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Exhibits on the Destruction of Cultural Property

December 4th, 2009

Emily Powell

MA Student, Public History

While doing some research for our first conservation term paper, I came across an article by Catherine Sease that discussed the effects of the sale of looted and stolen art and artifacts on conservation and on our cultural heritage.  Sease brought up some very interesting points, namely how the improper retrieval and sale of unprovenanced artifacts denies us the ability to learn from these items, and leaves holes in our cultural record and our understanding of the past.

 Sease wrote this article in the late 1990’s, and I can only imagine that the statistics on the trade of unprovenanced items has increased dramatically with the advent of websites like Ebay.  As historians, archeologists and conservators we understand the dangers involved in these practices, but for a majority of the people who search the internet looking for items that catch their interest, they may have no idea of the implications making these sorts of purchases.

 Because I am usually thinking about things from a public history perspective, I started to wonder if there was a way that we could use the resources we have to educate the public on the damages that the sale of unprovenanced material really has.  I was thinking that it might be interesting to have an exhibit on such material that could illustrate several dimensions of the problem.  The exhibit could show items that have been improperly removed from sites, and mounted or treated improperly for easy transportation and sale, showing the damage and destruction this practice causes on the artifacts themselves.  Another part of the exhibit could show items that have gone missing, and items with no provenance, and describe the parts of our historical record that are incomplete because this information is not here to teach us.  This could be paired with items that have perhaps been saved from this fate, illustrating what was almost lost had the item been taken and hastily sold.  The last part of the exhibit could show the damage that these items are incurring in the hands of private owners.  There could be a display of items that have not been conserved and treated properly, illustrating the deterioration and loss of items that were improperly recovered and handled, or that never received professional treatment..

 There are a variety of ways that an exhibit like this could be approached, but regardless of the specific script and displays, I think that there is a lot to be said for the value of an exhibit as a medium for educating the public.  Exhibits provide the experience of encounter for the viewer, and have a tendency to resonate with the viewer because of the emotional response this experience fosters.  How widespread the reach or impact of such an exhibit is hard to guess, but it’s a good place to start.  It seems that many of the things that have become taboo in our society do so because enough people have become aware of the problem.  I think that an exhibit might be a great way to begin to incite awareness and educate the public on just how damaging this sort of practice really is to our culture and the preservation of our past.

 Refrerence: Sease, Catherine, “Conservation and the Antiques Trade,” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Spring 1997), pp. 49-58

General Conservation

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