an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Athwart Athens UPDATED: My Politically Incorrect Moments at the Cultural Property Conference

My panel on “Museums, Sites and Cultural Context,” preparing to do battle.
Left to right: CultureGrrl; Ricardo Elia, chair, archaeology department, Boston University; Elena Korka, head of Directorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, Hellenic Ministry of Culture; Μoira Simpson, senior lecturer in arts education, University of South Australia; Maurice Davies, deputy director of the Museums Association, U.K.

As an invited speaker at the recently concluded two-day “Return of Cultural Objects” conference, the first event held in the still unfinished New Acropolis Museum in Athens, I was a bit of a misfit and a Trojan Horse.

I was an anomaly because all the other speakers were cultural and/or government officials, archaeologists or cultural-property lawyers. Attending journalists were covering the event, not participating in it. And I was a Trojan Horse because I was welcomed inside the gates for my strong advocacy of reuniting the Parthenon marbles (although I have somewhat impractically suggested that they be ferried back and forth, for very long-term display, between the two venues where the sundered marbles now reside—Athens and London).

But I don’t embrace the prevailing view of source countries that major American and British museums are the Evil Empire. What’s worse, I eventually dared to say so.

My initial presentation was safe enough: I played to the audience by extending the CultureGrrl genre of irreverent photo essay to a different medium—PowerPoint. For this occasion, I lampooned (and occasionally praised) strategies used in labeling and installing antiquities by American museums, which often have scant information about the archaeological context of objects in their collections. I was struck by the contrast between American labels and those at Athens’ National Archaeological Museum, where almost every object is accompanied by information on where it was found.

I ended by championing the view that I share in common with my hosts, singling out two examples from U.S. museums that fit the Parthenon marbles theme—ancient objects that had been fragmented and should be reassembled through the amicable cooperation of the different owners.

But then they opened it up to the audience for questions, and that’s when I got myself in trouble.

I had gritted my teeth when my co-panelist, Ricardo Elia, had commented during his presentation on American museums’ current attitude towards antiquities collecting: “I don’t think it’s a real change.” About recent rapprochements between those museums and source countries, he asserted, “I’m skeptical it will lead to real change.”

So when an audience member directed a question to the two of us about the “orphaned object” (lacking any known provenance), I outlined the complexity of the problem, threw in my recent Michael Brand quote, and then said that, contrary to Elia, I felt there had been substantial recent changes in American museums’ antiquities-collecting policies, which had been implemented to varying degrees. This earned me a applause from one person, who, as I later learned, was Annie Caubet, honorary keeper of the ancient Near East art at the Louvre. (She was there to discuss with her counterpart at the Metropolitan Museum, Joan Aruz, the 1974 reunification of the head and torso of a Neo-Sumerian alabaster figure.)

[UPDATE: The diplomatic Derek Fincham, in his Illicit Cultural Property blog, considers Elia’s and my comments and decides we’re both partially right!]

The only other representative of a “universal museum” on the speakers list was Jonathan C. H. King, keeper of the British Museum’s department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, invited to discuss his museum’s long-term loan of a ceremonial mask of the Kwakwa’wakw First Nations to the U’mista Cultural Centre, Alert Bay, British Columbia.

When I exited at the end of the conference, a man followed me out, cordially identified himself as an artist who admired Art in America (where I’m contributing editor), and then started berating me for my cluelessness in saying something positive about American museums. I suppose my lack of discretion probably WAS somewhat clueless.

In any event, I have to tip my hat to Elia for the quote of the conference. This was his take on the “orphaned object”:

First they kill the parents and then they kidnap the child.

While we’re on the subject of my hapless participation on panels, here‘s what Columbia Law School’s press office published about the views expressed by members of the deaccessioning panel on which I recently appeared. I must alert you, though, that I never used the words “slush fund” to describe deaccession proceeds, nor would I, since that term is generally used to imply corruption. [UPDATE: They’ve taken out the offending phrase online.]

You were maybe hoping to hear more about the New Acropolis Museum? COMING SOON.

an ArtsJournal blog