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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

 

 

 

OWL’S HOOTS NO. 2

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

Hoots No. 2 – 2 April 2009: A renaissance quotation about critics which may be just as valid today, caterpillars welcomed into the nests of ants. And the value of an MBA and the nature of managerialism revealed.

Beware of Critics: In Ingrid Rowland’s book ‘Giordano Bruno Philosopher/Heretic’ (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 2008) there are two  quotations from John Florio (1553 – 1625) who was an accomplished linguist and lexicographer, a royal language tutor at the Court of James I, a probable close friend and influence on William Shakespeare and the translator of Montaigne. Here is one:

“As for critiks I accompt of them as crickets; no goodly bird if a man marke them, no sweete note if a man heare them, no good luck if a man have them; they lurk in corners, but catch cold if they look out; they lie in sight of the furnace that ryes others, but will not come neare the flame that should purifie themselves: they are bred of filth, and fed with filth, what vermin to call them I know not, or wormes or flyes, or what worse?”

I have drawn attention to critics before.

Next week, Florio’s view of scholars.
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Managerialism buried (I wish): The second most important issue which surfaced this week, so far as I am concerned, is managerialism. (The first continues to be global climate change, carbon emissions trading and related matters, such as renewable energy and energy efficiency.)

ABC Radio National’s Stephen Crittenden reported an outstanding program on MBA’s (“Mostly Bloody Awful“) and along the way gave some references to outstanding research papers and popular articles on the subject.

The key points:

In the words of Henry Mintzberg, Professor of Management Studies at McGill University in Montreal (and author with, Robert Simons and Kunal Basu of “Beyond Selfishness”, MIT Sloan Management Review,   44/1, Fall 2002),

“Management is not a science, it’s not a profession, it’s a practice; you learn it by doing it.” (Art Gallery of New South Wales director of 30 years Edmund Capon said as much a couple of years ago; what can one say about Mr Capon’s wisdom? Clearly he deserved to have that $16 million dollar painting by Cezanne bought to commemorate his 30 years at the Gallery!) However!

According to Professor Rakesh Khurana (of Harvard Business School), “Whilst university”“based business schools started out with the intention of creating management as a profession, one in which managers would largely put the interests of society and the interests of the economic welfare of their firm before their own individual interests, this changed. Over a period of several decades this at first was neglected and then eventually abandoned. It was replaced by a very different type of orientation, shareholder maximisation. The manager became merely a hired hand of shareholders.”

According to Will Hopper, joint author with his brother of “The Puritan Gift”, the story of how the Puritans built America, the influence of Frederick Taylor (founder of Scientific Management theory, or Taylorism, and “the first management consultant”) led to business schools becoming obsessed with numbers and measurement. Management became a science that could be studied in a university.

“The emphasis in business shifted from people to figures and from quality to quantity. Talk was about the bottom line, employees became human resources, and the influence of the accountant increased dramatically. “Domain knowledge”, understanding of the business in all its facets (and the industry) was no longer so relevant. The business school MBA graduate emerged able to run any business. Companies are run through the accounts department. The characteristic of management became improving the numbers, not improving the product.”

All of this led to ‘heroic’ leadership, the view of humans as ‘economic man’ driven by self-interest, and therefore requiring oversight and ratings of performance, and the view that markets eventually resolved all conflicts involved in exchange of wants and needs: organisations only had utility if their costs in managing transactions were less than would otherwise obtain. In short wedges were driven between wants and needs and leaders and everyone else. Sets of fabrications, amongst other things about efficiency and effectiveness (which were conflated) and prosperity, rationalised the conduct of organisations.

In the view of management researchers Fabrizio Ferraro, Jeffrey Pfeffer & Robert I Sutton (in “Economics Language And Assumptions: How Theories Can Become Self-Fulfilling”, Academy of Management Review, 30/1, p8-24, January 2005), social science theories can become self-fulfilling by shaping institutional designs and management practices, as well as social norms and expectations about behavior, thereby creating the behavior they predict. They also perpetuate themselves by promulgating language and assumptions that become widely used and accepted.

An essay with more detail on this will follow.
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Caterpillars and Bowerbirds, evolution at work: The Science Show (on ABC Radio National for 21 March) dealt with caterpillars welcomed into ants’ nests and Satin bowerbirds singing and dancing to robot female bowerbirds.

