Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Chasing Aphrodite at the Walters

On October 29, 2011, the Walters Museum of Art, Baltimore, hosted a discussion about the controversies surrounding the museums collecting antiquities. Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino, the authors of Chasing Aphrodite, an expose about the Getty Museum’s collecting practices in the 1980’s, critiqued museum collecting from a moral and legal perspective. According to Felch and Frammolino, past museum collecting practices have helped stimulate looting in art rich countries and have violated local law. Arthur Houghton, CPRI President, and Gary Vikan, the Walters Museum Director, rose to defend museum acquisition practices, which both conceded have become more stringent over time. Houghton, who served as a curator at the Getty, provided some context for the discussion. He recounted how the Getty, awash with cash and eager to become a player, took too many shortcuts in an effort to build a world class antiquities collection in record time.

Larger issues were also discussed. Felch and Frammolino argued that changed attitudes have encouraged Italy to make loan term loans to American museums. They also suggested that returning the statue that was the center of the book led to a reappraisal of the work, which has now been identified as Persphone. Houghton argued that construction activities in places like Turkey is a much greater, but little discussed factor, in destroying archaeological context. Audience members also joined the fray. Commenting on the return of the “Aphrodite” to a small Sicilian town, one audience member remarked that she certainly did not want to go to such a place and that the statue will inevitably be seen by far fewer numbers of people than at the Getty. She also noted long term loans are costly to museums because Italy expects museums to spend substantial time, effort and money to conserve the artifacts that are exhibited. Another audience member suggested that source countries themselves could help alleviate the problem of looting by adopting “report and reward” statutes like that in force in the United Kingdom.

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