Provenance of artifacts requires deep scrutiny

In 1799, British nobleman Thomas Bruce became ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. As part of his diplomatic duties, Bruce, also known as the Earl of Elgin, made a visit to the Parthenon in Greece, then under Ottoman control. The trip must have made one heck of an impression, because in 1806 Bruce ordered that the Parthenon’s marble friezes be stripped from the ancient temple and shipped back to England, where they remain to this day, on display in the British Museum.

The story of Bruce’s reverse-Robin Hooding is not a clear case of imperialist greed trumping a defenseless nation’s autonomy. It seems Bruce was moved to take the friezes — called the Elgin Marbles in his honor — by his concern that the Ottoman governors were not properly caring for them. He even paid for them. These good intentions may be a bit less relevant considering the significant amount of damage Bruce’s workers did to the marbles, such as cutting them into smaller bits to facilitate transportation and accidentally sinking two loads, which were only recovered two years later. Still, what’s done is done, and whether the marbles remain in London or are returned to Greece, location doesn’t matter because all art should be shared anyway. Right?

These shaky ethics form the foundation of Yale’s refusal to return to Peru the Machu Picchu artifacts currently in its possession. Excavated about a century ago and currently housed in the Peabody Museum of Natural History, the artifacts are at the center of a controversy that now teeters on the brink of a heavy lawsuit for the University. In the bygone days of macho imperialist power, the “finders-keepers” argument might have easily gotten Yale off the hook. Aware that times have changed since the deportation of the artifacts from their natural habitat, the University has switched into touchy-feely gear, claiming its hold on the artifacts is justified because they really belong to all humanity. Somewhere, the thieves who stole Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” are cheering and slapping each other on the back.

It’s no secret that much of the classical and ancient artwork currently on display in museums across the world did not get there through well-documented deals and publicized handshakes. It’s also no secret that these collections bring enormous profit and prestige to the institutions that house them. To self-righteously proclaim that a piece of art belongs to everyone while continuing to pocket revenue from it is not only ideologically unsound; it’s bad business. According to this theory, museums should never charge admission, and Christie’s and Sotheby’s might as well close shop today, because nothing could be less humanity-friendly than charging millions of dollars for great works of art to end up in yet another tycoon’s dining room. By continuing to hold onto art that was obtained without any reasonable consent — and has been explicitly requested to be returned — Yale and the British Museum are depriving two poorer countries of their historical legacy and potential revenue.

Museum ethics has taken a sinister turn with “Bodies,” an exhibition currently on display in a number of international cities. “Bodies” proposes to explain the functions of the human body to viewers using actual models as a demonstration tool, and the result is remarkable and uncanny. By some amazing preservation technique that I cannot hope to understand, the exhibit features an array of preserved parts that should long ago have been food for worms, including muscles, skin and an entire ventricular system eerily suspended in a case full of clear liquid. Certain displays, like the one showing a man’s skeleton and his perfectly preserved muscular structure separated and engaging in some kind of strange partner dance, are fantastically creative. From a scientific standpoint, the exhibit is certainly a better alternative to biology textbook drawings. But where do these bodies come from?

When I saw the exhibit in New York, I couldn’t help but wonder about the dead people whose bodies were now on display. Had they given their consent to be used not merely for scientific research, but as bared and very public demonstration tools? I approached a volunteer in a white lab coat who was wearing a large button with the words “Ask Me About Bodies” printed in black ink and asked about the bodies’ origins. The man looked down at me and chuckled. When further pressed, he explained that the bodies came from unclaimed morgues in China and launched into an unprompted explanation on the preservation technique.

There is a clear ethical dilemma with an exhibit that puts human subjects on display without their consent. In the case of “Bodies,” the dilemma is more severe given the recent news, reported in the Epoch Times, that the Chinese government has built death camps for Falun Gong practitioners in order to engage in live organ harvesting. Are the paying viewers of the “Bodies” exhibit unknowingly supporting such practices? It is troubling to think the Elgin marbles and Machu Picchu scandals of yesterday have, with a bit of technology, transformed exhibition robbery from the seizure of objects to the undocumented seizure of anonymous people. All those responsible for “Bodies,” including its creators and the international sites that house it, must be held accountable to produce an explanation of their procedures and a documentation that those who are now on display gave their explicit consent. Marble is one matter; human life is quite another.



Alexandra Schwartz is a freshman in Saybrook College.

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