The Ethics Reader | March 24, 2023

What a month for museum ethics it has been! The Met has been the focus of several news articles after the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published an article linking more than 1,000 antiquities in the Met’s collection to traffickers. The ICIJ has been focused on collecting practices at the Met (and several other museums) for close to two years, following the revelations of the Pandora Papers. Earlier pieces examined the links between the deceased, indicted art trafficker Douglas Latchford and US Museums, including the Denver Art Museum (who, earlier this month announced they were removing the name of Latchford’s associate – and former DAM Board member – Emma Bunker from its Arts of Asia gallery, and returning financial gifts received from the Bunker family in support of its capital campaign).

One quote in the ICIJ investigation into the Met’s practices that caught my attention detailed some concerning historical context:

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art opened in 1880, long after its counterparts in Paris and London. The museum started out with a purchase of 174 paintings, placing it far from the scale of France’s palatial Louvre’s galleries already holding thousands of works, many inherited from the nation’s colonial exploits.

Even in the 1960s, the largest museum in North America was still playing catch-up. The Met’s leadership aggressively sought major acquisitions and took a casual approach to, and even at times embraced, antiquities smuggling as a mainstay of the museum’s sourcing.

Under its then director, Thomas Hoving, the Met embarked on a buying spree in an effort to build out an antiquities collection that could match rivals in London and Paris. Over the following decades, the institution filled its halls and warehouses with treasures from Greece, Italy, Egypt, India, Cambodia and beyond. “Not a single decade of any civilization that took root on earth is not represented by some worthy piece,” Hoving later wrote of the results of work he had begun. “The Met has it all.”

Woodman, Spencer, Malia Politzer, Delphine Reuter, and Namrata Sharma. “‘The Stuff Was Illegally Dug up’: New York’s Met Museum Sees Reputation Erode over Collection Practices.” The Guardian, March 20, 2023, sec. Culture.

The quote almost perfectly rhymes with this fascinating interview from July 2022 with Matthew Bogdanos, the head of the New York Antiquities Theft Task Force:

And there’s an emerging market that is, of all the trends, the most troubling: the Gulf states. Objects, mosaics, extraordinary reliefs that used to come the normal route—either to London or to New York—out of the Middle East, out of Iraq and Syria and Turkey and Lebanon and Egypt, are now stopping and disappearing in the UAE and Dubai, Qatar and Kuwait. And that is disturbing. 

When people said, “Oh, wow, it’s so great, the Louvre Abu Dhabi. It’s so amazing that they’re bringing culture to the people.” And my first thought was, no, that’s just another market. You know how the Getty was first founded? In the ‘60s, they had to acquire quickly to catch up because everyone else—well, they wanted to be a major world player. But all these major world museums had been in business hundreds of years. So in order to catch up—I mean, it’s well documented—they had to cut a lot of corners, right? Well, I don’t know why people think the Louvre Abu Dhabi would be any different. They’ve got to catch up. 

There’s only one way to catch up.

Petersen, Anne Helen. “Inside the Mind-Boggling World of the Antiquities Theft Task Force.” Substack newsletter. Culture Study (blog), July 17, 2022.

It’s a troubling take… Meanwhile, reframing the impact of illicit trade of cultural property, Sophiline Cheam-Shapiro has written about their experience of being asked to leave the Met when dancing a prayer to Cambodian antiquities within the galleries. Cheam-Shapiro writes:

Whenever I visit museums around the world that house Khmer antiquities, I pray to the gods and ancestors that inhabit them. Sometimes I simply put my hands together and chant. Other times I move. This is my tradition. It is an essential part of my identity and my relationship to these objects.

…About two minutes into my brief dance, a member of the museum’s security team approached me and stated that I wasn’t allowed to dance there without permission. He also instructed me to put on my shoes. Now, I knew that the museum would be unhappy if it understood what I was praying for. But in that trancelike state, I was unprepared to be interrupted. In fact, in my over 40 years of dancing, no one has ever told me to stop.

Cheam-Shapiro, Sophiline. “Met Museum Kicked Me Out for Praying to My Ancestral Gods.” Hyperallergic, March 21, 2023.

Cheam-Shapiro’s piece reminded me of this recent incident at the Portland Art Museum, in which an Indigenous woman was asked to remove her traditional woven baby carrier while visiting an exhibition of Native American art, since it violated the museum’s “no backpacks” policy, showing the continued tension between museum policies and the needs of different publics to be treated with dignity and respect when accessing cultural collections The museum has since said that it will change its visitor policies regarding baby carriers.

Finally, an update on a couple of pieces that I linked to last monthLisa Korneichuk’s great piece addressing “misnomer geography” asked why US museums continue to label Ukrainian artists as “Russian”…  An answer of sorts came last week in a NYTimes piece, which described how museums have started to relabel works in their collections to better reflect their Ukrainian roots. And ProPublica continues to publish important pieces addressing the repatriation of Native American remains under NAGPRA, like this one, which looks at the commitments that dozens of museums and universities have made since the series started. For better or worse, it seems that the work of investigative journalists has perhaps become an essential part of museum accountability…

Thanks for joining me for this month’s Ethics Reader. Have you noticed other ethical conversations around the sector this month? I’d love to hear what you’ve been thinking about.

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