Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Chasing Aphrodite at the National Press Club and art museums as neutral ground?

Me and Jason Felch,
one half of the authors of Chasing Aphrodite
Last Tuesday I was lucky enough to attend the panel discussion at the National Press Club for Chasing Aphrodite authors Jason Felch (who looks like Clark Kent up close) and Ralph Frammolino (who phoned in from Bangladesh), as well as former Getty curator Arthur Houghton and Walters Art Museum Director Gary Vikan. The event was moderated by Washington Post reporter James Grimaldi. To summarize, it was magical, in a way only these things can be. Tanya Lervik wrote a great summary of the event for the ARCA blog and really captured all the best points (except for when Houghton and Vikan passed each other notes and nodded diligently as Jason looked on in mild befuddlement and amusement).

However, I was particularly struck by a few aspects of the discussion that aren't super polite to mention in an official summary of an official event on a more official blog than this. First, it was apparent that although every single one of the men on the panel has the utmost respect for one another, there was a definite rift in opinion over the role that museums can and should play in addressing the ethics behind the objects in their collections. While Arthur Houghton played a huge role in providing much of the information in Chasing Aphrodite and was for all intensive purposes a lone, sorta ethical voice during his time there, much of his contribution to the panel discussion was a defense of museums, particularly the Getty, and their role in the legality versus the ethicality of the events that took place. Two particular statements by each Vikan and Houghton bookended the discussion with the museological perspective: at the beginning of the conversation, Vikan stated, "Do we own these things? No. We take care of them.", while near the end, Houghton expressed that the real question that needs to be asked is the degree to which Americans want to find themselves subject to foreign laws. Both seemed to agree that it is not museums or collectors that fuel the illicit art market, but the lack of stringent laws in source countries.

With all due respect, haha.
Being a student mostly on the outside but increasingly on the inside of this field has really highlighted one issue in particular for me: because major American art museums are not directly affiliated with the U.S. government and attempt to represent the global community through an encyclopedic collection (as opposed to representing the colonial conquering mentality of the American past), they have a tendency to see themselves as neutral ground in the international community. As if they are all the Vatican City of art. James Cuno, current CEO of the Getty, does a good job of representing the generation of museum professionals who hold this perspective. He writes in Who Owns Antiquity?,
To include antiquities within the political construct of cultural property is to politicize them. It is to make them part of modern, national cultural politics. What is a national culture in this modern age, when the geographic extent of so many cultures does not coincide with national borders, and when national borders are often new and even artificial creations with sovereignty over the cultural artifacts of peoples no longer extant or no longer in political power?
Cuno and others like him see the museum as a thing not held within the state, but morally or institutionally outside of it. Cuno argues that museums "own antiquities (and all works of art in the collections) only insofar as they hold them in trust for the public they serve. They are not in the collections of the art museum for the art museum. They are there for the public." Houghton echoed this perspective when he reminded the audience that museums like the Getty don't do anything they do not think will benefit the ever ambiguous "public", while Vikan lamented that museums should be doing more to engage in a conversation that allows a more cooperative sharing of the world's heritage between institutions. From this perspective, the museum does not function as a part of or as an extension of the state in which it is situated, but as a neutral sanctuary for the cultures its collection represents.

I think that there are great aspects to this perspective. I, too, would love to see a world in which museums simply share objects with one another and no longer go head to head in drawn out repatriation cases. It would be incredible if museums could indeed be neutral ground for the world's cultural property and if there were no question of ownership. However, I think these are things to aspire to. Unlike the people who hold this opinion, I don't believe it's already a reality. I have found this perspective (which I fondly define as "delusional) is limited to American art museums. Most major European art museums, such as the British Museum and the Louvre, are national museums that operate under theirs government and consequently cannot lay claim to the concept of keeping cultural property for an ambiguous "public". They admit to owning their objects and serve a very specific national audience.

American art museums, however, have exhibited in recent events a strange disconnect between their actions and their words. By itself, this kind of belief is almost laughable to people like me who recognize that cultural property is and has always been highly political and who cannot see museums ever being truly nation-less sanctuaries. However, I believe that these inconsistencies stem from the difficult evolution of the modern museum. The desire to distance the modern museum from its colonialist beginnings and the inability/unwillingness to fully address or concede to its past has resulted in the re-dressing of colonialist tradition in the more modern garb of globalism. There are so many good intentions in this strange perspective, but they fall somewhere between guilt-ridden colonialism and 21st century "This land is your land, this land is my land" globalism. Which is exactly why this is a perspective that needs to be more fully articulated and explored. To most of us on the outside, the logic behind museum practices is and has been a big mystery. I think that in order for all of us to have a more productive dialogue on these issues, we need to understand more thoroughly what exactly the thought processes are behind what our museums do and who they think they're doing it for.

But first museum professionals need to get to a point where they're ok with admitting that their institutions have a past. Had that been the case with Gary Vikan and Arthur Houghton, we may have had a very different discussion at the National Press Club last week. It was all too obvious in the small conflicts that surfaced that Vikan and Houghton were not ready to make these kinds of admissions, while Jason Felch was eager to bring them to light. It seemed that half the battle present in the discussion was the unarticulated debate over whether or not museums really are or should be neutral ground for ancient art and artifacts.

(Special thanks to Jason Felch for recognizing me from this blog and so gracefully responding to my excited babbling.)

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