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Editorial Madness X2: NY Times on Museum Repatriations, “Hide/Seek” Controversy

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Kaywin Feldman with her museum’s antiquities

Two astoundingly intemperate and, to my mind, wrong-headed NY Times editorials published in the past eight days made me wonder if someone new had been assigned the arts beat on the Times’ editorial board. But it looks like Verlyn Klinkenborg is still the only one described as a culture pundit on the newspaper’s list of its 15 editorial writers.

Kaywin Feldman
, president of the Association of Art Museum Directors and director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, was sufficiently perturbed by last week’s Repatriating Tut editorial to shoot off a letter to the editor, published yesterday, stressing that “American art museums responsibly manage their collections of ancient art from other countries and cultures.”

But while affirming the need for “appropriate research” before objects are returned, AAMD failed take the Times directly to task for its most eye-popping statement.

In suggesting that other museums have not been as “responsible” as the Met in returning cultural property to countries of origin, the Times specifically took the side of Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s antiquities chief, in calling for the return of the Mummy Mask of the Lady Ka-nefer-nefer by the St. Louis Art Museum, as well as the bust of Nefertiti by the Neues Museum, Berlin, and the Rosetta Stone by the British Museum, London.

With friends like the Times’ editorial board, the Met doesn’t need enemies. The 19 relatively minor objects from King Tutankhamun’s tomb that it recently relinquished had been subject to a clear stipulation governing the finds of Tut discoverer Howard Carter: He was required to leave all his Tut tomb finds in Egypt.

The histories of the other objects demanded by Hawass and mentioned by the Times are more complex and less clearcut. I hardly think the Met wants to become role model (as the Times tries to make it) for wholesale repatriations of important objects long held in encyclopedic museums.

And then there was yesterday’s inflammatory editorial targeting the Smithsonian, which stuck its neck out by mounting a groundbreaking show exploring homosexuality, only to find itself vilified from the right for showing such art and from the left for removing one video from the show. Instead of lambasting the Smithsonian for its “appalling act of political cowardice,” the Times should be recognizing the National Portrait Gallery’s courage in mounting such a show and for trying to salvage it, in the face of calls to shut it down, through conciliation.

I think the most powerful way in which members of the museum community could counter attacks on gay content, while expressing solidarity with the National Portrait Gallery, is not merely to display the expurgated Wojnarowicz video; it’s to show the show: If possible, the NPG should offer “Hide/Seek” as a traveling exhibition, giving other institutions the chance to explain to their regional constituencies (and political leaders) why this project is worth doing and seeing. With all its notoriety, this show is sure to draw a crowd (think Mapplethorpe). Alternatively, other museums could craft their own shows and interpretations of this under-explored topic.

Actions speak much louder than rhetoric…or Times editorials.

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