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UNDERSTANDING MUSEUMS – UPDATE

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

On June 10 last year I reported that the first part of Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, edited with Leon Paroissien, had been published as an e-book by the National Museum of Australia.

Late in the year the remaining essays were published. The complete e-book includes 25 separate essays covering everything from a review of the Pigott Report, developments since 1970 in museums generally through progress in art, science and history, education and touring exhibitions, digitisation and social media.

Following a consideration of the recent history of museums in Australia by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien,  Anne-Marie Condé of the National Museum reviews the important Pigott Report into museums and national collections which reported ot the Australian Government in late 1975. Ian Cook, inaugural Director of the State Conservation Centre of South Australia (later called Artlab Australia) and colleagues describe advances in collection conservation, Tim Hart from Museum Victoria and Martin Hallett from Arts Victoria recount the revolution in technology in museums. Des Griffin considers the very recent advances in technology and social media.

John Stanton of the Berndt Museum writes on ethnographic museums and Bernice Murphy, presently National Director of Museums Australia discusses Indigenous art and art museums whilst Michael Pickering of the National Museum and Phil Gordon of the Australian Museum review repatriation.

Discussions of History and museums are provided by Peter Stanley of the National Museum, Tim Sullivan of Sovereign Hill Museums Association, Margaret Anderson of the South Australian History Trust, Kevin Jones of the South Australian Maritime Museum and Viv Szekeres, formerly director of the Migration Museum in Adelaide.

Daniel Thomas, one time director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, provides an overview of art museums. Caroline Turner, Senior Research Fellow in the School of Humanities and the Arts at the ANU recvounts the expansion in international exhibitions and independent consultant Anne Kirker reviews paper conservation in art museums.

Natural history museums and their challenges are discussed by Doug Hoese, onetime head of science at the Australian Museum. Michael Gore, foundation director Questacon in Canberra, and Susan Stocklmayer, director of the ANU Centre for the public Awareness of Science review science centres.

Regional Museums are considered by Margaret Rich, former director of the Art Gallery of Ballarat and by museum and heritage consultant Kylie Winkworth. Representatives of various regional museum organisations consider developments in many of the states of Australia.

Lastly, education and the visitor experience in museums, one of the fields in which there have been significant advances, is addressed by Jennifer Barrett of Sydney University who describes museum studies at universities, Barbara Piscitelli, researcher on young children and museums, who focuses on the relationship that children have with museums, Janette Griffin of the University of Technology Sydney who reviews school students’ learning in museums and Lynda Kelly of the Australian Museum who discusses family visits.

OWL’S HOOTS NO. 10

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

OWL’S HOOTS NO. 10 – June 20th, 2009

The new Acropolis Museum opens in Athens, the British Museum should change its name and appoint a board representing the nations whose ancestors created the collections it holds; the education system is anaethsitizing children and stifling creativity, according to Sir Ken Robinson, educator and expert on creativity. And in New South Wales, more pointless reorganisation of the public service.

The tenth “Hoot” gives me the opportunity to talk about two issues of the greatest interest to me, cultural property and its contribution to our past and our view of ourselves, and education and learning and creativity.

Parthenon sculptures and the new Acropolis Museum in Athens: The new Acropolis Museum, designed by Bernard Tschumi, looking out on the Acropolis and the Parthenon, opened 20 June. The third floor features a reconstruction of the entire Parthenon frieze, the plaster casts of the sculptures (removed by Lord Elgin) held in the British Museum’s Duveen Gallery differentiated from the genuine sculptures by their white colour.

In “Majestic in Exile” in the New York Times of June 18, 2009 Nikos Konstandaras (managing editor of the Greek daily Kathimerini and editor of the English-language weekly Athens Plus) writes, “I have no doubt that one day all the Parthenon Marbles will be reunited in the New Acropolis Museum….

“Meanwhile, if the British Museum wants to be true to its self-appointed task of serving as curator of the world’s civilizations, and if it really does not recognize the geographic, national or ethnic origins of its masterpieces, then it should have the grace to acknowledge this in practice. It should drop the possessive adjective from its name and call itself simply “The Museum.” And its board of government-appointed trustees should be replaced by representatives of the nations whose ancestors created the works that it displays.

