anthropologists and others at many of these universities, whose work relies on the detailed context of these objects. In response Charles Loving, Director of the Snite Museum of Art at Notre Dame, highlights the points of agreement between art museum directors and archaeologists. Similarly, Robin Rhodes argues persuasively in the conclusion that a universal museum may not necessarily need the material remains of its curatorial focus. For instance, in 2006 the Snite Museum of Art conducted an exhibition of the seventh-century BCE temple from Corinth using modern recreations. As he shows “The Corinth temple exhibit was made for an art museum, but not a single object in the show is inherently valuable through its antiquity: each has been made in the past three years.” Arguably, such efforts can have all the benefits of a universal museum, without the expense and looting which the illicit trade in cultural property can create.

This point and counterpoint approach was not as successful in every case however. When Stefano Vassallo, an Italian archaeologist, argues collectors and museum curators should be aware of the journey an antiquity takes from its illegal excavation and the loss of knowledge this looting creates, he is espousing the view which has come to dominate cultural heritage scholarship in recent years. Regrettably, rather than providing a suitable critique of this approach, Michael Lykoudis, Dean of the School of Architecture at Notre Dame, notes that we all should deplore the damage done by the looting of archaeological sites but asks a more pointed question with respect to the Parthenon Marbles and similar objects which may have been taken in a completely legal manner but which should perhaps be returned. Assuming the Parthenon marbles will be returned there someday, Dean Lykoudis ends up criticizing the architectural design of the new Acropolis Museum in Athens , without analyzing the cultural policy framework which might bring about such an unprecedented repatriation. Rather, he seems perhaps too eager to criticize the architectural design of the then-incomplete museum which one day aspires to display the Parthenon Marbles.

Robin Rhodes provides perhaps the greatest contribution of this work by noting how the participants were able to find agreement. After pointing out the often-seen clash between universal museum advocates and archaeologists, he notes “a real convergence of goals.” James Cuno and Nancy Bookidis both call for more access to antiquities. Cuno, the director of the Chicago Art Institute, argues for more encyclopedic museums throughout the world. Bookidis, the former assistant director of the American School excavations at Corinth, calls for a dramatic increase in extended loans of objects and traveling exhibitions. In this way, a positive orward step can be made, and, though the participants will certainly never agree on all aspects of cultural policy, such a constructive dialogue provides the impetus for continued cooperation and dialogue. Too often these scholarly events collect the important movers and shapers of cultural policy without allowing for concrete results. By focusing on points of agreement, Rhodes offers a model for future respect and cooperation. Such discussions are intellectually engaging and important in shaping the role of museums and the philosophical positions of its constituents. Though its ultimate test will be what if anything did this gathering of experts accomplish. In this case, the resulting volume has produced a work which should give a good overview of most of the important interest groups related to the exhibition of classical antiquities and should point the way for those who want to delve deeper into the respective arguments of the participants.

Both Patty Gerstenblith and Mary Ellen O’Connell give a solid overview of the relevant American and international legal landscape. Gerstenblith gives a very good explanation of American cultural heritage law, aimed primarily at non-lawyers. She argues that a number of individuals in what she terms “the museum world” have set themselves outside the rule of law which in turn “has caused American museums to lose artifacts and thereby waste publicly subsidized funds, but has also allowed them to subsidize, even if only indirectly, the destruction of knowledge in fulfillment of their acquisitorial desires.” O’Connell argues that rather than focus on returning objects, we should be concerned with the protection of objects and their archaeological context. Nations of origin in recent years have achieved a staggering number of high-profile returns from American museums. However O’Connell asks if this return, which takes place decades after the looting of the original findspot, is actually achieving its stated goal of protecting cultural heritage. She frames her argument by looking at the evolution of international law as it pertains to cultural property and then discusses this in terms of the recent events in armed conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The perspectives of a number of archaeologists are represented as well. Malcolm Bell III, who has long been engaged in excavations at Morgantina, Sicily, argues that more nations of origin should adopt the strategies of Italy, which he argues “has shown itself to be both a vigorous defender of its stewardship of the archaeological past and a knowledgeable participant in the international community of museums.” Stefano Vassallo, director of a number of excavations in Sicily, argues that so long as museums and collectors continue to buy illicit antiquities, looting will continue. He takes as an example a phiale from Caltavuturo, which was sold to a private collector in New York with falsified customs papers, which led to a forfeiture of the object and its eventual return to Italy. Vassallo notes the change in mentality regarding the looting of antiquities but reminds us of the suspected links between the illegal antiquities trade and organized crime organizations such as the Mafia. Though he is right that there have been a number of claims about a possible nexus between organized crime and the antiquities trade, he offers no evidence or support for this proposition.

