Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Mythology of the Antiquities Market: Reading Ricardo Elia

Ricardo Elia, professor of archaeology at Boston University, recently published a characteristically combative paper in the journal Cultural Heritage Issues: The Legacy of Conquest, Colonization and Commerce. His article, entitled 'Mythology of the Antiquities Market', rehearses a now familiar argument from the archaeology camp that all antiquities collectors are rogues and there is no such thing as a "reputable dealer" in such material.

"I would like to suggest," he writes, "that the collector community operates on the basis of a particular mythology that explains, justifies, and validates the collecting of antiquities. The essential elements of this mythology have been in place for the better part of half a century and constitute a bulwark against outside criticism and an increasingly inconvenient corpus of facts."

He proceeds to cite the denial on the part of antiquities collectors of the true provenance of ancient objects (what he calls "the myth of the 'old collection'") and their prejudice towards a stuffy community of archaeologists.

The Mythology of the Museum
He is, however, overlooking an important factor in what encourages collectors to do what they do. The precedent for their collecting was set long ago by the real collectors — the museums. We can't turn the clock back, but there is no denying that the history of collecting prior to the modern era of UNESCO Conventions and export restrictions is one of institutionalised looting, the fruits of which ended up in western encyclopaedic museums. This is why, in the eyes of many developing nations, it is not only the activities of the Fleischmans, Ortizs and Levy-Whites of this world that are to blame for the impoverishment of many nations' cultural heritage through looting and smuggling, but our encyclopedic museums as well.

This may not seem to be saying much; after all, doesn't Peter Watson point an accusatory finger at the Met, the Getty and a host of other museums in his exhaustive Medici Conspiracy? Well, up to a point, but it's the epistemological foundations of the great encyclopedic museums that are the real issue, not just the post-1970 Apulian pots and Euphronios kraters.

As Dr Kavita Singh, associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, pointed out in a 2008 article in The Art Newspaper, outside the west, Western museums are seen "as terrifying places with insatiable appetites for works of art."

She goes on to say, "They are also seen as the arm of a more powerful state, with infinite funds and power at their command. To tell a Bangladeshi protestor that universal museums 'build bridges across cultures and promote mutual understanding' would only provoke anger or derision."

In his article, Professor Elia goes on to develop an anthropological, socio-functional mythography that draws on Durkheimian/Malinowskian methodologies to outline a series of myths upon which collectors draw to justify their collecting activities. These include The Myth of the Old Collection; The Myth of the Chance Find; The Myth of the Reputable Dealer, and so on.

He forgets an even more structurally supportive myth, however; namely The Myth of the Encyclopaedic Museum. The Museum's claim to legitimate right of possession, to ethical custodianship of objects and to coherent communicator of meanings and narratives about human origins comprises the fragile superstructure upon which modern antiquities collectors construct and justify their own raisons d'être. It was the museum tradition that taught them to do what they do.

As long as encyclopedic or universal museums remain intransigent in the face of claims for the return of cultural objects — many of which were looted at the expense of the archaeological record — the looting and collecting of antiquities will continue (as will the arrogant denial of the implications). Museums are, by definition, and certainly in practice, the institutional face of 'culture without context'.

The encyclopaedic museum may be all we have, but in its present form it is both disreputable and unsustainable. Can it be made over? What can the great encyclopedic museums do to transform themselves from symbols of overweening power and acquisitiveness into forces for good in a rapidly changing world?

They could start by setting a better example to collectors of antiquities. Not by giving things back — although a genuinely well-meaning, selective approach to that would help — but rather by rethinking their prejudiced and anachronistic condemnation of a notional 'nationalism' as the main motivation of source nations seeking dominion over their own heritage. Until that happens, the History of the World in 100 Objects will remain what many already see it as: wretched propaganda.

Not all of Elia's arguments seem particularly well-thought out. If 'chance finds' do occur, as he seems willing to concede, how can they be described as a myth? The quotes he cites don't refer to specific numbers of chance finds, but to the 'occasional' nature of the chance find. That surely needs to be set alongside wholesale looting as another source of unprovenanced material. It is therefore not a myth.

What emerges most clearly from Elia's piece is the trill of self-regard that is a familiar note in the archaeologist vs collector debate. If the archaeologists haven't bent their backs into the subterranean pit, shone their torches into the Stygian gloom of the tomb and sensitively brushed the grime of ages from the krater, everything is untouchable and of negligible value to humankind. That's clearly not good enough. Until one of them comes up with an alternative solution to the problem of 'orphaned' objects, the mighty encyclopaedic museums will continue to win adoption rights over the Heimatlösen.

Moreover, for every university professor who pours scorn on the utterances of reputable dealers like James Ede (a 'reputable dealer' is an oxymoron in Professor Elia's gloss) there is a Cerveteri archaeologist who is only to happy to count Mr Ede among his colleagues and friends. Who is right?

To paraphrase Professor Elia, I would like to suggest that it is first and foremost the museum community that operates on the basis of a particular mythology that explains, justifies, and validates the collecting of antiquities. The essential elements of this mythology have been in place for the better part of two centuries and constitute a bulwark against outside criticism and an increasingly inconvenient corpus of facts.

Ricardo Elia, 'Mythology of the Antiquities Market' in Cultural Heritage Issues: The Legcy of Conquest, Colonization and Commerce, Ed. A.R.Nafziger & Ann M. Nicgorski, Martinus Nijhoff Publications 2008, pp239-255.

(Dr Kavita Singh, 'Do we really want the freer circulation of cultural goods?' in The Art Newspaper, Issue 192, June 2008: Link here)

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