Philippe de Montebello, left; his successor, Tom Campbell, right, speaking at the Met
The Metropolitan Museum’s illustrious director emeritus, Professor Philippe de Montebello, is well into his fall semester course, “The Meaning of Museums,” at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts.
But what will he be teaching this spring? Let’s go to the prof’s NYU webpage:
Spring 2010 Colloquium:
Issues of Cultural Property
ISSUES IN CULTURAL PROPERTY
Philippe de Montebello
The colloquium explores many of the historical, philosophical and museological issues behind the recent
cultural property controversy. The role of plunder, war booty and illicit excavations in the history of
collecting will be examined, alongside the construction of national identity and ideas of patrimony.
key legal points, treaties and conventions will be covered, it is the political, ethical, archaeological and art
historical implications of the subject that will be the focus of the lectures and discussions. Case studies,
some involving Italy, as well as the diverging agendas of archaeologist, source countries, collectors and
museums will be discussed.
Students must have the permission of the instructor before registering for this course.
So has Michael Kimmelman of the NY Times, who followed up his August page-one piece about museum visitors’ short attention spans with a meatier front-page dispatch from Berlin about the cultural-property wars. His piece was pegged to Zahi Hawass‘ renewed call (occasioned by the reopening of Berlin’s Neues Museum) for Germany’s return to Egypt of the celebrated bust of Nefertiti. This salvo followed close upon Hawass’ successful demand for fresco fragments in the Louvre and his renewed demand (scroll down) for the British Museum’s Rosetta Stone.
I’ve seen in person how Hawass, former Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli and Acropolis Museum head Dimitris Pandermalis operate. There’s no doubt that politics and (in the case of the first two, but NOT scholarly Pandermalis) self-promotion play a part in foreign officials’ antiquities attacks. But to suggest, as Kimmelman does, that a sincere passion for national artistic heritage plays no part, let alone a major part, in motivating these demands is to belittle the seriousness of source countries in general, and the aforementioned three cultural figures in particular.
I’m convinced (having spoken to them) that Hawass, Rutelli and, especially, Pandermalis do profoundly appreciate their peoples’ cultural history for the right reasons, not only the politically expedient ones. To ignore that is to underestimate them.
Kimmelman argues this:
The country’s [Egypt’s] only potent weapon left may be antiquities. It plays to
popular sentiment and national pride. While the art world likes to
ponder the merits or misfortunes of seeing art from one place in
another place or the inequities that have resulted from centuries of
imperialist collecting, the real issue behind the Egyptian claims, as with so many others [emphasis added], is nationalism….
Art becomes a political football. That’s what restitution often comes down to these days. Nationalism by other means. Politics by proxy.
In his article’s second paragraph, Kimmelman includes a direct quote from Hawass that he says appeared in Speigel Online. The online version of Kimmelman’s piece (linked above) does not link to the Spiegel interview (a consistent failing of the Times online). I could not find the exact words of Kimmelman’s quote anywhere in the Oct. 20 Spiegel Q&A with Hawass, nor in its report on the Neues Museum’s reopening. If the Times intends eventually to start charging for its online version (as has been recently discussed), it needs to provide some value-added content by linking to the sources (and also the documents) that it quotes from.
Egypt’s play for Nefertiti, as Kimmelman mentions, is nothing new. Unmentioned in the latest round of Nefertiti coverage, though, are the questions raised last May about whether the renowned Egyptian beauty is actually a modern fake.
Perhaps Philippe will untangle all these complexities for his spring-semester students. It looks like James Cuno, director of the Art Institutute of Chicago, is also going to be giving another of his cultural-property lessons, this one on Nov. 2 at the University of Pennsylvania.
In the meantime, though, for those of you who are auditing the CultureGrrl course, isn’t it time that you shelled out some tuition (via my “Donate” button), to get full credit?
Speaking of which, my warmest thanks go out to CultureGrrl Donors 79, 80 and 81 from Seattle; Bellaire; TX; and Haddonfield, NJ. And very special thanks go to my particularly devoted readers, Repeat Donors 82 and 83,from Washington, DC, and Geneva, Switzerland.
Switzerland does it! Why not France? Je vous en prie!