Friday, April 9, 2010

Loot, by Sharon Waxman

Title: Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World
Author: Sharon Waxman
Publisher: Henry Holt, 2009
Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9780805090888

Fascinating book about the ethical dilemmas posed by the fact that many of the world's ancient treasures/archaeological finds have been "looted" by other nations, usually Western ones such as the United States, United Kingdom, or France. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, treasures in Greece, Egypt, Italy, and Turkey were taken by either private individuals or museum buyers. France basically ran the department of antiquities in Egypt for years, overseeing the removal of artifacts from Egypt to other countries, and Egypt was not an equal partner in these decisions. Lord Elgin in the United Kingdom simply took the frieze at the top of the Parthenon in Greece. He believed he was saving it. Gilded Age capitalists/philanthropists in the United States used their wealth and power to obtain antiquities overseas to stock the museums they were building back at home.

The countries where these artifacts were originally found (which is not always the same thing as the culture or civilizations that created them) have always had much to say about these practices, but only lately have they been able to make the raiding countries actually respond to them. As a result, the notion of repatriation--the process of returning artifacts to their regions of origin--has been hotly debated for much of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

In Loot, Waxman considers the issue from the perspective of the various groups who believe it is their mission to maintain and preserve ancient artifacts and cultural heritages: the tourism industry; museums (the Getty, the Met, the Louvre, the British Museum); people in government antiquities departments (such as those of Egypt and Greece); museum curators and directors; and antiquities dealers. Needless to say, these groups cannot agree entirely on anything; their beliefs about the core concepts at stake (history, antiquity, museums, and preservation) are too often in conflict.

Some of the main questions the book addresses are:

1. If the country of origin of an artifact is in disarray and cannot "properly" care for (security wise; preservationwise) its own artifacts/history, does it cede the right to gain (or reclaim) its artifacts?
2. If a museum has artifacts that were obtained using questionable methods, but a hundred years ago or so, to what extent should the museum be public about it? To what extent should the country where the artifact is stored (or the museum) be expected to return the artifact?
3. Who owns objects of art? The region where they were made? The museum where they have been for years? The "human community"? Who should be stewards of them?
4. What should the role of museums be in preserving culture, history, and artwork?

There are no easy answers to these problems, but all parties concerned feel very passionately about the issues. As a result, this book contains lively profiles and memorable stories, and it is very fun to read. (It made me either want to become an art historian or travel.) I had not thought much about the politics surrounding antiquities, or museums, and I liked the way Waxman showed how complicated many of these problems are.

One of the most compelling stories she tells is of the "Lydian Hoard," a group of objects that were obtained under cagey circumstances by the Met. Ultimately, after much agitation from Turkish newspaper writers/activists, the museum agreed to return them to Turkey in the 1980s:

For two years the treasures of the Lydian Hoard were displayed in the Anatolian Civilizations Museum in Ankara, before being transferred in 1995 to Usak, to an aging one-room museum in the town, whose population had grown to one hundred thousand. Not only was the return of the Lydian Hoard a source of undeniable pride in Usak, but it also made restitution a popular cause . . .

But that consciousness didn't translate into broad viewership of the hoard. In 2006 the top culture official in Usak reported that in the previous five years, only 769 people had visited the museum . . .

That was bad enough, but the news soon turned dire. In April 2006 the newspaper Milliyet published another scoop on its front page: the masterpiece of the Lydian Hoard, the golden hippocampus, the artifact that now stood as the symbol of Usak . . . was a fake. The real hippocampus had been stolen from the Usak museum and replaced with a counterfeit.

I can't get this story out of my head. Returned at last, only to be stolen!

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