Tuesday, February 21, 2012

New Getty Head Says, "Do more to protect sites" -- but not who should do it or how

James Cuno's hiring of Timothy Potts as the new director of the Getty Museum has been taken by some anti-looting advocates as a worrisome development, in part because of Potts' having aligned himself, as did Cuno, with Philippe de Montebello as the leaders of those resisting the ultimately successful effort to establish a "clean hands" policy for American museums collecting antiquities. That battle is over, however, and both Cuno and Potts have made it clear that there will be no backsliding on the Getty's acceptance of that policy.

More interesting is the possibility that Potts and Cuno might take the opportunity to push the museum and collecting community to go beyond merely having clean hands and get them to lend helping hands to the many countries now facing major financial challenges covering the costs of protecting their heritage from looters. Here is Potts quoted in Jason Felch's latest article:

"I have persistently emphasized the need to do more to protect sites and contexts on the ground before the looting takes place," he said, adding, "Perhaps the nearest thing to a certainty is that whatever policy we have in place today will be seen to have been flawed in the future."

The passive voice ("the need to do more") leaves open the question of who needs to do more, and of course in the past Cuno and others from the collecting community have put the burden on the countries of origin, who are urged to do politically impossible things like "mine" their antiquities for export sale to raise money to protect them. But the passive voice also enables one to hope that the "we" Potts has in mind is his own community of museum directors and the wealthy collectors who fund museums and donate antiquities to them. It would be wonderful to hear more about what new policies he and Cuno, as leaders of the collecting community, think that community could adopt voluntarily (or better, advocate that our government require of them) to help pay for the costs of the guards needed to protect sites -- and, as the looting of the Olympic Museum shows, museums as well -- before looting takes place.

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