Most museums are tax exempt charitable corporations, holding the public's trust as stewards of human civilization. They are expected to lawfully and ethically acquire artifacts. They also are counted on to promote policies that preserve cultural objects.
So it is with interest that the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) last Tuesday opposed the renewal of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) meant to retain American import barriers on endangered heritage objects from Nicaragua. The group's objection follows a sequence of opposition to MoU's begun in 2014. Does this mark a new policy direction for the organization?
Cambodia’s request for a renewed bilateral agreement in 2013 notably attracted the organization's clearest affirmation for an MoU (“For the reasons set forth above, the AAMD supports the renewal of the MOU”). The AAMD, meanwhile, did not offer an express objection to the enactment of an MoU with China, even though its position might be characterized as nuanced.
Then, nine months ago, the AAMD struck an entirely different chord, capped by last week's written comment directly opposing the renewal of a bilateral agreement with Nicaragua.
The AAMD’s statement on the renewal of the MoU with Nicaragua voiced unequivocal disapproval. “The AAMD respectfully recommends that the Cultural Property Advisory Committee … decline Nicaragua’s request…." For the first time, the organization included a paragraph captioned, “All Four Required CPIA Determinations Cannot Be Made for Nicaragua,” although the AAMD actually argued that only two determinations could not be satisfied. Regardless, the group expressed clear opposition to the adoption of an MoU.
The AAMD characterized Nicaragua's request as a plea for an “extraordinary type of protection” that could only be granted if the requesting nation itself proved "significant improvement in the protection of cultural property." The AAMD disquietingly added, “Any time that a country requests and is granted import restrictions without strict compliance with the requirements of the CPIA, the entire program contemplated by the CPIA is placed in jeopardy.”
The objection to a renewed U.S.-Nicaragua agreement followed demurrals aimed at petitions filed by El Salvador and Egypt last year.
A number of art museums have been traveling a different road. While countless books and news articles have chronicled how museum collections formed, in part, from plundered archaeological, ethnological, and paleontological material, more than a few major institutions have turned away from--or are starting to turn away from--this legacy of loot.
In fact, the past few years have witnessed a greater awareness among art museum administrators of heritage trafficking. In 2013, for example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art repatriated two Khmer sculptures discovered to have been stolen from Cambodia. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) meanwhile, developed a close cultural exchange partnership with Italy after taking fresh steps to resist the accession of contraband antiquities from that country. The MFA even hired a curator for provenance to bring real integrity to its collecting practices. The Cleveland Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art joined the MFA, and they are now among the institutions that employ full-time provenance researchers who perform due diligence investigations to find out the true collecting histories of pieces. Dallas Museum of Art director Maxwell Anderson, moreover, spearheaded the effort to deaccession and repatriate artifacts believed to have been looted and smuggled. He earned praise for injecting principles of fairness and transparency to the discussion on heritage preservation as chair of the AAMD's Task Force on Archaeological Materials and Ancient Art.
Photo credit: Mike Thorn