“This would mark the end of colonial and imperial provenance of acquisitions and open a new era of exchange and cooperation between the world’s museums. Questions of ownership would be secondary in this new dialogue of free and equal nations. The Parthenon’s sculptures have the power to transform those who gaze on them.”

In a report on the opening on ABC Radio’s Correspondents Report on 21 June Helena Smith reported on the opening. Introducing the report Elizabeht Jackson observed, “Activists, including David Hill, the former managing director of the ABC who heads the Sydney-based Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, hope the new museum will reinvigorate the campaign to bring back the Elgin marbles – the artworks that have been displayed in the British Museum since Lord Elgin removed them from the Acropolis over 200 years ago.”

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Creativity and Education: Sir Ken Robinson, former professor at Warwick University and speaker on creativity and education, has just published a book (authored with Lou Aronica and published by Allen Lane) entitled “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything”, stories of people who found passion in areas of life that were not the focus in traditional schools. In 1998 Robinson chaired a Committee which produced the report, “All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education (the Robinson Report)”. The Times said: ‘This report raises some of the most important issues facing business in the 21st century. It should have every CEO and human resources director thumping the table and demanding action’.

Robinson argues that current education practices stifle creativity and are a “turn off” for thousands of young people very much because they don’t give enough attention to subjects in the arts. Education is founded on two premises, the enlightenment idea of (rational) economic man and the need for cultural identity. It’s value is seen in how well it prepares people for work.

Robinson was in Australia in the last couple of weeks and was interviewed extensively on the ABC (730 Report on TV1 on 16 June and 17 June , Margaret Throsby’s Interview on ABC Classic FM  and “Life Matters” on Radio National) ; several other interesting people with innovative approaches to education were also interviewed on “Life Matters” in the week starting 15 June.

In one of Robinson’s celebrated lectures, available on the web at TED, he makes a number of points common to all his talks.

“What’s it for, public education? I think you’d have to conclude — if you look at the output, who really succeeds by this … who are the winners — I think you’d have to conclude the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors. Isn’t it?”

“Children starting school this year will be retiring in 2065. Nobody has a clue .. what the world will look like in five years’ time. And yet we’re meant to be educating them for it.

“Every person’s intelligence is distinct.”

Referring to Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” and the environmental crisis, Robinson talks of an education crisis. “Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won’t serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children. There was a wonderful quote by Jonas Salk, who said, ‘If all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within 50 years all life on Earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish.’”

In a more recent talk (at the Royal Society of Arts) Robinson quoted anthropologist Robert Ardrey, “But we were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted into battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses.”

In the second part of the interview with ABC TV1′s presenter Kery O’Brien, Robinson said the following: “What I find is that head teachers are critical in schools, like college presidents are essential in universities and in political systems. Leadership is really important from every point of view. I mean, look what’s happening in America at the moment: that shift from the last presidency to the current one. There’s been a total change of mood because people take their cue from the tone of the leadership. And it’s true in every system I know. If you find a school where a head teacher gets it, anything is possible, and I mean that literally.”

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In New South Wales, Premier Nathan Rees has announced that the departments of government will be amalgamated into eight “super departments” with the aim of delivering better services for the people of NSW. dollars.

“I am determined to have the best structure to deliver better services for the people of NSW,” Mr Rees said. “These changes are designed to ensure a greater focus on our clients, better integration of public services and to cut internal Government red tape.”

The reforms will, according to Premier Rees, “Improve service delivery, better align a sprawling bureaucracy; and ensure the best value for taxpayers”.

All this ignores the evidence that restructuring achieves little benefit unless a lot of effort is put into explaining t he benefits and justifying them and providing resources to see thought the adjustments which will have to be made. It remains true that what makes the difference is how decisions get made and how leadership is practised. Coordination and ‘alignment’ require oversighting which carries with it al the problems of restricting innovation and suppressing dissent.

In 30 years governments almost everywhere have failed to understand best practice as seen in the most successful organisations and have merely created an unsustainable level of inaction and confusion.

Numerous articles on this site deal with this.

Remember this quotation, usually (but wrongly) attributed to Petronius: “We trained hard … but every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganised.  I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising … and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing inefficiency and demoralisation.” (1)

More quotations are to be found here.

