Tuesday, December 20, 2011

It Could Happen To You: Provenance mysteries in rural Vermont.

I'm young, I guess, so things still surprise me sometimes. For example, I know logically that when you make something a big chunk of your life, it is obviously going to take up a big chunk of you life. But hearing about my fellow bloggers receiving death threats, needing to ask a fellow student about the human skull staring at me from their shelf, and emailing my school administration to ask for details on the mysterious and legit-looking Buddha bust displayed in a school hallway with no label are not things I expected to be a part of this chunk. Maybe I'm just more sensitive to them now in a way that I wasn't pre-chunk, but in the last few months I encountered two particular issues that prove this isn't just for museums.

This first was an acquisition made by a person I know at school.

The guy whose arm you see in that picture recently bought this human skull off eBay and, when I asked him about it, was pretty fuzzy on the provenance. Apparently, paying "good money" to a Chinese seller on the internet makes it ok to own a human skull, even if you don't know exactly where it's from or if it's journey here was 100% legal and ethical. Let's just set aside my feelings on displaying human bodies/parts for a moment. (BUT TO BE CLEAR, I'm ok with it as long as it is educational, enlightening, and preferably in a museum. Not if it's some pointless piece of conversation-starting decoration like it is in this case.) Instead, let's focus on the fuzziness of this student's understanding of how you can legally and ethically buy a human body part, if that is indeed your thing. There was a definite lack of consideration on his end for these issues; whether it was from ignorance, carelessness, or a combination of the two, I don't know. If any apprehension did exist, it was apparently trumped by whatever scrap of cool he hoped to acquire with the possession of someone's face for his own personal cabinet of curiosities. This is evident in the skull having been dubbed Henry and the collector's uncomfortable shrug when I asked about the name of the person whose head is was before it became his token macabre piece. The lesson being here that kids with money will buy skulls off the internet if given half a chance, so even your peers may be blindly (or not so blindly) contributing to trafficking/cultural heritage conflicts.

In the second case, I spent a good month and a half wondering about a Buddha head displayed in the entrance of Bennington College's new Center for the Advancement of Public Action. There is no label explaining what it is, why it's there, or what it has to do with public action and social responsibility. I emailed the president about it (what is it? where is it from? how did it get here?) and was only told that it is real, Indonesian, and from 778-864 CE. This photo was the only piece of information willingly shared with me (and when I got the photo, it was sideways):
When I asked about the provenance, I was only told that it is on longterm loan from an alumna/trustee. Not even the name of the alumna/trustee. (I've been told the name of the trustee by other sources, but not by the administration.) And definitely no information about how the owner acquired it and if she has a record of its provenance. I get that Bennington isn't used to displaying ancient artifacts like that, but not even a label? I was told that one was in the works but seriously, how long does it take to make a label? I'll be emailing again soon to politely express my concern about the provenance of the object and the fact that no effort has been made to explain its history.

Additionally, the meaning behind the Buddha's display in CAPA is baffling to most students. I guess it's supposed to reflect the Eastern peacefulness of CAPA's architecture (to me, it looks like a 1970s Roman Catholic church) and act as an homage to Buddhism as a religion-philosophy-thing. OR Bennington President Liz Coleman watches a lot of Gossip Girl and is giving a secret shout out to her fave guilty pleasure.

1 comment:

  1. LOL Liz Coleman watching Gossip Girl. Hilarious. Thought provoking points about the college community, I am a part of though. I guess more people need to ask these questions.