What’s a curator to do?

In the comments on yesterday’s entry about the museum raids, I noted that it was virtually impossible for a substantial collection in the United States to be built quickly out of provenanced antiquities because the demand far outstrips legitimate supply. Clutch asked:

So, are all the graduates of curating/gallery studies/museum studies doomed to careers of self-deception or outright fraud? Do you think anything can be done? If the legal/moral supply really is too small, and the demand is large, it strikes me that a “War on Drugs” approach of occasional prosecutions will work no better than… well, the War on Drugs. Do you see a practical course of action that could help?

Assuming the curator wants to work in the North America, there are two approaches I can think of which could help de-loot the system: 1) buy local, and 2) pursue long-term loans and travelling exhibits.

The lust for classical or exotic fureign antiquities seems to me a vestige of the Gilded Age parvenue attitude that prestige and class can be bought. Nowadays, there are all kinds of museums with a more narrow focus on local history.

There’s still a huge traffic in looted local antiquities, mind you, especially Native American and Civil War, but it would be easier to trace the provenance on such pieces and most importantly, to team up with legitimate archaeological excavations and arrange the display of their finds.

The money, though, is in long-term loans and travelling exhibits. This would work both with local antiquities under the control of government agencies (national parks, for instance) and tribal governments, and with other countries’ antiquities.

There are already established loan mechanisms between museums, and many countries with a surfeit of antiquities would doubtless be glad to negotiate long-term loans of stuff they have in storage or can ill-afford to preserve.

First there needs to be a serious culture shift, however. As things stand, curators and the collector class who populate museum boards have been more than content to rationalize their wallowing in the loot trade sty. The froo-froo talk about antiquities “belonging to the world” or worse, the patronizing “we can take care of it better than they can” excuses for trafficking in goods stolen at massive cost in site destruction and even human life, have to stop.


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Comment by Clutch
2008-01-25 17:25:30

Wonderfully said. Thank you.

:notworthy: :chicken: :love:

Comment by livius drusus
2008-01-25 17:47:38

Thank you for asking. (And for the :chicken: )

Comment by Tiffany
2008-01-25 19:02:51

Oh, I read on Google Reader pretty much every day or so. This is a truly global issue. You might not know, liv, but the state park museum at Kolomoki State Park in south Georgia was itself looted of some of its most interesting artifacts in 1974. Most have not been recovered, but you can learn more about it (PS If I screwed up the link tags, sorry!)

Comment by livius drusus
2008-01-25 19:24:26

I didn’t know about the Kolomoki looting, but I’m sadly not surprised. :(

Thank you for the link. I’m collecting looting stories for a blog entry dedicated to what “looting” actually means in concrete terms.

Comment by P-dub
2008-01-26 04:44:03

Here in Washington state on the Makah reservation they built a museum from a local dig. It is quite fascinating and everything to do with the indigenous people who still inhabit the land. You may have heard the controversy over them being allowed to hunt whale as part of their culture and was granted the right.

Comment by livius drusus
2008-01-26 09:27:38

Oh yes, I have heard about the whale hunt controversy. I hadn’t heard about the museum and dig, though. That’s exactly the kind of collaboration we need to see more of to fight the looting beast.

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