Nancy Bookidis gives details of the thefts from the Corinth Archaeological Museum in Greece in 1990, during which 270 objects were stolen. She explains the massive undertaking for recovering these objects, which she rightly points out is seldom noted. This material was eventually recovered but only because the collection had been cataloged and documented. This is an important step, which can sometimes be difficult for smaller regional institutions. However, Bookidis fails to point out that this kind of theft from a museum is similar to any other art theft from a museum. She argues this theft “is no different … from the looting of sites with undocumented material that occurs daily wherever antiquities are to be found.” This comparison seems debatable, but in joining museum theft and illegal excavation she can thus place the blame on the antiquities market itself. Joanne M. Mack offers a pointed response to these comments, pointing out that cooperation is needed between museums and archaeologists and that their differences of opinion should not be oversimplified. She offers some very good practical efforts which should be taken, such as publicizing thefts widely rather than hiding a theft to minimize embarrassment or bad publicity. Though the market certainly deserves much of the criticism it receives, as do many museums, Mack argues archaeologists can take action as well, by including site security in their research budgets. In turn, museums “must refuse to accept objects without provenance and provenience.”

One wonders perhaps why the antiquities trade itself was not represented. Whether no dealers were invited or none chose to attend is open to speculation. However in the interest of balance, it may have been instructive to evaluate their responses. Perhaps this omission should be overlooked. James Cuno, Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, presents an interesting line of argument with respect to the intersection of antiquities policy and nationalism. His comments serve as a precursor to his forthcoming book, due to be published in late May, 2008. Cuno points out that leaving antiquities regulation to nations of origin can sometimes have disastrous consequences, and he uses the destruction of the Buddhas at Bamiyan as a prime example. He follows the arguments of Paul Bator, John Henry Merryman and Kwame Anthony Appiah in arguing over-restrictive regulation has proved counterproductive in many cases. Preserving archaeological sites and promoting the international movement of works of art are the salient questions, and they can often conflict. What he calls “nationalist retentionist cultural property laws” prevent movement in attempting to protect sites. Perhaps his most controversial claim is a criticism of archaeologists who are used by nationalist states for political or other nefarious purposes. As examples of this selective use of archaeology to further identity politics, he cites the Ba’thist support of archaeological projects under Saddam Hussein, the celebrity of Egypt’s Zahi Hawass, and even the “identity politics” of Pat Buchanan in America. These are certainly highly-charged and controversial claims, which will no doubt be further developed in Cuno’s forthcoming work.

There are a number of other conversational essays and responses. This collection should serve primarily as an introduction to the more substantive work of the participants. Any reader familiar with cultural heritage scholarship will find many of these arguments familiar; though the paper-response approach clarifies the points of agreement thereby moving beyond a mere entrenched debate to foster productive dialogue.



Introduction, Robin F. Rhodes, Moderator

Chapter 1: Art Museum Director Perspective

Art Museums, Archaeology, and Antiquities in an Age of Sectarian Violence and Nationalist Politics James Cuno

Response: Charles Rosenberg

Chapter 2: American Archaeologist Perspective

Dealing with Looted Antiquities: Existing Collections and the Market, Malcolm Bell III

Response, Dennis P. Doordan

Chapter 3: Legal Perspective

The Acquisition and Exhibition of Classical Antiquities: The Legal Perspective, Patty Gerstenblith

Response, Douglas E. Bradley

Chapter 4: Scylla or Charybdis: Antiquities Collecting by University Art Museums, Kimerly Rorschach

Response, Charles R. Loving

Response, Robin F. Rhodes

Chapter 5: Italian Archaeologist Perspective

Antiquities without Provenance: The Original Sin in the Field, Stefano Vassallo

Response, Michael Lykoudis

Chapter 6: International Legal Perspective

Rethinking the Remedy of Return in International Art Law, Mary Ellen O’Connell, with Maria Alevras-Chen

Response, Charles K. Williams II

Chapter 7: Case Study: Illicit Greek Antiquities Trade

The Corinth Theft, Nancy Bookidis

Response, Joanne M. Mack

Chapter 8: Case Study: Education of the Public

Talking to the Troops about the Archaeology of Iraq and Afghanistan, C. Brian Rose

Response, Marcia Rickard

Conclusion, Robin F. Rhodes

Appendix: UNESCO Convention of 1970

List of Participants.