Tuesday, November 23, 2010

American Museums Bamboozled?

Yale's recent decision to repatriate its Machu Picchu collection and what transpired at the recent Italian and Greek MOU hearings got me thinking that the American museum community has only been bamboozled after its good faith efforts to bend over backwards to the demands of the archaeological community and source countries.

Some years back, the AAMD put in place what seemed to me at the time to be reasonable acquisition guidelines that used a "rolling 10 year provenance period" as a standard. In so doing, the AAMD hoped to balance concerns about the accession of recently looted material with the museum community's continuing obligations to study, preserve and display artifacts from the past. Elements within the archaeological community, however, vehemently attacked these guidelines, suggesting they were just a cover to allow museums to continue to purchase looted material after it was no longer "hot." They instead insisted that the museums only accession artifacts with a documentary history dating back to at least 1970, the date of the UNESCO Convention. They maintained this date would act as a "safe harbor" for future acquisitions. They also suggested that source countries would respond to such a showing of "good faith" by then allowing for "long term loans" of high quality artifacts that the museums could display.

Well, the AAMD and another museum association, the AAM, responded by accepting a 1970 provenance date, but what did the museums get in return? Little, but more grief. Both the Met and now Yale have recently repatriated artifacts that were placed in their collections well before 1970. This will just encourage more such claims for artifacts accessioned well before 1970, as will U.S. Customs' evident acceptance at the behest of the archaeological community of virtually any vague foreign cultural patrimony law as a legal basis for such returns.

And what of long term loans? Again, instead of such loans, museums have received little more than excuses from countries like Italy and Greece, efforts to redefine "long term loans" into what are effectively "short term" ones, cirticism for "not being proactive enough," and even claims that language in MOU's mandating such loans is meaningless.

Of course, by accepting a 1970 provenance date, museums have also made orphans out of thousands upon thousands of perfectly legitimate artifacts that simply do not have the paper "bonafides" to allow them to be studied, conserved and displayed for the benefit of the American public. In the meantime, new museums in places like China and Dubai face no such self-imposed constraints. Yet, we hear no protests from the archaeological community about their collecting practices.

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