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The Next Getty Director: Archaeologist Timothy Potts’ Comments on Antiquities Collecting UPDATED

The Getty Bronze: Still an object of contention with Italy

Nothwithstanding the credentials of the Getty Museum’s director-designate, Timothy Potts, as an archaeologist who participated in excavations in Jordan, Iraq and Greece, he is already receiving critical scrutiny regarding his stand on cultural-property issues. Repatriation of antiquities has long been a hot-button topic at the Getty, which has relinquished some 40 objects to Italy and several to Greece.

On their Chasing Aphrodite blog, investigative journalists Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino (authors of the eponymous book, linked above) said this yesterday:

Despite his background in field archaeology, Potts has more recently held some controversial views on the collecting of unprovenanced antiquities….Given their pro-collecting positions in a museum world that has largely turned a different direction, it will be interested to see how [Getty Trust president James] Cuno and Potts decide to deploy the Getty’s wealth in the coming years.

In an e-mail to me, a museum professional privately characterized both Potts and Cuno as “ardent opponents of restitution.” From what I’ve seen, that more accurately describes Cuno’s past stance (which, in coming to the Getty, he has prudently modified—scroll to the bottom) than Potts’.

In their blog post, Felcholino mention the New York symposium organized by the Association of Art Museum Directors on May 4, 2006, where Potts served as moderator of the two afternoon panels. (Cuno was moderator of the morning sessions).

As you might expect, CultureGrrl was in the audience and taping. Below are excerpts from Potts’ introductory remarks that afternoon, which he began by expressing what turned out to be a vain hope: “The best thing that can come out of these sessions is a sense of common purpose.”

Here’s what else Potts said, which struck me as reasoned and nuanced, unlike much of the heated, black-and-white debate over antiquities ownership. He started by posing himself two questions:

Question: Should museums collect antiquities from the great civilizations of the past?

Answer: Of course. Museums are the repositories of the world’s cultural heritage and best equipped to preserve it and to educate us about them.

Next question: Should museum buy loot ripped from its cultural context by criminals?

Of course not. It would be immoral and illegal. You cannot buy anything that is stolen. You cannot buy anything that that has been imported in contravention of the restrictions and treaties that the U.S. has with various foreign countries. And the question of what is stolen property often involves the patrimony laws of the source country. As educational institutions with humanistic and scientific missions, museums see themselves as having ethical responsibilities beyond the requirements of law.

Museums have a responsibility to pay a positive role in the preservation of material remains of ancient cultures and in furtherance of understanding and access to them. This places a spotlight on real-life judgments as to whether the acquisition of antiquities (and under what circumstances) advances those objectives or not. And here we are required to ask, primarily, what are the real-world consequences of acquiring or not acquiring objects.

Almost all sides will agree that these are rarely matters of all or nothing—that we buy nothing or we buy anything and everything. The real question is under what circumstances is it responsible to collect? What conditions can be required that would forestall any material incentive for further looting? How far back in time does the provenance history have to go? How high on the scale from possibility to probability does the negative effect have to be to outweigh the positive benefits of bringing important objects into the public and scholarly domain, where possible claimants can identify them and come forward? [Unfortunately, he didn’t answer these questions.]

Tradeoffs will be inevitable, for what best preserves one category of objects may put another category at risk. What advance to scholarship may be ideologically unpalatable because it turns out that the excavation of the objects was tainted? Is it appropriate to consider what would happen to an object if it could somehow go back to its source country? Is it reasonable to consider whether other collecting countries and the agencies in the source countries are making complementary efforts to our own?

[We should also] take the cultural and historical perspective, starting with appreciation of the role that the collecting of antiquities has played since the Renaissance in the preservation and understanding of ancient civilization and through that, enriching cultural life. Museums are an important stimulus, promoting interest in other cultures, traditions and ways of life and furthering the understanding of the influence and connections and differences between them.

Potts ended his introductory remarks by calling for a clearer delineation of “conditions for responsible acquisitions.” What’s needed, he said, is “a policy that dovetails with an enlightened and realistic balance of rights and responsibilities for preserving cultural heritage amongst all the relevant parties—museums, archaeologists, source country governments, international agencies, etc.”

And then, as you might expect in a panel discussion among museum directors (including Cuno) and archaeologists, the fur flew.

UPDATE: The LA TimesJori Finkel and Mike Boehm score the first post-designation interview with Potts.

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