Friday, October 03, 2014

Kaylan's review of the new Metropolitan Museum show

Melik Kaylan reviews the awesome new show at the Metropolitan Museum. As he makes clear, it is well worth seeing. One sentence in the review, however, gives us pause: "That their civilization was centered for a while in what is now Mosul, Iraq, gives us pause. Many such objects would now be endangered—originating, as they do, from the famed palace of Nimrud and its environs."  A sense of irony is called for here about what endangers museum-worthy artifacts in Mesopotamia. Reports, including one just this week at UNESCO, indicate that while mosques, shrines, and religious manuscripts are endangered by ISIS' iconoclasm, antiquities are not for the most part being destroyed. Instead, they are being dug up or pillaged and sold (with tax paid to ISIS). And where do they go? "According to Baghdad Museum director Qais Rashid, 'Assyrian tablets were stolen and suddenly found in European cities.'” 

The European collectors who are buying these artifacts illicit will over the long haul undoubtedly either sell them onto the international market or donate them to museums like the Met, for future exhibitions like this one. 

So Kaylan doesn't have it quite right. What is most endangered is not the small number of museum-worthy antiquities like those displayed at the Met. ISIS is implementing a regulated "licit" market in areas under its control, and permitting the international export of artifacts -- a kind of parodic realization of the market structure advocates from the collecting community drawing on John Merryman's work have called for. Those artifacts are safe. What is endangered, rather is the context of the sites out of which they will be snatched or chiseled, and the knowledge of the past that this context holds.

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