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Ownership vs. Stewardship: Timothy Rub on the “New Order of the Day” for Cultural Property CORRECTED

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Serving as director of the Philadelphia Museum since 2009, Timothy Rub may well go down as the AAMD president who went where previous leaders of the nation’s premier professional association for art museums feared to tread, in matters pertaining to collecting (and sometimes relinquishing) archaeological material.

By his own admission, Rub, who became the Association of Art Museum Directors’ president this month, has had a welcome “sabbatical” from dealing with antiquities controversies, because “Philadelphia is the first museum at which I’ve worked that doesn’t collect antiquities.” During his prior gig—the directorship of the Cleveland Museum—he was embroiled in repatriation discussions with Italy, which “resulted in an agreement” whereby Cleveland “relinquish[ed] ownership of 14 works [my link, not his] in its collection that had been acquired largely during 1970s and 1980s. The agreement was confidential, but it’s a story that I’m sure you’d find very interesting.”

[CORRECTION: A previous version of this post said that Cleveland relinquished "14 works of ancient art." Steven Litt, the art critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who had covered this restitution, reminded me that Cleveland returned 13 ancient objects and one late Gothic processional cross that had been stolen from a church.]

Responding to yesterday’s CultureGrrl post about the need for greater AAMD guidance on handling repatriation requests and on the disposition of “orphan objects” (those lacking complete provenances going back at least to November 1970), Rub wrote this to me morning:

You’re right to suggest that there’s more work to be done on this front.

Those of us who attended his wide-ranging October 2011 lecture at the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Museum on the Shape of Things to Come for antiquities already know Rub’s ideas about the “work to be done.” Well aware that he was speaking at a long-time archaeologists’ stronghold—an antiquities museum that has stopped collecting and has always been an ardent proponent of repatriation—Rub quipped that his talk should have been subtitled: “Sticking My Head into the Lion’s Mouth.” (Nobody laughed.)

Here are some of the ideas, excerpted from his trenchant talk, that Rub may now try to sell to his colleagues in the Association of Art Museum Directors. (All emphasis is added.):

—The [cultural-property] debate has focused almost entirely on acquisition and ownership. Relatively little has been said about the related museological functions of display, interpretation and research….The distinction between stewardship and ownership will most likely be one of the keys to this conversation as it continues to evolve.

—I’ve come to the conclusion that, in the future, “access” might not always assume the ownership of a work of art but rather its custody in one form or another. [Rub's repatriation agreement with Italy, linked at the top of this post, involved 13 loans from that country for an unprecedented 25 years, renewable.] While this idea may be anathema to some, the alternative is far more threatening, because it’s likely to leave museums markedly less able to do the work for which they were founded: fostering a broad appreciation of the arts and a greater understanding of diverse aesthetic accomplishments between cultures.

—It is for the strengths of their collections that our museums have been judged in the past and continue to be judged today….This is a matter of property, plain and simple, as well as an issue of pride and control. It is also, in some ways, a deeply parochial impulse that runs contrary to the aspirations for the creation and dissemination of knowledge that had long been and will remain the foundation stones of our work. To illustrate this point, I will observe that, in my opinion, most American museums still spend far less time and less resources on research, publications and distribution of information about the collections in their care than they do on enlarging them by purchase or gift.

—American museums will have to direct their resources—human and financial—towards estatablishing stronger working relationships with source countries…that can facilitate the granting of long-term loans of objects that…have the potential to greatly enrich the experience that our visitors have at our museums. To put this more bluntly: Collaborative relationships across national boundaries are not simply desirable; they are the new order of the day if American museums are to continue to fulfill their missions….

To put this question in purely economic terms: Why shouldn’t I be willing to pay a reasonable loan fee…for the opportunity to study and display, for an extended period of time, objects designated as national treasures, especially if they are not generally available for the public to see?

—With the tide still running in the opposite direction—the establishment of increasingly restrictive national property laws, stricter export controls, and a relatively small but growing body of case law that allows for the enforcement of cultural property laws of foreign sovereigns in “market nations” like the United States and Great Britain—I don’t think we will see any significant progress in the development of licit markets for antiquities or archaeological materials in the near future.

Such a solution will be achieved not by force of legal or economic arguments but rather by political means. For this reason, it will be much easier and ultimately much more productive if we were able to make a case for an increasingly open market within the context of collaboration and furthering the development of mechanism of cultural exchange.

—Sooner or later, we will have to come to terms with the vast number of orphan objects that have come into circulation since 1970, as well as those that will appear in future years. Some have estimated that there may be as many as 100,000 works that fall into this category at present….With the question of orphan objects in mind, it is important to ask whether or not there might be an opportunity for museums to enter into arrangements that might provide for the custody, but not ownership, of antiquities for archaeological materials that have been offered to them as gifts, but which they cannot accession into their collections [because of their dicey provenances]….

The question becomes how such an objective—becoming the custodian rather than the owner of works of ancient art and archaeological materials—could be accomplished….It could be argued that [AAMD has] sidestepped this issue…by avoiding the question of orphan objects entirely. This is unfortunate, not only because the matter needs to be resolved, but also because museums are in some respects ideally suited to accept this responsibility….What is needed is general agreement on the need and the value of museums’ assuming custodial responsibility for orphaned objects and the creation of appropriate legal and administrative mechanism to accomplish such a goal.

Apropos of this, I wrote at the end of this CultureGrrl post that a possible resolution for objects with dicey provenance might be “for museums, government entities or a yet-to-be-created international repository to hold orphan objects in trust for their undetermined ‘rightful owners’ (possibly source countries), while allowing museums to show them and scholars to study them.”

Rub concluded, more wistfully than confidently, that “ultimately our goal should be the creation of a licit market that allows for the mutually beneficial exchange of such materials between source countries and market nations. It is not enough for us to wish for this to be so….To achieve this goal, we must recognize that it is in our own best interest to work with source nations to discourage illegal trafficking in antiquities….

“If we seek to encourage source countries to liberalize their cultural property and export laws over time, …[we] cannot hope to do so if we do not improve our own standards.”

Using his sizable powers of intellect and persuasion, Rub may be able to use his new position to help effectuate some of this. Perhaps his “new order of the day” is an idea whose time has finally come.

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