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Tales From The Vitrine: Battles Over Stolen Antiquities

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Author Topic: Tales From The Vitrine: Battles Over Stolen Antiquities  (Read 483 times)
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« on: January 09, 2009, 02:19:34 pm »

Can an institution be said to be beyond ideology when its history is bound up with colonialism and the same "palace of wonders" tradition that brought living, breathing villages nègres to nineteenth-century Parisian world fairs and the preserved genitalia of the "Hottentot Venus" to the Musée de l'Homme?

Cuno seems oblivious to the imperialist taint on the tradition of the encyclopedic museum. He mentions, when listing examples from the Art Institute's collection that require a global context to be properly understood, a bronze plaque from the Benin Empire, taken by the British: "As retribution for the deaths of members of the British mission, a punitive exhibition was organized, which occupied the royal city of Benin in 1897 and led to the removal of hundreds of Benin bronze plaques, brass sculptures, and ivory tusks to Britain."

He doesn't elaborate much on the "punitive exhibition" (usually referred to as a "punitive expedition" by other scholars), which involved days of looting and destruction and precipitated the collapse of the 400-year-old empire. The region (modern-day Nigeria) was left destabilized, and the British began a period of colonial dominance that lasted sixty years. Elsewhere, Cuno glosses over or completely omits the unfortunate legacies of some of the artworks he discusses. Most surprising, he makes a glaring error when he tells us that the Met received the Lydian materials through partage. Here one misses Waxman's corrective gaze.

For Cuno, however, to harp on this is to get hung up on ancient history.

He reminds his readers that the Benin bronzes are divided among Chicago, London and various European cities, where they are loved and cared for and seen by many thousands of people every year. The idea of returning them to Lagos, one of the world's most dangerous cities, or anywhere else in Nigeria, with its poverty, civil unrest and ethnic violence, seems absurd, especially given that only ethnic Yoruba (about one-fifth of the population) claim any racial or cultural connection to the Benin Empire.

But Waxman's prescription is not simply to pack up everything in the halls of Western museums and send it all priority mail back to the Third World countries whence it came. She recommends that museums be open about their complex legacy while seeking feasible ways to redress old wrongs whenever possible. Cuno may disapprove, but if recent developments are any indication, the future of museum collecting looks a lot more like Waxman's vision than it does his: flexible agreements with source countries for loans and joint expeditions, transparency about procedure and provenance and a commitment from museums to obey the spirit as well as the letter of the law, determined by international conventions on art trading.
« Last Edit: January 09, 2009, 02:51:06 pm by Bianca » Report Spam   Logged

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