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.