A Class Trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Posted in: Antiquities Market
Tags: Antiquities market & looting, Archaeology
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Rachel Hallote
Purchase College SUNY

Next week I will be taking the students in my “Politics and Archaeology” course to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We’ll be going as part of our unit on unprovenanced artifacts, collecting, looting and forgeries.

The assignment I give the class is simple: With a partner, choose a section of a gallery of antiquities—Egyptian, Greek, Roman or Mesopotamian. Walk around and write down the pertinent information for every artifact you see there, whether it’s a tiny bead, or a huge piece of architecture, using the museum display cards as your source. For every artifact, make sure you record: 1- the date when the museum acquired it, 2- whether it was uncovered by an archaeological excavation (and which one), 3- whether it is part of a named collection, 4- whether the museum owns it, or whether it is on loan, 5- the period or century to which the artifact dates, and 6- the artifact’s provenance. Then, quantify your results.

In the weeks leading up to our museum trip, my class has engaged in detailed discussions about public presentations of the past (think Masada, City of David, the Discovery Channel and the “Jonah” ossuary, and also Colonial Williamsburg), the role of UNESCO in archaeology, and repatriation. In the last two weeks, in immediate preparation for the outing, they are reading several articles about the antiquities trade (including ones by Morag Kersel, whose new blog post I will refer them to as well).

My undergraduates, like most of the public, have never before thought about the issue of where museum collections come from. The readings they did about the antiquities trade at first seemed irrelevant to a trip to see the Met’s collections. As one student put it, “Museums aren’t private individuals. Museums have to know exactly where all their artifacts originate, and wouldn’t end up with looted material.” In response, other students reminded the class about our discussions and readings on repatriation of artifacts, and looting during wartime. But then a related question came up, “Even if other museums might have questionable artifacts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art doesn’t—after all, it’s the Met!”

The last group of students I took to the Met two years ago was shocked as they walked around the galleries and tallied things up. They had expected most artifacts in a world-class museum to have been excavated by archaeologists, but instead found that the majority of artifacts were originally part of private collections, either on loan to the Met, or given as a gift to the Met, or purchased with funding given to the Met to expand a specific collection. This made them appropriately wonder how the lenders or the donors came to possess the artifacts in the first place. No one had thought about where museums get their materials, or their funding, prior to our class discussions about it.

This previous cohort of students noted the disturbingly high percentage of unprovenanced artifacts in the Met, with display cards that commonly gave “Greek, Attic” as a general location, and nothing more. Others cards read, “probably from Heliopolis,” or “Greek, South Italian” or “said to have been found…near Rome,” or “said to have been found near Kerameikos in Athens.” Some simply state “no provenance.”

When that class of students tallied their results, they found that more artifacts were unprovenanced in the Greek and Roman galleries than in the Egyptian and Mesopotamian ones. After our trip, we discussed why, and talked about issues such as Western interest in collecting Greek and Roman artifacts since the Renaissance, versus the somewhat more recent Western interest in Mesopotamia and Egypt, which coincided with the birth of archaeology in the 19th century. We talked about how the existence of these artifacts without provenance implies looting, recent or past, and whether or not even big museums like the Met are complicit in looting by acquiring and displaying such artifacts.

These are dicey issues indeed. It will be interesting to see what my current class sees next week, as they walk around the same galleries with their eyes focused on what the public does not usually notice. This class has been prepared differently than my last cohort. This class, as a group, has lived through the “Jonah” ossuary controversy last month. This class has lived through the recent verdict on the James Ossuary. I’m curious about how these students will react as they tally the unprovenanced artifacts in the Met.


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6 Comments for : A Class Trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art
    • Rick HAUSER
    • April 11, 2012

    This is a tremendously important educational effort. Its potential should not be underestimated.

    Simply stated, and as you correctly surmise, education starts early. If young researchers are familiar with the issues, then this interior debate stays on to inform future actions.

    I invite you and your students to look at the blog entry that follows your own—comments on "The Public Impact" by Dr. Giorgio Buccellati, co-Director of the excavations at ancientUrkesh.

