Wall text in the Brooklyn Museum’s Egyptian gallery
At a time when officials at several Southern California museums have been sounding vague and clueless about current professional guidelines for antiquities acquisitions, how refreshing it is to see it all clearly laid out for visitors to read and understand, right near the entrance to the galleries devoted to the Brooklyn Museum’s world-class Egyptian collection. This wall text has the added value of clearly delineating how museums’ antiquities acquisition practices have evolved over the 20th and 21st centuries.
My amateur photography makes Brooklyn’s policy seem murkier than it is, so let me decipher these hieroglyphics:
How Do Museums Obtain the Antiquities They Exhibit?
Museums most often acquire antiquities as loans or gifts from generous individuals and foundations, through archaeological excavations, or by purchasing them.
Official archaeological excavations were a major source of antiquities for the Brooklyn Museum of Art in the first four decades of the last century. In the early years of Brooklyn’s fieldwork in Egypt (1906-8), the Museum retained most of what it found. In the 1920s, the Egyptian government began exercising its right to keep most excavated material. Some antiquities, however, came to Brooklyn during the 1920’s and 1930’s through “archaeological division” [“partage”], a process that allowed the excavating institution to retain objects not claimed by the Egyptians.
Current antiquities law permits only official gifts from the Egyptian government or objects lent temporarily for for scientific study to be released to other countries or museums. Museums and universities continue to excavate in Egypt. Today the goal is to obtain knowledge rather than treasure to remove and display.
Before a museum buys an object or accepts it as a loan or gift, curators must check its history. Sometimes antiquities stolen from archaeological excavation or unearthed by tomb robbers appear on the art market. Purchasing stolen antiquities contributes to the destruction of archaeological sites and the loss of knowledge. The Brooklyn Museum of Art’s Egyptian Department will not buy an object that left Egypt after 1983, when current antiquities law [the Cultural Property Implementation Act, by which the U.S. became a party to the 1970 UNESCO Convention] went into effect.
Now that’s transparency! It is also, with the 1983 cutoff date, my preferred policy (as opposed to AAMD’s 10-year rolling rule).
Southern California, do you copy?
UPDATE: The Iconoclasm blogger, Troels Myrup Kristensen, is clearly a better photographer than I am!