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.
All content provided on this blog is for informational purposes only. The American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this blog or found by following any link on this blog. ASOR will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information. ASOR will not be liable for any losses, injuries, or damages from the display or use of this information. The opinions expressed by Bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of ASOR or any employee thereof.