Of the several issues that I hope Timothy Rub, the new president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, will address, few are as pressing as the development of collegial relationships with source countries regarding both repatriation requests and the disposition of “orphan objects”—those lacking complete provenances that go back at least to November 1970 (the date of the UNESCO Convention on cultural property).
As it happened, I attended his provocative October 2011 lecture at the Penn Museum—The Shape of Things to Come: Developing Collections in Antiquities and Archaeological Materials in the 21st Century—in which the director of the Philadelphia Museum (formerly director of the antiquities-collecting Cleveland Museum) outlined his thinking on this subject.
His ideas for working towards a resolution of the cultural-property wars couldn’t be more timely now, given two recent news developments.
Just yesterday, the Metropolitan Museum returned its two “Kneeling Attendants” to Cambodia—a decision that I had previously praised as setting “a gold standard for museums’ cultural-property policy, going far beyond what the Association of Art Museum Directors mandates.” When I recently asked the Met’s director, Tom Campbell, whether he believed that this principled repatriation would set an example for other institutions, he would only say that museums needed to consider these issues “on a case-by-case basis.” (I have previously reported on other recent voluntary returns by American museums to source countries, here.)
And in other cultural-property news yesterday: Jason Felch of the LA Times followed up on the developing story regarding Subhash Kapoor, the dealer accused by federal authorities of possessing smuggled antiquities. Kapoor was the source of (not-necessarily-suspect) objects that are now in collections of the Met, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Norton Simon Museum, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Art Institute of Chicago, and Toledo Museum, among others.
Presumably, museums in possession of Kapoor-related objects have been (or will be) reviewing their documentation regarding provenance. In yesterday’s article, Felch focused on Kapoor-related objects in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, alluding to unspecified “records” that Felch’s Chasing Aphrodite blog suggested came from “sources with knowledge of the ongoing investigations.”
From his bully pulpit as the current head of this nation’s leading professional organization for art museums, Rub is in a position to move the cultural-property ball down the field. First, Rub should scrub the mess that AAMD recently made of its redesigned online registry for New Acquisitions of Archaeological Material and Works of Ancient Art.
The registry’s unlovely but informative former format had offered a complete, clickable, easily searchable list (with thumbnails and descriptions) of information posted by member museums about antiquities acquired after June 4, 2008 that lacked complete provenances going back at least to November 1970. If you clicked on an individual museum, you would get a complete array of all the objects (with thumbnails and brief written descriptions) posted by that institution. Clicking each object would bring up further details on provenance, as well as information on why the museum felt justified in acquiring it.
The homepage then looked like this:
Now, there’s no information at all on the relaunched registry’s (above-linked) homepage. If you click the link to a particular museum, you get at attractive array of beautiful-but-dumb thumbnails, with no details until you click on each individual object:
I picked the page (above) for the Walters Art Museum because it had been the worst offender in ignoring AAMD’s requirement (updated, with more detail, here) that “the museum must prominently post on the AAMD website…an image and the information about the work…and all facts relevant to the decision to acquire it, including its known provenance [emphasis added].”
The Walter’s explanation for this object on the redesigned registry is typical of that museum’s way of working around this requirement:
How these details explain the deviation from the 1970 rule eludes me.
Remedying the registry is the easy part. The rub for Rub will be plotting a roadmap for a multi-state solution to the cultural-property wars.
COMING SOON: Timothy Rub’s ideas regarding ownership vs. stewardship and “establishing stronger working relationships with source countries.”