Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Restitution of Cultural Property in the Modern Age

Weighty title, huh? However, it's a weighty topic, so it's apt. Dr. Robert Anderson spoke about this topic yesterday in a public lecture on campus and later in our class. Dr. Anderson is a well-respected museum professional who served, most notably, as Director of the British Museum from 1992-2002.

Due to the international profile and nature of their collections, the British Museum is one institution that has come under fire in the last decade or so for, in essence, "hanging onto the spoils of imperialism." The case of the Elgin Marbles is the most widely known example of this charge. Dr. Anderson's view is that the cosmopolitan nature of the BM's collections makes it easier for all people to access and learn from objects from around the world.

The argument on the other side, however, is that certain objects carry the identity of a nation or a people within them. They therefore belong in their country or region of origin. Imagine the United States without the Liberty Bell or the Declaration of Independence, for example. There is some validity to that argument. Why not allow Greece to have back the marble friezes and statues from their Parthenon, right?

However, Dr. Anderson's point is important, as well. According to UNESCO's guidelines for designating World Heritage Sites, it's imperative that we, as an international community, protect cultural heritage across the board. Their website says:
Places as unique and diverse as the wilds of East Africa’s Serengeti, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Baroque cathedrals of Latin America make up our world’s heritage.

What makes the concept of World Heritage exceptional is its universal application. World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.

This, too, is a significant side to the dilemma. If a smaller country with fewer resources cannot afford to maintain and care for "its" objects of cultural heritage, is it worth the loss of those objects in the end for the short-term political peace of their return?

In the end, there are no pat answers, no easy ways to solve this problem. However, I guess in a way I'm heartened that this is a problem in the first place. It does seem to show that cultural heritage, and the objects that often make up that idea, are important. People care what happens to priceless objects. Without that, we'd all be sunk.

(A recent case in Sweden, of all places. The Spoils of War in Peaceable Sweden)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"Rambles About Portsmouth"

In the nineteenth century, newspaper editor and author Charles Brewster wrote about his beloved city in a series of weekly stories. Last night, our class roamed around Portsmouth on a brisk evening. Consider this post my story about our "old town by the sea."

Our class is a small & interesting mix of New England natives and those from other regions of the country (and other countries altogether, in the case of our professor). The three of us who work and/or live in Portsmouth work at Strawbery Banke and the Portsmouth Athenaeum, though, so we were able to fill in the gaps in our classmates' knowledge of Portsmouth history.

We enjoyed a nice tour of the Athenaeum, a walk down to The Pearl, a wander through The Hill, and a quick walk through of Strawbery Banke. Along the way, we also tried to pay closer attention to our surroundings, especially those of us who spend a lot of time downtown.

This idea was from John Stilgoe's book Outside Lies Magic. The book is not available on Google Books, since it was published in 1998, but here is a short review of it. In short, Stilgoe asks us to get out of our cars & pay a little attention to the human-built environment around us. His descriptions of ordinary objects from sewer grates to electric wires to fences are fascinating. The book remind us to tune our sensors to the things we see on a daily basis & really think about them - why they look the way they do, when they were installed, how they shape the environment through which we move.

The idea paid dividends right away. On the way to SBM, I noticed a carved sign on a brick building on the corner of Daniel & Penhallow Streets. Just above the first floor, it said "Custom House." Not sure if this building was a custom house at some point, but it's certainly a good guess & deserves further research. I've probably walked by that building a hundred times & never noticed the sign.

Our professor asked us to consider two particular questions at the Athenaeum and SBM. In essence, she wanted us to think about what space we would claim as our own in each place. At the Athenaeum, where would you curl up with a good book? In the Puddle Dock neighborhood that SBM preserves, which house would you pick for your own?

In our tour of the Athenaeum (I'm getting tired of typing that), there were a number of places where I imagine it would be lovely to sit. However, the balcony of the library seems like the perfect place to settle in with a cup of coffee and a treasured volume. From the wicker chairs near the window, you can see all the way up to City Hall (the old hospital), which I didn't realize. This perch offers a great view of Market Square and I could see myself setting in there happily for an afternoon of reading, interspersed with people watching.

I've had much more time than others in the class to consider which house I'd choose at SBM. I've been working there nearly a year, after all. My choice is the Shapley-Drisco house, at the river end of Puddle Dock, across from one of the old warehouses and what is now Prescott Park. It's a cozy house, built in 1795, and it gets lovely light in the morning. It's also one of the closest houses to the river, which I appreciate. Working as an interpreter there, I could always hear the seagulls and occasionally catch a whiff of salt water.

Our ramble around Portsmouth was an enjoyable experience. It reminded me that this town always has more to offer and I look forward to continuing to learn more about it.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008


So I'm meeting one of the curators of the Smithsonian today. Neat, huh? However, since it's Opening Day at Fenway, I'll be doing it in my Sox t-shirt. Classy, huh?

Hope he understands.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Old Innovation

Great article in the Times this week about a museum in the Berkshires: Attic-Like Museum’s New Annex of Ideas. The Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation, a 3,000-square-foot exhibition space focusing on local innovators, opened last weekend at the Berkshire Museum. It sounds like a compelling exhibit, showcasing everyone from Herman Melville, who wrote much of "Moby Dick" right in Pittsfield, to Clarence J. Bousquet, the area businessman who invented night skiing in the 1930's.

The author points out one innovator who is not included - Zenas Crane Jr., the man who helped found and finance what is now the Berkshire Museum. In the author's view, part of the appeal of the old pre-renovation museum, was its "curiosity cabinet" feel. He says he often "felt as if [he] were venturing into an enormous attic in which a wealthy collector was showing off his treasures." It's clear that he appreciated the sense of discovery and wonder that this old-fashioned type of exhibition could inspire.

It's something to consider. As the museum field becomes more and more professional, the old methods of exhibition tend to be looked upon as relics of another time. While I agree that there are many new and exciting ways to display objects and engage visitors, maybe we need to keep the old ways in mind, or at least in the backs of our minds.

In no way am I advocating a return to the bad old days of rows upon rows of glass cases filled to distraction with a jumble of objects. However, we need to remember the wonder and awe that the objects themselves have the power to inspire.
Interactive and multimedia exhibits are great for holding the attention of children, but then again, so is a "old-fashioned" dinosaur skeleton.