(1) According to Wikipedia, the actual author of this piece of wisdom was the American writer Charlton Ogburn Jr. (1911-1998), in an article published in Harper’s Magazine in 1957 which recounted his experiences as a junior officer in the famous WW2 US Army unit known as ‘Merrill’s Marauders’, and the quoted passage referred to his somewhat chaotic early training.

OWL’S HOOTS NO. 5

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

Owl’s Hoots No. 5, 6 May 2009: The “Universal Museum” again, global climate change and the utility of the Nation State. And do financial markets still have credibility?

Who owns Antiquity?: In previous articles I have commented on the proposition that so-called “universal museums” which hold cultural material representative of many nations are of great value because the visitor can thereby compare the development of many peoples. James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, has gained publicity by claiming, amongst other things, that countries such as Greece, Italy, Turkey and China advance claims for return of cultural property in order to bolster notions of national identity. Author, art expert and student of the Renaissance Ingrid Rowland wrote a significant criticism of Cuno’s claims.

In the Guardian of 27 March newspaper columnist and former editor of The Times Simon Jenkins (“This hoarding of treasures is a scandal. They belong to the world”) surfaces the usual arguments that countries claiming return of cultural property are now populated by citizens who can with difficulty claim relationship with those peoples who created the items in question. The Scottish (Lewis) chessmen are Scandinavian, “the so-called Priam’s treasure, looted from Troy by the German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, has met with successive claims from Turkey, Greece, Germany and Russia, where it now resides”.

Referring to the “Declaration of the Universal Museum” proposition that collections are for the “public as a whole” he then proceeds to assert that this has become “code for curatorial belief that that anything hidden in a curator’s store was better off there than when shared with the public”.

What of the huge number of travelling exhibitions circulating around the world’s museums which have brought treasures to millions of people? Museums can’t win in the eyes of some: “blockbuster” exhibitions are criticised for diverting attention from the museum’s own collections.

In “Who Should Own the World’s Antiquities?” (New York Review of Books Volume 56, Number 8  May 14, 2009), Hugh Eakin of the New York Review‘s editorial staff reviews Cuno’s “Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage” and the related volume edited by Cuno, “Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate Over Antiquities” (Princeton University Press). He also recounts the astonishing story of the false bid for the Chinese Bronze Heads offered at Christie’s auction of the Yves Saint Laurent collection in Paris in February. (Dr Kwame Opoku has posted an extensive response to the note on Cuno and includes material concerning the Report of the American Association of Art Museum Directors’ Task Force on the aquisition of Archaeological materials and ancient art which is referred to below. Opoku, “a retired legal advisor”, has commented on Cuno’s views and reviews of his book on several other sites.)

Eakin writes, “Last June, the directors of the leading art museums of the United States agreed to limit their acquisitions of antiquities to works that have left their “country of probable modern discovery” before 1970, or that were exported legally after that date. On the face of it, the decision, issued by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), did no more than update guidelines for ancient art-one of a number of such policy refinements by the association in recent years. In fact, however, it announced a tectonic shift in museum thinking about collecting art and artifacts of the distant past, a change that was unimaginable even five years ago.”

Eakin concludes, “In contrast, lending can work both ways: the rich diversity of American, British, French, and German museums can be seen in countries that do not have international art of their own, even as loans from archaeological countries, like those in the Babylon show, provide Western museums with what can no longer be acquired outright. Rather than a threat to the cosmopolitan ideal, then, the new détente between foreign governments and American museums should be seen as an essential step in confronting the urgent problem of the destruction of archaeological sites. For the most crucial challenge is not the aggressive nationalism of some countries or the voracious appetites of some museums: it is the disappearance of the ancient past so coveted by both.”

Global Climate Change and the Nation State: In the view of many, many people around the world, the changes to the World’s climate linked to the increasing emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases since the industrial revolution is the major problem facing everyone. More extreme weather conditions, rising sea levels, declining river levels, acidification of the oceans leading to decline of coral reefs, extinctions of more animals and plants threaten humans in near innumerable ways.

For decades a number of people have advocated measures to reduce emissions including greater efficiency, reduction in energy demand, increasing public transport, investment in renewable energy generation. Much of the focus is on reduction in “carbon pollution” emissions through taxation measures or trading in carbon emission permits, co-ordinated at least at a national level. Whilst many experts and commentators have drawn attention to such measures being a source of increased employment and even a way of reversing the present financial turmoil, others continue to claim that huge numbers of jobs will be lost, especially in industries emitting substantial emissions.

