Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Antiquities and the law

Reprinted from an article in the Laurel Leader-Call:

At the Museum: Antiquities and the Law
Jill R. Chancey, PhD

Many objects in museum collections, including those at the LRMA, are what we might call “stand-alone” objects; many modern paintings, for example, are self-contained and make just as much sense in a museum as in a gallery or private home. Yet certain objects require context for understanding. For example: an altarpiece designed for a specific church loses some of its meaning when transferred to the secular environment of a museum or gallery. Why? Perhaps the altarpiece painting includes images of the patron saint of the church, or the church members who paid for it. Perhaps it was designed to complement the church’s architecture and decor. If the altarpiece winds up in a museum because the church is gone, or perhaps the church fathers decided to replace the altarpiece with something more up-to-date, then the viewers should be aware of the original context of that painting. This kind of contextual information contributes to the understanding and appreciation of artworks once they have been removed from their original locations. Placing artworks in context is one of the primary activities of the art historian and museum curator.

Going farther back in history, even the most ordinary objects, such as spear points, arrowheads, and pottery sherds, are valuable sources of information if we know where they came from. How deep was that arrowhead buried? What was it buried with? How many layers of material were above it? Were there ashes, animal bones, or other organic material in the same layer as the arrowhead? Where exactly was it buried? The answers to these kinds of questions contribute to the body of knowledge about human history, and the development of culture. Unfortunately, an artifact without this kind of information represents a real loss of cultural knowledge. This is true of all antiquities, from marble statues to stone tools.

This is why, then, that Mississippi state, federal, and international laws do not allow anyone to “injure, disfigure, remove, excavate, damage, take, dig into, or destroy” mounds, graves, or archeological sites. “Pot-hunting” might sound like a fun Saturday afternoon for a history buff, but only a trained archeologist can legally get a permit to dig for artifacts, even on private property. The kind of cultural information that is lost when an amateur digs up a site belongs, properly, to the community, which is why a permit for digging must come from both the government and the property owner. An archeologist is trained to gather all of the data that would be lost otherwise; once the artifact has left the ground, the data is lost forever and cannot be reconstructed.

This kind of cultural information is so important that museums cannot ethically collect antiquities that have not been acquired with governmental licensure and approval. In fact, several major museums in the United States have recently had to return antiquities to Italy because they were bought from dealers who acquired the items illegally. International dealers in antiquities, and at least one high-level museum curator, are finding themselves facing prison time and hefty fines due to their flouting of these laws. Fortunately, here at the Museum, we do not collect antiquities so we do not have to worry about disreputable dealers selling us looted artworks. We do, however, ensure that our Native American acquisitions come to us through legal, ethical channels, conforming to the multitude of state and federal laws that cover Native American cultural property. Awareness of the developments in cultural and antiquities law is one of the many responsibilities of museum staff in the US and abroad. However, it’s important for citizens to be aware that important historical and cultural information can be lost if amateurs don’t leave the exploration of archeological sites to trained professionals.

The Lauren Rogers Museum of Art is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. and on Sunday from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. For information about LRMA exhibitions and programs, call (601) 649-6374 or check our website at www.LRMA.org.

1 comment:

Lenny said...

You can't pick up a newspaper or visit an art blog these days without running into a story about some country suing an American museum or institution over the return of some artwork or antiquities which may have made their way to the US through either shady means or even forgotten formal agreements.

Bloomberg reported a while back that the government of Peru plans to sue Yale University, over hundreds of artifacts taken from the ancient city of Machu Picchu nearly a century ago.

And this may be the straw that breaks the camel's back (or in this case the llama's back).

The artifacts made their way to the US through Yale archeologist Hiram Bingham. One side claims that the artifacts were on loan. Yale contends the artifacts were legally excavated and exported "in line with the practices of the time."

And if these artifacts were sent to the US through some agreement with the Peruvian government nearly a century ago, then Yale has a case for keeping them; otherwise -- in the event that the American archeologists simply found them, crated them and shipped them to the US - all on their own -- then today's courts may well rule in Peru's favor.

And that straw that may break the camel's back may also unlock Pandora's box (which Greece will soon be suing for).

First: let's get one thing clear: Nazi art loot should and must be returned to their original owners or descendants.

But for most of all the other demanding of artwork returns: where does it stop?

Because unless you have some official paperwork signed, stamped and approved (and recognized as valid) then...

Does every Roman artifact in museums around the world have to be returned to Italy? And do Italian museums have to return Roman antiquities that were made in other parts of the Roman Empire to the nations that now exist there? And Italy better start packing the 13 Egyptian obelisks that are all over Rome: Cairo is clearing out some spaces for them.

Every Greek vase back to Greece? But do Greek museums have to return Cypriot antiquities to Cyprus?

Does every mummy have to find its way back to Egypt?

That "official" cadaver of Christopher Columbus in the Havana Cathedral? Sorry... back to Spain; or is it Italy, or Portugal? All three of those nations currently claim him as a native son, although I suspect that the Grand Admiral's descendants, currently living in Spain, have first dibs on Chris' bones.

And the fake Columbus cadaver in the Seville Cathedral? Back to Genoa, even if it's fake (just in case).

After all, that fake Scottish Stone of Destiny has made its way back to Scotland (God only knows where the real one is), but there are probably hundreds of thousands of antiquities (if not millions) from all over the world disseminated... all over the world.

Our own Smithsonian has over 100,000 pre-Columbian antiquities in its inventory (most of which are not even on display). Do the ones that were created by pre-Columbian artisans from north and south of our border have to be returned to the countries that now exist there?

Unless these museums have a provenance with lots of country of origin stamps authorizing the removal of the antiquity, I'd be pretty nervous if I was one of those museums.

And even if you have such a paper, what's to stop today's version of a country's government from saying that they do not recognize the authority of their predecessors to allow the removal of a national treasure from their nation.

And where does it stop?

Frida Kahlo was essentially ignored by Mexico while she was alive, and yet decades after her death she was deified outside of Mexico, and eventually the government of Mexico made her works a national treasure and forbade the export of any of Kahlo's works from Mexico. I think that this is a good (if late) thing for Mexico and Mexicans.

But what's to stop a future Mexican government from demanding the return of any and all Frida Kahlos outside of Mexico back to her mother nation.

It would just be a case of this "return" trend being pushed a little more.

Personally, I think that from now on, when I visit foreign museums, I will be making a list of American Indian artifacts in those museums, and they better damned have a piece of paper somewhere full of stamps and signatures from the Sioux, or the Walla Walla, or the Cheyenne, or the Seminoles or the Oneida or whatever indigenous Native American nation that currenly lives in the USA created them.

Official export paperwork from the United States government is not valid, and will not be accepted, regardless of how many non-Indian Washington, DC officials have signed it.

Of course, that may also mean that every non-Indian museum in the USA itself, would have to return every Native American Indian artifact back to their tribes.

Makes my head hurt...