What’s a curator to do 2?

On the question of museums’ complicity in the looting of antiquities, here’s a brief but punchy op-ed by Robert Bagley, a Princeton University specialist in Asian archaeology, and Patty Gerstenblith, director of DePaul University’s program in art and cultural heritage law.

In an ever-smaller world, and an increasingly multicultural society, our museums have an educational mission whose importance would be hard to overstate. For many people the art museum is the most immediate, effective and appealing way to encounter the past and to engage with other cultures. But amassing collections of looted antiquities is not the way for our museums to fulfill their mission, though many museum directors would have us believe otherwise. With the money required to buy one major object that will be seen by a trickle of visitors over the years, a museum could organize a loan exhibition that would bring it a hundred major objects and that would be seen by thousands or tens of thousands of visitors in a matter of months. Which way of spending the money does more for education? When some museum directors choose to purchase one object rather than borrow a hundred, they claim to be acting in the interests of their visitors, but surely they are deceived as to their own motives. They are motivated by a curatorial culture that puts acquisition above all else–acquisition before education, before knowledge, before the public interest. It is through intercultural exchanges, not through trafficking in illicit antiquities, that American museums should fulfill their educational mission and discharge their responsibility to the American public.

That’s an excellent point I hadn’t thought of. The Met broke the million dollar barrier when it bought the Euphronious krater in 1972. An anonymous collector bought the 3 inch high Guennol Lioness in November of last year for $57 million, setting a whole other stratospheric record.

This is the kind of money museums have to spend to wallow in the filth of plundered history. For the price of a single statue the size of a kid’s hand, museums could fund huge exhibitions of loaned wonders.

They wouldn’t even have to fund the entire thing. Most loaned exhibits have corporate sponsors footing a hefty portion of the bill. The First Emperor exhibit at the British Museum, for instance, is sponsored by Morgan Stanley. That support will be bolstered by Delta and UPS when it moves to the High Museum in Atlanta.

You can’t even buy an advance ticket for that exhibition, btw. They’ve sold out completely through the end of the run. The only way to get tickets now is to stand in line with literally a thousand other people before the museum opens for a shot at one of 500 tickets available for that day’s show.

So, for a fraction of the cost of a single statuette, the British Museum gets hundreds of thousands of paying visitors at 24 bucks a pop, huge publicity, a chance to educate a voracious public with a high quality, detailed curatorial framework plus all kinds of ancillary lectures, debates, workshops, etc.

It’s not even a contest, frankly. By any possible standard — financial, educational, ethical, legal, PR — the loan system completely blows the antiquities trade out of the water.


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February 2021


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