Professor Jeremy Thomas, Professor of Ecology & Professorial Fellow of New College University of Oxford UK was interviewed by Chris Smith (the BBC’s “naked scientist”). Thomas has found that invading caterpillars, normally snapped up with relish by ants, have managed to con their hosts. They have produced a chemical which mimics that produced by the ants. This is so successful that the ants carry them into he nests and feed them, Indeed in times are really tough, the ants kills their own grubs and feed the caterpillars. But they do better than that: the caterpillars produce sounds which are the same as those produced by the queen ants. Thomas and his team were able to place tiny microphones inside ants’ nests in t eh laboratory. “when we played back the sounds of the chrysalis to the ants, we found that the ants were reacting to the miniature speakers in exactly the same way as when we played queen ant sounds. In fact, if anything, they were behaving in more extreme forms and it attracted more ants and they sat on it and behaved almost as if they were super-queens.”

On the same program Robyn Williams interviewed Dr Gail Patricelli, Assistant Professor at the University of California, Davis “who has designed robots to look very much like satin bowerbirds. At Wallaby Creek, near Brisbane, she dressed her robots to look like female birds. The males then sing and dance around the robot. This enables Gail to observe and study the signals exhibited by the male as they try to win the hand, or wing of the female. In order to be successful in courtship, it’s not just show, but the ability to interact socially and adjust behaviour in response to female signals and other behaviour during courtship.”

By the way, Professor Rick Shine (Sydney University) has found that (native Australian) Meat Ants are voracious predators of baby Cane Toads but pose no threat to other native frogs. What was the response of the Northern Territory? A spokesman on the news said, “This is nothing new! What we need is research which shows us how to put a gene for eating toads into Monitor Lizards”. Right!
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Next week: John Florio on scholars, museums in North America coping with financial turmoil, exploiting new buildings and revamping websites. And (held over) the British Government’s enquiry into the invasion of Iraq and possible consequences for the BBC.

This page, which should appear weekly, is an addition to the blogs page.

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?

Learning to do it right

Friday, September 19th, 2008

“There are in essence, only two main reasons why people are fallible, why we have failure. One reason is ignorance … a general lack of knowledge about the particulars of how the world really works. But a second source of failure is ineptitude … the knowledge is there, but an individual fails to apply it correctly.” So goes one of the favourite stories of Atul Gawande, surgeon, New Yorker magazine writer and Professor at Harvard. This is an aphorism just as applicable to the museum executive and staff member as it is to a doctor in a hospital or the financial executive in a bank!

Gawende has won heaps of awards including the Macarthur Fellowship, popularly known as ‘the genius prize’ for the fresh and unique perspective, clarity and intuition in his written work and his energetic and imaginative approach to finding practical ways to improve surgical practice. And he has written books now published in more than 100 countries.

In an episode in January 2008 of that wonderful ABC Radio National program “Background Briefing” (which by the way has been going about as long as “Four Corners”) Gawende told of his experiences in a talk to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.

Gawende shows just how being diligent, being persistent, questioning when things don’t seem to add up and feel right makes such a difference (remember Ralph Siu and Chinese Baseball?). That this behaviour is significantly less common than it should be is because we are all supposed to be efficient, which means taking less time to do things. So many things seem to go wrong, from inadequate buildings to inadequate attention to financial problems in companies to radiocative waste leaking from pipes at Nuclear power stations in Provence, just because of this.

Contrary to that stupid headline I once saw, Gawende’s stories show that we do not need to make decisions faster because change is happening so fast, we need to make decisions more slowly, we need to understand what is going on. Gawende’s stories are wonderful examples of the difference that approach makes!

I have tried to summarise the presentation but you can always go to the full transcript on the ABC website.

Read more

Declaration of the Universal Museum – an Update

Friday, August 10th, 2007

Note: This update includes references to some of the items concerning the Declaration from 2004 through mid 2007. The previous references can be found here.

In early December 2002, nineteen of the world’s top art museums issued a statement firmly opposing the repatriation of cultural material. Attention was drawn to the continuing claims by various countries and peoples for return of collections held in the major museums of the world.

Debate on this issue has continued in conferences, on websites and in journals.

Although at the time, it was claimed that return of Aboriginal human remains from museums in Britain to Australia would be hampered by the Declaration, it would seem from recent events concerning material of human remains from Tasmania in The Natural History Museum in London that no reliance was placed in the Declaration. Rather the issue concerns objects created by people.

Nor has the Declaration been the basis for any aspect of the negotiations between art museums in the USA and the Italian Government over classical archaeological items alleged to have been stolen. There are notes about this later.

We can recall that the British Museum asserts that it “is a universal museum holding an encyclopaedic collection of material from across the world and all periods of human culture and history. For the benefit of its audience now and in the future, the Museum is committed to sustaining and improving its collection”.

The British Museum was significantly involved in the adoption of this Declaration and its director, Neil MacGregor, has vigorously defended it.

Continue to article.