Art & Culture (le cose belle)

Who Owns Culture? The “Morgantina Venus”

In the most recent issue of Smithsonian Magazine, Ralph Frammolino, co-author with Jason Felch of Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum, writes about the return of the “Morgantina Venus.” This seven-and-a-half foot tall statue of the goddess Aphrodite (Venus is her Roman name) was sent by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles to Morgantina (near modern Aidone), Sicily.

Composed of several pieces of marble, the statue is nearly 2,400 years old. Getty Museum curator Marion True bought the larger-than-life statue for the museum in 1988 for a whopping $18 million dollars, writing to the museum board, “the proposed statue of Aphrodite would not only become the single greatest piece of ancient art in our collection, it would be the greatest piece of Classical sculpture in this country and any country outside of Greece and Great Britain.”

Why is this particular statue such a big deal? Two reasons: money and provenance. When something costs $18 million dollars, those shelling out the money are going to care about it. It’s a huge investment and gamble. In addition, when this statue was on the market in the 1980s, no one knew where it came from. It was an “orphan”—as those in the art world would say—and this made the statue an even bigger risk. If the statue had been looted and taken out ofItaly’s borders illegally, the museum would be breaking the law set forth in the 1970 UNESCO Accord. “The agreement,” Frammolino reports, “recognized a country’s right to protect and control artifacts within its borders and called on nations to block the illicit trade in antiquities through import and export restrictions.” Case in point, Marion True was indicted in April 2005 for trafficking in illegal objects by the Italian government.

However, the price tag, scandal, and return of the “Morgantina Venus” also provoke deeper questions about cultural heritage: Why do we value these objects so much? And who exactly owns—or should own—them?

Most museums would argue that they purchase antiquities to educate visitors about cultural history. Others disagree about the motivations behind these purchases and the educational value of these objects. “The ‘pretty artifacts’ just give us information on the individual layers and what was in the site,” archaeologist Albert Prieto of the American Institute for Roman Culture said in a conversation earlier. “The dirt is actually the gold of archaeology, because it’s the vertical sequence and spatial arrangement of layers that give us the critical information about how and why the site formed and developed.” However, no one is selling dirt on the black market. Museums want to show—and people want to see—the grand objects of history: giant statues, monumental buildings, expansive frescoes. Museums are willing to make significant investments for antiquities because ideally it will be returned to them in ticket revenues and press. And so, some museums are willing to risk buying another nation’s cultural property.

Acquiring another nation’s cultural property, however, is as old as human civilization. Italy called on True to return objects of their cultural heritage, yet if you walk around Rome, it is dotted with valuable objects taken from other places in antiquity. Eight large ancient obelisks, most removed from Egypt during the time of the emperors, decorate its most famous piazzas and parks (as well as five ancient Roman copies). What made these obelisks so valuable? “The Romans valued antiquity, just like we do,” Prieto suggested. But not only were they old, they were monumental in size and meaning. Capturing and displaying another nation’s cultural valuables symbolized ultimate power and victory, at least over that nation. And domination over such an old and magnanimous culture as Egypt lent prestige to ancient Rome.

It’s not just Egypt and obelisks either. The famous Persian ruler Xerxes I stole the statue of the Tyrannicides—two famous Greeks who paved the way for the formation of a democracy in Athens by killing the tyrant Hipparchos—from Athens as a spoil of war in 480 BC and set it up in his capital at Susa. Imagine the uproar today if a nation did that. Yet, even in ancient times there was a sense of returning an object to the place from which it was taken. According to the Roman historian Arrian, Alexander the Great returned this statue to Athens upon discovering it 150 years later when he conquered Susa.

So what’s the difference between a museum acquiring a valuable piece now and the ancient Romans or Persians doing it in antiquity? Who owns this cultural heritage? “The rationale of collecting has always been, since ancient times, ‘if it’s beautiful or important, owning it makes me beautiful or important,’” Prieto said. “It’s high time the great museums abandoned the practice of ‘acquiring’—their euphemism for collecting—and fully embraced their professed mission of educating the public.”

But how can they educate without the objects? “Long-term loans from the state entities,” Prieto suggested. And most recently, that seems to be the trend. As Frammolino notes, the Italian government will loan other antiquities to the museums that have returned more than 100 objects worth almost $1 billion over the past five years. Instead of owning, collaborating and sharing. A good direction to head.

Check out Frammolino’s article:

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