After a disastrous refusal by the US under the Bush administration to take any action that country, led by President Barack Obama, is now taking a major role. In an outstanding article in The Monthly for May (No. 45, p12-15), Tim Flannery and Nick Rowley (a director of climate-change firm Kinesis and former advisor to Tony Blair) write, “confusion over the CPRS reveals that tackling the climate problem requires an absolute clarity of political purpose and leadership. We were at the second meeting of the Copenhagen Climate Council, at the Royal Institution in London, with Steven Chu, now the American secretary for energy. He spoke compellingly of how he and President Obama have the job of helping to stimulate and shape the political momentum to cut carbon emissions. There is no constituency to be satisfied in the US, but rather a constituency to be established by explaining the urgency of the problem and the environmental, economic, moral and societal wisdom of developing policies to tackle it. [My emphasis]

“As Chu made clear, this requires a more engaged, positive and intelligent political leadership, for small-minded politics magnifies failure – both real and imagined – and the media primes the public to be highly intolerant of it.”

All of this – leadership in difficult times, the establishment of a constituency – seems beyond the Rudd Government. I do not have words for the position adopted by the Liberal-National Coalition and spokespersons like Andrew Robb. Distinguished commentators such as Ross Gittins (“It’s gamesmanship, and we all lose“, Sydney Morning Herald May 6) and Marianne Wilkinson (“Climate deal will depend on others, so why not call Rudd and Wong’s bluff?“, Sydney Morning Herald May 7) have clearly stated the utter folly of the situation!

In “Quarry Vision: Coal, Climate Change and the End of the Resources Boom” (Quarterly Essay 33-Black Inc; March 2009) climate policy analyst Guy Pearse writes, “No matter what happens in 2009, Australians will still be conscripts on the wrong side of a “coal war” with climate change, a costly and disastrous proxy war on behalf of our coal industry. The industry may prevail, but we will lose, as will the planet – it is merely the extent of the loss that is uncertain”.

The Australian Museum has just opened a new exhibition: “Climate Change Our Future Our Choice”.

The veracity of economists: In one of the essays in The Monthly for May responding to the essay by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on the global financial turmoil, which along with Monthly editorial board chair Professor Robert Manne has been the subject of extraordinary debate, Charles R. Morris (lawyer, banker and author of “The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown”) observes, “The Wall Street Journal recently published a ranking of the leading American economic forecasters on the accuracy of their 2008 economic predictions. The two key data points were the 2007-08 fourth quarter to fourth quarter real growth in GDP and the 2008 end-of-year unemployment rate. There were 51 economists in the sample, form all the major financial institutions and forecasting firms. Of the 102 forecasts, all were wrong in the same direction. Only one economist had the correct sign of the quarter to quarter change in GDP. Almost all the others thought that, while 2008 would see some disruption, it would be on the whole a rather decent year.”

The one economist who was correct in his forecasts was Goldman Sachs economist Jan Hatzius (see “Bears Top List of Economic Forecasters”, WSJ 13 February). “The bulk of prognosticators were pessimistic going into 2008, but they weren’t pessimistic enough. The economy would slow, they thought, but only Mr. Hatzius thought it would contract. He also foresaw a steep increase in the unemployment rate, moderate inflation and a Federal Reserve that would be busy cutting rates.”

Can we see any acknowledgement of these serious errors in the current comments by financial commentators? One senior economist in Australia recently – in commenting on the forthcoming Federal budget – suggested that “financial markets” would have to be satisfied about the Government’s policies. I had thought that financial markets had lost most of their credibility! I have drawn attention to this already, specifically referring to Nassim Taleb’s “Black Swan” and the discussion with “the World’s leading psychologist” (and Nobel prizewinner in economics) Daniel Kahneman.

Next week: Education and schooling, teaching and assessment

 

 

 

Who is James Cuno?

Saturday, October 4th, 2008

Major art museums in the USA have, over the last couple of years, had to return important items from their collections to Italy; many of them turned out to have been stolen. But at the same time a number of museums have challenged the notion that is fundamental to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting the Illegal and Illicit transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The British Museum’s continued refusal to return the Parthenon sculptures relies on these challenges.

