Aug 21, 2013

Loot, by Sharon Waxman

The world of art and antiquities dealers and museums is a surprisingly deeply shadowed domain. Writing about contemporary demands for restitution of items most likely looted and illegally (and/or immorally) sold from their source countries, Waxman reveals a sordid past rife with Western arrogance and nationalism and unequaled greed and cupidity, on the part of both Western collectors and source-country-dealers. Explaining how museums like the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the British Museum acquired many of their pieces - e.g. the unrivaled pillaging of Egypt by the French, followed by the subsequent plundering by the British - Waxman makes the very good point that the West owes an enormous apology to those countries, rich in antiquities but poor in current economic and political world standing, for its incredible hubris and indelicacy in removing artifacts. She describes entire ceilings and large chunks of Egyptian tomb walls being unceremoniously chopped, dug, and even exploded out of their surroundings for delivery to Europe. And the tomb raiding in Greece, Italy, and Turkey remains a huge problem, spurred by museums' willingness to look the other way when presented with an object that has no clear provenance.

However, Waxman also raises an issue that complicates matters tremendously: most of these countries are unable to take care of their own antiquities. Faced with massive budget shortfalls and generalized cultural indifference, museums in, for example, Turkey, are rarely visited and often prey to insider thefts, not to mention the fact that such museums are rarely possessed of modern preservation tools. Given these facts, Waxman intelligently notes that the issue of restitution is almost entirely political. Turkey, trying to force its way into the modern First World, uses antiquities to shame the West into acknowledging its past bad behavior. Is this anger warranted? Most definitely. But Waxman, along with many museum heads, argues that the past belongs to all humanity, and though the British were absolutely wrong to cut through several statues in order to reach one enormous Ramses and bring it back to England, the damage has already been done. These treasures are seen by thousands and even millions of people every year, whereas they would almost surely languish in their source countries.

Waxman sees a future with a much more transparent museum culture and a whole lot more cooperation. She suggests that museums open up about their pieces' unpleasant provenance in an effort to present a holistic view of each item's history. Countries that want their antiquities back should be willing to loan them out for extended periods, particularly if they are incapable of caring for the objects properly.

I enjoyed this book. It's well-written and incredibly interesting, and impeccably researched. One glaring omission for me was any discussion of Asian artifacts. I completely understand not being able to include everything (the book is already 375 pages long), but aside from a single paragraph in the concluding chapter, there is no mention of any restitution demands from Asian countries. I'd be interested to know whether Asia has a similar relationship to Western museums as does the Mediterranean.

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