    It does baffle me that colleagues should not see the connection between Buccellati's efforts and the illegal antiquities trade. What is being assayed at Urkesh is a response to the question, “What can archaeologists do about looting and the illegal trade in antiquities?”

    During the Workshop, SECONDARY CONTEXT I, at last year’s ASOR Annual Meeting, Dr. Giorgio Buccellati, Co-Director of the Archaeological Expedition to Ancient Urkesh (Tell Mozan) spoke about how he and colleagues work with the local populace to instill respect for a shared cultural heritage.

    We see his work and that of his collaborators as central to the question of how those of us who are engaged in ongoing fieldwork can help stem the tide of illegal trade in unprovenienced artifacts. Obviously, this is a meaningful question for us all, no less urgent now than when the original legislation addressing the matter was enacted (and at length approved by the USA).

    Those present at the Workshop contributed stories of their own experiences working with local populaces to protect cultural heritage—combating looting on the front lines, so to speak.

    Now, it looks as if your students have joined the battle.


    • Andy Vaughn
    • April 11, 2012

    Rachel: This is a great idea! I'll actually be in New York next week for April vacation with my kids (ages 14, 12, and 5). I'm going have my kids (at least the older two) do this exercise at the various museums that we visit. What a great way to "open the eyes" of students and adults alike. I'll also be interested in hearing the reactions / responses of the students in your class- that is, do they find that the museum visit would be more valuable if more artifacts come from a known provenance?

    • G.M. Grena
    • April 11, 2012

    Dr. Hallote, count me in as someone else who thinks this is a great idea! Your students are indeed blessed to be instructed by someone thoughtful & creative! The thing that has always frustrated me about archeological museums is their vague placards. Maybe it's a carry-over from modern art displays, for which an artist's name & piece title make sufficient placard contents for visitors with short attention spans. On the other end of the spectrum are people like me who see a little lapis-lazuli bead from Ur, & want to know whom it belonged to, who found it, where, when, why, how many others, etc. The thing that bothers me the most is artifacts with a lengthy ancient inscription, for which the placard says little or nothing. I expect a full translation, plus professional commentary.

    Dr. Vaughn, it would be neat if you could send a blanket E-mail on behalf of ASOR to some of the major museums' curators, asking them for comments/explanations as to why their placards are often so vague, especially with no references to academic publications to encourage further research. Maybe Dr. Hallote's students can find something specific in the Met with a vague placard, then research it in an ASOR publication, & get the curator to update it crediting the student & ASOR!

    • Ann Shafer
    • May 2, 2012


    This class exercise is not only an example of great pedagogy, but it also potentially a beginning for a much larger study in a similar vein. . . Will you do this, please? As for my own thoughts, I've been writing about contemporary cities lately, and have been pondering what the architect and urban theorist Juhani Pallasmaa believes is the cause of our current sense of urban alienation: a loss of rootedness in our history(ies). I believe this is true, and so I've been thinking about how we try to re-activate what he calls the 'slow healing time of history'. . . and museums are certainly one way. Pick any time or day in the Metropolitan Museum and you will see throngs, and I mean throngs of visitors. In my opinion from observing them, it seems that many are there for the history 'experience', which they will then carry home with them and treasure. However corrupted museum practices may have been (or continue to be), they are an important source of cultural identity for us. This makes it all the more imperative that we interrogate and I dare say even interrupt the current unthinking narratives that such institutions often perpetuate. I don't think academia will get very far with a full-scale ideological attack, but rather, will make much better progress if we provide alternative narratives. This is everyone's sense of history and identity, after all, that we are dealing with. Studies like yours (multiplied) will give us the hard data that is necessary to first, understand the scale of this phenomenon, and second, provide a solution. Bravo!

    • Dodi
    • May 28, 2012

    ok, one people uaulsly don't care since they have to deal with bombs and stuff, but its much easier to steal from a natural setting then a museum. And most artwork is displayed in the correct country. So, id say the museum is better

    • Sarah Hill
    • June 20, 2012

    It was actually a trip to this museum that inspired me to someday become a museum director. I go to Santa Fe University right now and am earning my arts management degree. I can't wait to spend everyday in a museum. Seriously, it will be like a dream! :)

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