Friday, January 14, 2011

On Bernard Frischer's Proposal for Museum-Sponsored Digs With Loan-Partage

Bernard Frischer offers a vision of a world in which museums partnered with countries of origin to excavate sites:
The countries of origin would own anything that was excavated there and keep most of the finds on display in local partnering museums. But the museum that sponsored the dig would be allowed to borrow a percentage of the finds and exhibit them in America. Eventually, all the finds from a site would be exchanged on a rotating basis between the country of origin and the museum, which would pay the expenses and insurance.
The basic framework seems entirely reasonable, if only countries of origin could get over the very high political hump of persuading their own citizens that patrimony is not being lost but only lent. Academically-affiliated archaeologists have found it impossible to make this sort of arrangement (so far as I am aware), but they came to the table with far less money in their pockets than museums are likely to be able to muster, so perhaps a deal could be arranged that would allow the antiquities ministries to dicker.

That money, though, has to come ultimately from the antiquities collectors who support museums, and that raises a sticky problem. Would museums really be able to raise the money needed for excavations (and for the very unglamorous archiving, storage, and analysis of non-museum-worthy materials) without giving these collectors something special in return? Frischer seems to believe the answer is no, since he offers the following neat idea (in the Oliver North sense):

Even individual collectors could invest and participate in the exchanges, if they were trained to care for the finds on temporary loan to them. Someday, investors or their heirs could sell these shares at auctions and galleries, just like works of art.
This is a bad idea, for several reasons. First, the idea of antiquities being turned over, even if only for a time, to wealthy foreign individuals would be far more toxic politically than loaning pieces to museums -- especially if, as is almost sure to be the case, these same individuals are notorious for collecting illicitly excavated antiquities. (And it would not just be citizens in countries of origin who would be appalled -- Americans might be as well. We do not see the Met raising money by loaning out pieces from its permanent collection, for good reason.) Second, this sort of quid pro quo would probably mean that collectors who might have supported the museum's excavations as a matter of public-spiritedness will stop donating. Why donate when one can invest?

Moreover, how would museums vouch for the training of individual collectors or for the safeguarding of materials in private hands, especially if the loan rights are to be then sold or auctioned off to other individuals? Can you imagine the insurance that would be required to cover, say, a one-year loan to a private collector, or the furor that would ensue if the piece were somehow damaged or stolen while out on the mantelpiece in a Park Avenue penthouse? Neither of these practical objections is insuperable -- museums might require collectors not just to be trained but to employ museum curators, for example, and collectors might be found rich enough or able to put up comparable artifacts as collateral to cover the insurance costs -- but the problems are real.

There is also a concern about whether excavations driven by museums will be conducted with an eye to finding the most spectacular artifacts rather than the more humble but likely more archaeologically-significant materials. Curators working for collecting institutions are certain to be judged on whether they bring back the trophy, not whether they broaden our knowledge of ancient trade routes or enable us to tell when the ancients first began to conceive of the soul as surviving the death of the body.

Last but not least, there is nothing wrong with museums getting back into sponsoring excavations, but the idea that this would "put looters and smugglers out of business" is simply ludicrous. Yes, demand at the top end would be reduced, and yes, this would make smuggling less lucrative, but we are talking about a worldwide demand, and many high-end collectors, especially in other countries, are not going to participate in these arrangements. Even libertarians recognize that markets cannot completely regulate themselves, that property must be secured, and that police are necessary to do this. Until those who love the individual artifact come up with a policy that helps pay for antiquities police as well as reducing demand, we should remain skeptical.

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