Friday, 5 December 2008

Museums and the "Velvet Rope"

Having made Lisa miss the "Treasures of Isis" exhibition at the 'Springsonian' Museum, Homer breaks into the museum to prove to his little girl that reckless acts can be rewarding. Having broken in Homer goes to step over a museum barrier when Lisa stops him with an anguished cry, "We cant' touch it's behind a velvet rope", with eyes glazed and a sense of awe in her voice she caresses the barrier and repeats, "a velvet rope".

Now the Simpsons may seem an unlikely source for discussing the role of museums as the guardians of word heritage - but the writers of 'The Simpsons' have hit the nail on the head when it comes to our attitude to the barriers, both physical and metaphorical which seperate those supposed to be encouraged to engage with history and share in the collective responsiblity for its preservation (i.e. the public) and those that actually act as the guardians of the past, whether they are museum curators, government appointed officials or private collectors.

There is a common expression in English that "a museum is a dangerous place" and unfortunately there are countless examples to back up this assumption.

We trust museums to act as guardians of heritage goods, not to allow visitors to pour a can of Coke over an Egyptian statue to see if the acid really will destroy the stone (it did) or allow visitors to trip over their shoelaces and smash priceless Chinese vases 'by accident'. Unfortunately these incidents are actual cases, not metaphorical.

Perhaps worse than both these cases is the apparent deliberate act of vandalism carried out on the Koptos Lions by the British Egyptologist, Flinders Petrie. It would appear that unable to export these unique examples of monumental predynastic sculpture he took a hammer and chisel to them and exported them as an assortment of unimportant stone fragments (see Barbara Adams book 'The Koptos Lions').

Museums all too readily excuse the behaviours of early collectors as past and yet tar collectors with the same brush.

Museums are founded on the good will of private donors. The British Museum has the Hamilton Vase collection, the Salt Collection, etc, the Fitzwilliam Museum has the Gayer-Anderson Collection, the list is endless.

Private collectors can take an ethical approach to collecting without being held accountable for current looting crises by the professional museum community.
In a worrying development of public censorship the latest issue of Minerva (Vol 19 No 6, Nov/Dec 2008, p.63) reports that despite James Cuno being hotly tipped as the favourite to replace Phillip de Montebello as Director of the Met Museum, NY, the position has gone to Thomas P. Campbell, Curator of Textiles, in case you were wondering.
It's not like the Met to bo concerned with ethics and antiquities (read Thomas Hoving's autobiography, 'Making the Mummies Dance'). Look at the saga of the Euphronius Krater to name but one. After all, they are happy to display The Levy-White Collection which still has the 'Icklingham Bronzes', known to be looted from a farmer's field in Suffolk, England.
In the same issue, Minerva also reports that "American Association of Museums Sets Stricter Guidelines for the Acquisition of Antiquities" (p. 7). Coincidence - I think not!


No comments: