Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Italy 1 Spain 0 — Madrid museum shown red card for acquiring looted objects

If UNESCO showed red cards for cultural heritage misdemeanours, it would surely be Spain taking the long walk back to the changing rooms this week after Madrid's National Archaeological Museum was found in possession of a bunch of Attic hot pots acquired in 1999 in clear defiance of the UNESCO 1970 Convention. Sadly, unlike FIFA, UNESCO doesn't hold disciplinary panels. It was left to The Art Newspaper to blow the whistle.

In an article in this month's paper, Fabio Isman focuses on a number of Attic amphorae in the collection of Madrid's National Archaeological Museum that bear a striking resemblance to pieces discovered in Giacomo Medici's Geneva warehouse during the now famous Italian/Swiss police raid in 1999 (Watson, P & Todeschini, C., The Medici Conspiracy 2006) (see image above left). No, hold on, let's not beat about the bush. They're the same pots.

"Is it right, or moral," Isman asks, "for museums (places established to conserve and exhibit objects, but also to educate and promote culture) to display artefacts plundered after the 1970 Unesco Convention, (on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property) rather than, as in centuries past, during wars and conquests? What type of 'culture' are these museums exhibiting, promoting and teaching: the culture of clandestine excavations and fraud?" Good question.

But to imply, as Isman does, that the objects acquired by museums "in centuries past" were acquired exclusively "during wars and conquests" is simply factually incorrect. More importantly, his sentence seems constructed in such a way as to absolve museums of earlier collecting strategies, by implying that war and military conquest represent legitimate circumstances in which to loot countries of their material heritage.

Anyone caring to scrutinize the circumstances in which most of the great encyclopedic collections were formed would have to conclude that very significant quantities of objects in those collections were acquired unethically (whether one judges one's ethics by 19th century or 21st century standards).

I'm often criticized for conflating pre- and post-1970 museum acquisitions and I can understand Paul Barford's constructive criticism of my recent blog posting (Tom Flynn Blames the Museums) that it is not always helpful to mix the question of post-1970 (ie post-UNESCO Convention) acquisitions with acquisitions made prior to that, particularly those made during the age of imperialism.

Nineteenth-century acquisitions are too hot a potato to handle and condemning them probably doesn't help clarify the more pressing and demonstrably unethical post-1970 acquisitions of the kind Isman refers to.

But like an oncologist looking to your family DNA for the cause of your illness, I have good reason to continue conflating these issues.

As Paul Barford points out in his comments on the Madrid affair, the archaeological museum’s then director, Miguel Angel Elvira Barba, said of his 1999 acquisition: “We have taken an enormous step forward both in terms of quality and quantity; [this] collection now puts us among the ranks of the greatest museums in Europe and the US”.

Here, then, is further telling evidence, if any were needed, that European and North American museums remain locked in the same competitive race towards an encyclopedic embrace of the world's material culture, no matter what the consequences might be for archaeology.

That is why I continue to focus on the underlying modus operandi of our museums — namely the Enlightenment-born idée fixe that seeks to place the whole universe "'neath one roof".

And as I said in my earlier piece, that macho museum model is what inspires the private collectors to do what they do. We won't beat the looting and the private collecting of illicitly acquired antiquities until we reform the museums.


David Gill said...

There is an issue here about the encyclopedic museum as promoted by James Cuno and likeminded museum directors on both sides of the Atlantic.
There are striking parallels between Madrid and North American cases. We have private collectors involved in the financial world buying recently-surfaced antiquities. We have museums keen to acquire.
The story has now been updated with firm links to Robin Symes and the film producer Joseph E. Levine.
See Looting Matters.
Best wishes


You have said all that needs to be said. At the root of the unethical looting and stealing of cultural objects is the unlimited desire of the so-called encyclopaedic or universal museums to acquire by all means cultural objects of others. A stop to looting cannot be achieved without controlling the voracious acquisitive habits of these museums. They act as if there were no laws or moral standards.