“Still Just Knicknacks”: Chicago in the heat over objects without context.

Posted on November 10, 2008


Yesterday, the Chicago Tribune printed a piece titled, “Loot! Chicago at center of battle between archaeologists, collectors.” In it, author Tom Hundley tours the battlegrounds with Mac Gibson and later James Cuno, juxtaposing the men’s positions.

Hundley met up with McGuire Gibson, University of Chicago scholar and Mesopotamian archaeologist, in Baghdad, and surveyed the damage at the Iraq National Museum a month after the ransacking in 2003.  He describes the “perfect storm” which prompted the rampant looting in Iraq:

At the close of the war in 1991, as Saddam fought off insurrections from the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south, the U.S. government imposed a no-fly zone over large swaths of Iraq. This, along with strict UN trade sanctions, created a kind of perfect storm. With the weakened Baghdad regime unable to control large parts of the country, impoverished Iraqi villagers—often with the blessing of village elders—turned to the only source of income available to them: scavenging the hundreds of archeological sites that dot the landscape between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

In some areas, the trade in looted antiquities accounted for almost 85 percent of local economic activity. Meanwhile, a weak U.S. economy at the end of George H. W. Bush’s presidency was encouraging the truly rich to look for alternatives to stocks and bonds. Art and antiquities fit the bill. As supply obligingly met demand, the market for Mesopotamian antiquities blossomed. Within months of the war’s end, a treasure trove of Mesopotamian antiquities began to show up in the gilded display rooms of auction houses in London and New York, no questions asked.

He describes the debate between archaeologists and collectors that has ensued:

Archeologists have decried this as a terrible loss to all humanity. Museum directors, whose institutions are the repositories for the most important archeological finds, agree. But a war of words has broken out between the two camps. Archeologists argue that major museums and the wealthy private collectors who often sit on their boards have hastened the destruction of archeological sites by their willingness to pay high prices for objects that have almost certainly been looted. The museum directors and private collectors contend that by rescuing these artifacts from the vicissitudes of the black market they are giving safe shelter to the historical patrimony of all mankind.

Appropriately using the backdrop of James Cuno’s book Who Owns Antiquity? the article looks at the Archaeologist v. Collectors & Museums “side show”.  Hundley tours the Art Institute of Chicago with Cuno, and receives the standard shpeal on encyclopedic museums as protectors of our shared cultural heritage and so forth.  As to archaeologists complaints about the museums, the author explains:

And if there are some niggling doubts about whether a particular piece may or may not have been illegally removed from its country of origin, Cuno’s attitude seems to be, well, so what.

As to context, the article goes on:

…Cuno and the directors of other encyclopedic museums believe that context is overrated.

The Met’s de Montebello is particularly adamant on the point… [R]eferring to one particularly prized item that his museum was forced to return to Italy, he asked, “How much more would you learn from knowing which particular hole . . . it came out of?”

…[I]n his book, Cuno leaves little doubt where he stands:

“Archeological reports can never take the place of gallery presentations of antiquities. Only the object—the actual antiquity, the thing itself, there on view, ineluctably ancient, with the aura and fracture of age—has the allure to attract the people’s curiosity.”

This, of course, is not Mac Gibson’s view. He says that understanding the culture behind the object and the mind that created it are what matter most. Objects without context, no matter how tastefully displayed in the galleries of great museums, are little more than knickknacks. “Beautiful and intriguing,” he says, “but still just knickknacks.”

Finally, the article covers some of the more recent efforts to curb the illicit trade, including criminal prosecutions and assertions that source nation patrimony laws are working in that respect.

A recent post at Derek Fincham’s Illicit Cultural Property Blog called for “meaningful discourse” as to how to solve the problem of looting.  Hundley’s article highlights the inadvertent “side show” to what should be the main act, and is valuable for reminding us of that relationship.

As I went to get the link for the meaningful discourse post, I see that Fincham has also posted on the Hundley article in the meanwhile.  Chicago, Cuno & Iraq.  He astutely notes a few mischaracterizations in the Hundley article.

Related post: James Cuno: The man you love to hate.