Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Render to Caesar what is Caesar's

After a weekend in Paris catching up with friends, I’m struggling to sleep on the ICE back to Leipzig, so I thought I’d do a quick post. I had the privilege earlier this evening of attending a Museum International-sponsored symposium on “Memory and Universality” at UNESCO headquarters. The topic of discussion specifically concerned the universal mission of museums vs. the massive transfers of cultural property over the course of modernity. The ‘universal museums’ were represented by Henri Loyrette, President Director, Musée du Louvre, Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum and Mikhail Piotrovsky, Director of the Hermitage Museum. Those standing up for source countries included Alain Godonou, Director, École du Patrimoine Africain, Benin and Juan Antonio Valdés, San Carlos University, Guatemala.

What I find frightening is how good these major museum directors are getting at talking-the-talk. I don’t know, maybe they’ve all been taking lessons from Michael Brand at the Getty Museum and Ron Lauder at the Neue, but whatever it is, these guys could still sell ice to an Eskimo while convincing him to hand over his igloo so they can ‘protect his cultural heritage.’ While it’s clear the pillaging of the past is well-and-truly over (and it’s a very recent past at that), their current position of appearing fully ‘open and transparent’ in their negotiations with source cultures, while not budging an inch when it comes to handing back all but the most blatantly stolen pieces, is a talent in itself.

In our own battle to repatriate the works of Johann Dieter Wassmann from Washington, D.C., we encounter this same rhetoric on a weekly basis. Whatever the newly-discovered cultural imperatives of these major institutions, as far as trustees are concerned, possession remains nine-tenths of the law.

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