Saturday, June 4, 2011

Shock, cajole, and embarrass

Hugh Eakin has written a response to Chasing Aphrodite ("What Went Wrong at the Getty", New York Review of Books June 23, 2011). Eakin's sympathy appears to rest with the North American museums and collectors who seem to have been happy to build their collections with recently surfaced material in spite of the 1970 UNESCO Convention and (a little closer to home) the 1973 Archaeological Institute of America declaration (the benchmark that I have used in my research with Christopher Chippindale).

Italian authorities have adopted an approach that avoided the courts to reclaim objects and for Eakin this was a tactic designed to "shock, cajole, and embarrass". However the decision to bring the curator of a leading North American museum before Italian court is likely to have sent a chill through many curatorial hearts. Eakin notes, with a little sense of disapproval, the way that newspapers were enlisted to support Italian claims; perhaps he should have also commented on the use of new media.

Yet if there are any lingering doubts about the Getty's attitude to recently surfaced antiquities readers should note the 1987 internal memorandum:
HW: We are saying we won’t look into the provenance. We know it’s stolen. Symes a fence.
Eakin is forceful when he raises the larger issue that has always been lurking in the back of the mind of anyone who has been following events at the Getty:
But there was something still more egregious about the readiness of Getty officials to sacrifice their curator and run for cover. In failing to recognize that the Italian case was really about the museum itself, Munitz, Gribbon, and the Getty’s board of trustees bungled numerous opportunities to resolve the case long before it ever went to trial.
It is not without interest that Eakin notes that the Getty appears to have spent some $16 million on external legal services for the period of the dispute.

Eakin closes with an extraordinary statement:
Italy can enjoy the same exquisite artworks of unknown origin that had previously graced American display cases: a victory less for archaeology, perhaps, than for the approach endorsed by collecting museums of showing beautiful objects that, even without knowledge of their discovery, may bring alive the ancient world to the modern public.
I have long argued with Christopher Chippindale that such unquestioning acquisitions have had not only material consequences but also intellectual ones as contextual information is irreversably lost. It is that loss of knowledge through the rapacious desire to acquire "Aphrodites" that is the real tragedy in this story.


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1 comment:

40something said...

What does that last sentence by Eakin mean ?? It is wilfully obscure, obtuse or just stupid ?

V. disappointing on the part of the NYRB

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