AfroPunk the magazine recently posted an article that said the Chinese government had art thieves that were stealing Chinese items from European museums. I do not know if this is true but it makes perfect sense in the world of justice. There is no way that these countries are going to return any more than token pieces to assuage their guilt.
One wonders how we would feel here in Savannah if the hand carved Stations of the Cross in St. John’s Cathedral were taken and never returned. Years later we would still be angry at the gall of the Chinese for taking these items. Most Chinese museums until recent history only contain the prized treasures of China.
Why do we insist on the ownership of pilfered precious items from other countries? Let me offer you two competing reasons one good and one bad. To own the treasures of another country shows a certain power over the people of that country. It builds your countries prestige at the expense of the exploited countries. National museums are both to inform but also there is a certain bragging rights to the accumulation of wealth you have gathered from around the world.
What I want to ask does your city or country not have enough treasures to show the world without exploiting other places’ treasures? The Met and others are hopelessly addicted to others’ treasures.
We Americans and Europeans have ancient envy of older countries. Our things are not as old as most of the rest of the world. We want to have a piece of that ancient history. Although we have some ancient cultures of our own as a society we are not on good talking terms with them (here think Gullah, Native Americans, Hispanic). In fact when given a choice we destroyed our ancient cultures for the great cause of capitalism and land grabbing.
The Telfair Museums here in Savannah is a smaller art museum. The Telfair Academy is the oldest art museum in the South. They have several collections in their museum that have come to them through who: the citizens of the city. Mary Haskell Minis, a Savannahian, was the patron and lover of Kahlil Gibran so we have a large collection of his art. Kirk Varnedoe, a Savannahian, was the curator of the MOMA so we have a collection from some of our greatest contemporary artists in his memory. We have a strong collection of the great photographer Helen Levitt because her sister-in-law is a Savannahian. Gari Melchers, an American Impressionist, was married to a Savannah woman so he was given the chore to buy paintings from friends and acquaintances and thus we have a noted American Impressionist and Ash Can School collections. We also have several of his paintings. Then there are the local artist of Jack Leigh photographer of Bird Girl fame, Ulysses Davis noted folk artist, and a culture of female artists of note (Augusta Oeschlig, Emma Cheves Wilkins, and Hattie Saussy), who add to the collection. Another art museum in town the SCAD Museum of Art has a significant collection of African American art which they received from Savannahian Dr. Walter O. Evans who knew and collected most of the artists of the Harlem Renaissance.
Now you may ask why am I making note of all this. Savannah is a small city but has a decent art collection that involves its citizens. How much more could and do our larger cities in the West who have been part of the looting museums of yore must have in their collection must have than Savannah. Why do they need to abscond away with other countries’ art and for that matter other US cities art? Especially when one considers that the Met displays less than ten percent of their collection. Now some will say it is necessary to have what is called an inclusive collection. An inclusive collection is a collection that includes art from every culture around the world. The idea is you gain an appreciation of this art and the people and culture of the art. Of course this could in large part be done not through collections but exhibits from the different cultures of the world. This would also allow for the people of that culture to have a voice in how the art is seen and what it means. Otherwise you have Western curators as the voice of these cultures. In collection exhibits the voice of the people of other countries and cultures are absent.
Another more valid reason offered is that certain countries are so unstable that their treasures are under constant threat of war, terrorism, and the vagaries of different regimes. Or some countries are so poor they cannot conserve or protect their treasures from thieves. So ‘altruistic’ Western museums are assisting in the preservation and visibility of these country’s treasures. Of course China is quite stable and capable of caring for their treasures and no Western museums are rushing to give them their treasures back.
There seems to be simple solution for the Western culture vultures to their stealing. I say if you want to have cultures represented in your country maybe you should be more open to the immigration from all parts of the world. Make your country a mecca of citizens around the world and they will bring their culture with them. And maybe you can stop stealing culture from poorer countries.
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