Little do millennial-old Roman, Greek, Chinese and Egyptian vases, pots, precious jade objects encased in museum vitrines know what trouble they have unleashed in modern times. For at least the past 25 years, museums, dealers and collectors have found themselves under verbal and legal attack from archeologists and source countries, accused of encouraging looting and illegal trafficking in ancient treasures.
One example of the hot-tempered dispute involved UNESCO, the cultural and educational arm of the United Nations, which adopted a 1970 cut-off date for the acquisition of antiquities while most American art museums followed a 1983 trading deadline. Finally, in 2008, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) adopted the UNESCO date as governing future dealings. Objects now must possess evidence of legal provenance prior to 1970. Objects offered for sale after that date, such as looted artifacts from Iraq, may not be acquired.
Source nations have argued successfully in recent years for the return of ancient artifacts that were illegally removed from their countries. Thus, the Metropolitan Museum, the Getty, Cleveland and Boston museums have returned objects to Italy and other countries of origin.
Besides the dating controversy, some museum directors believe that encyclopedic museums such as the Louvre, the British Museum, the Met and the Art Institute of Chicago are the places best suited to conserve and display such objects to advance the public’s understanding of the artistic triumphs of earlier civilizations.
James Cuno, director of the Art Institute, authored a book entitled “Who Owns Antiquity?” wherein he advanced such a claim and also argued that nations advocating restrictive retention and aggressive return policies were practicing a form of cultural nationalism that was more politically than artistically-driven.
Last month, Timothy Rub, now head of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a member of the AAMD panel that adopted the earlier cut-off date toward the collection of antiquities, spoke before a panel at the College Art Association convention in Chicago and offered his own nuanced prescription for how museums should behave.
He distanced himself from Cuno’s defense of the universal museum as the best repository (a minority view among museum directors) but also tiptoed away from archeologists’ claim that antiquities have little value independent of their archeological context, meaning resting in the ground at their original location.
Trying to skirt the thicket surrounding such loaded terms as “ownership”, “custodianship” and “nation vs. object-oriented” policies, Rub said that, “if one has to choose, museums have a greater responsibility for stewardship…than they do for the ownership of objects.” This is the concept under which the Met and the Getty engineered long-term loan agreements with Italy. Stewardship may offer the best way out of the conceptual maze surrounding antiquities.
Where museums have collected in the past but can no longer acquire post-1970 materials, Rub advocated “stronger collaborative relationships” and the commitment of “greater institutional resources” (most likely money and conservation services) with source countries in order to gain access to the objects.
Little by little, museums are inching toward greater accommodation with the arguments of source nations and archeologists. Perhaps one day, both sides will declare a final truce though that prospect remains a hopeful gleam.