One of the most vocal advocates of this challenge is James Cuno, President and Director of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is a strong advocate for the Declaration of the Universal Museum; Cuno was previously at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and the Harvard University Art Museums.  Cuno has written “Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage” (Princeton University Press, 228 pp).

In “Found and Lost” (The New Republic September 24, 2008) Ingrid D. Rowland reviews Cuno’s book.

Ingrid D. Rowland is a professor, based in Rome, at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture. She writes frequently for the New York Review of Books. Her prose is full of wonderful phrases and great insights.There is an edited version of her review in The Australian newspaper for October 4, 2008 entitled “Back to the Source”.  (Rowland’s new book,Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic, has just been published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

The Australian summarises Rowland’s view thus, “The encyclopedic museums’ argument against repatriation of classical artefacts is self-servingly flawed.”

Rowland commences her review of Cuno’s book, in the edited version in The Australian,

“EARLY this year, the state apartments of the Palazzo del Quirinale hosted a remarkable exhibition of ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan artefacts, all found on Italian soil but held until recently in museums and private collections in the US, notably the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The exhibition was a diplomatic coup for Francesco Rutelli, the former mayor of Rome, who until April was minister of culture for two years in the left-wing government of Romano Prodi.”

One of the reviews of Cuno’s book is by Edward Rothstein, in “Antiquities, the World Is Your Homeland”  (New York Times 27 May 2008),  Rothstein commences by asking, “To what culture does the concept of “cultural property” belong? Who owns this idea?

“It has, like much material property in the last 50 years, often changed hands. And in doing so, it has also changed meanings and grown in importance. It now affects the development of museums, alters the nature of international commerce and even seems to subsume traditional notions of property.

“It was brought to modern prominence in 1954 by Unesco as a way of characterizing the special status of monuments, houses of worship and works of art — objects that suffered “grave damage” in “recent armed conflicts.” In its statement Unesco asserted that such “cultural property” was part of the “cultural heritage of all mankind” and deserved special protection.

“But the framers of that doctrine with its universalist stance would hardly recognize cultural property in its current guise. The concept is now being narrowly applied to assert possession, not to affirm value. It is used to stake claims on objects in museums, to prevent them from being displayed and to control the international trade of antiquities.

Basically, Rowland’s take on Cuno’s polemic is exemplified by this par:

Nor will it do to hit at Italian laws and then dodge a forthright look at Italy’s relationship not only with antiquity, but indeed with the very discipline of archaeology. Italy, after all, is rare among nations because it is both a prime producer and a prime consumer of archaeological artifacts. Because of this peculiar status, Italy has posed the most specific and sophisticated challenge to the directors of American museums who are now facing the consequences of their erstwhile rapacious acquisition policies. Like any venerable museum in the United States, the Art Institute of Chicago has its own complement of archaeological treasures removed from Italian soil over the decades with a lack of concern for context that this powerful, educated, wealthy land now has the wit and the clout to classify as no longer acceptable. But Italians are also superb negotiators, particularly skilled at finding solutions that preserve face on all sides. What purpose is served then by taking a swipe at Rutelli at the precise moment when the directors of the Met, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Getty Museum, and the Princeton Museum have all signed long-term agreements of international cooperation, through Rutelli’s direct mediation, with the Italian government? Does dissent truly serve the best interests of the Art Institute of Chicago, let alone archaeology, the public, the cultural awareness of collectors, the general state of knowledge about our collective past, and diplomatic etiquette?

Tom Flynn and the Parthenon Sculptures and other outrages

Wednesday, April 9th, 2008

artintelligence.co.uk

is the website of Tom Flynn Art Advisory Services. There are a large number of very interesting essays on a number of differnet issues facing museums including return of cultural property, the Churchill Museum at the War Cabinet Offices and so on. The blog and the website both have lots of interesting commentary, including (April 2008) commentary on the Parthenon sculptures and the UNESCO conference in Athens in March 2008 on the Return of Cultural Objects to their Countries of Origin. Tom has a post “Parthenon Marbles Case Overshadowed by Iraq Looting” on the museum security network about the Sculptures also.

This is a copy of the updated entry in the Links page of this site.