Dangerous Objects: Museums and Antiquities in 2008

38 Pages Posted: 28 Sep 2009

Date Written: March 1, 2009


In the last decade, U.S. museums have faced unprecedented challenges related to the collecting of ancient and ethnographic art from other countries - the objects that are known today under the rubric of “cultural property.” Foreign nations have successfully claimed objects that have rested for decades in U.S. museums; newspapers and magazines have published exposés on allegedly illicit trafficking involving museums, citizens have organized to promote the cause of repatriation, and museum organizations have rushed to adopt new standards for acquisition and acceptance of donated objects. The bases for public criticism of museums have been primarily “moral” and “ethical” rather than legal. Negotiations for the return of objects to source countries have featured blatant threats to “make museums’ lives miserable” as well as moral suasion.

Issues of ownership and criticism of the trade in antiquities are just one element of the current attacks on museums. For some critics in the vanguard, scholarship on art must also meet a moral test that requires academic writers to self-censor in selecting the subject matter of their work. Museums have been slow, and sometimes unwilling to fight back. In part, museums are less willing to argue in support of collecting because recent scandals over antiquities have created a climate of public distrust about museum operating standards. The museums’ arguments for doing what they do best, conserving, studying, and exhibiting art, are often obscured by scandal mongering and a disproportionate attention to archaeological interests in the press. Some museums have responded to public criticism by adopting policies that may turn out to be unworkable or short-sighted, including blanket, date-based restrictions that place legitimate collecting, scholarly, and exhibition activities at risk.

Keywords: antiquities, cultural property, museum, archeology, heritage, fiduciary, Archeological Resources Protection Act, ARPA, Cultural Property Implementation Act, UNESCO, stolen art

Suggested Citation

Fitz Gibbon, Kate, Dangerous Objects: Museums and Antiquities in 2008 (March 1, 2009). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1479424 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1479424

Kate Fitz Gibbon (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

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