There are so many problematic aspects surrounding Robin Pogrebin‘s story in yesterday’s NY Times about the allegedly “unconscionable” financial arrangements between the National Geographic Society and the government of Afghanistan, for a proposed tour of that country’s Bactrian hoard, that it’s hard to know where to begin. Critics cited in the article charge that Afghanistan is being shortchanged in the deal although, from the Times account, it’s difficult to ascertain exactly what the financial parameters of the arrangement are.
So let’s begin with the person who uttered the word “unconscionable” and who appears to be the instigator of this story—Lynne Munson, former deputy chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and good friend of another Lynne who was formerly of the NEH (Cheney, its former chairman, who is the wife of the current Vice President).
Munson, according to Pogrebin, “said she had ceased working for the endowment in 2005 because of internal conflicts within the agency over arrangements for the [Afghan] show.”
Here’s what an article at that time, from the Sept. 9, 2005 issue of the Chronicle of HIgher Education, said about her exit:
A letter from the NEH chairman, Bruce Cole, announcing Ms. Munson’s departure did not cite a reason, fueling speculation among staff members that she was not leaving voluntarily.
A spokesman for the NEH, Erik Lokkesmoe, said it was “categorically untrue” that Ms. Munson had been asked to resign. He said she planned to parlay her recent work on the agency’s Rediscovering Afghanistan initiative into “an opportunity in that direction.”
As head of that initiative, Ms. Munson…oversaw the awarding of three $30,000 grants to the National Geographic Society to catalog and study the “hidden” collections of the Kabul Museum.
Ms. Munson described the initiative as “an extraordinary capstone to my experience here.” She said she was leaving the agency because she had “accomplished everything that I wanted to do and that Bruce wanted me to do.”
Agency insiders, however, said Ms. Munson had been criticized for her handling of the grants to the National Geographic Society.
Indeed, officials of the society had reportedly become so frustrated during grant negotiations with the deputy chairwoman that they came close to declining the grants. Fredrik T. Hiebert, lead scholar on the National Geographic project, acknowledged disagreements about the terms of the grants but said the issues had been resolved.
The National Geographic grants, as Pogrebin tells us, were for an inventory of the objects now being offered for exhibition. Clearly, the friction between Munson and National Geographic continues, although the reasons for it remain unclear. She now calls the show “a National Geographic monopoly and a very poor deal for the Afghans.”
It was odd to see the megabucks deal struck by Egypt for the current Tutankhamun show being held up, in yesterday’s Times, as a gold standard for cultural diplomacy. Many observers, including Philippe de Montebello of the Metropolitan Museum, found that arrangement to be, as de Montebello had disapprovingly described it, “dominated by lucre and the need to make make colossal sums of money for the…circulators and for the Egyptian Department of Antiquities.”
At yesterday’s Met press lunch, the museum’s director told me that he is interested in the objects in the proposed Bactrian hoard show, but that’s as far as it’s gone. There have been no negotiations, he said. The accord signed last weekend, which included the Met in a proposed four-museum exhibition tour, was between National Geographic and the Afghan government.
Martha Deese, the Met’s senior administrator for exhibitions and international affairs, who happened to be sitting at my table at yesterday’s luncheon, told me that she didn’t understand where the reported controversy “was coming from,” since the Afghan government was a full partner in the planning.
One thing we do know: Munson, despite her years at the NEH, has an imperfect understanding of how museums operate. She may be best known to CultureGrrl readers as the author of the traditionalist, anti-cutting edge screed, Exhibitionism: Art in an Era of Intolerance (above), published in 2000, when she was a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
Among Munson’s dubious arguments in that book was an assertion that the Brooklyn Museum should not have hosted the “Sensation” exhibition because “none of the…artists, whose average age was thirty-five, had been making art long enough for anyone to know whether their work would be worth including in a museum show in even ten years. If these young artists were Brooklynites, their home museum might justify the risk of showing them. But not one of the artists in “Sensation” lived, worked, or even was born in the United States, let alone in Brooklyn.”
We now learn from Pogrebin about another dubious Munson notion, “that there should have been an open competition among museums for the [Bactrian hoard] show to assure maximal revenue to aid in Afghanistan’s cultural reconstruction.”
A museum exhibition bidding war—as if the monetization of cultural heritage weren’t already “maximal” enough.