This was a different AIA/SCS for me: usually, I see as many papers as possible, delving into the two programs and tracing intricate paths between sessions and rooms. But this year, I went to just three full panels: the two I co-organized on Friday regarding objects in focus from the Royal Ontario Museum’s collections, and a third on Sunday on object provenances. I’ll need to think more about the ROM objects panels (including my own paper on Sylvia Hahn’s work over four decades as the ROM’s Staff Artist), but that is for another time. Instead, my post today will concentrate on Session 7I: Researching Ownership Histories for Antiquities in Museum Collections, which was held on Sunday, 8 January.
The panel was just one of several at the AIA that dealt with provenance, collecting histories, and issues of best practices for cultural heritage. Others included Session 2J, "Classics, Classical Archaeology, and Cultural Heritage: Toward a Common Understanding of Professional Responsibilities for the Study of 'Exceptional Objects'" on Friday, and Session 6C, "Collecting and Presenting the Etruscans in North America" on Saturday. Moderated by David Saunders of the Getty, the Sunday session’s description, taken from the AIA program, is as follows:
“Building on the success of museum-related panels at recent annual meetings, the AIA Museums and Exhibitions Committee has organized a workshop on current approaches to provenance research. In light of numerous high-profile legal cases and repatriations, together with the policies developed by the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums, there is a growing expectation that museums should make available the ownership histories of their objects in a full and clear manner. Many institutions are actively engaged in online documentation projects for their antiquities, and this workshop will explore some of the methods and results, as well as challenges and pitfalls. Researching ownership histories for ancient objects has not received the investment seen for the World War II era, and institutions often lack the resources to undertake this work in a sustained fashion. Furthermore, information in museum files is often speculative or unconfirmed, and discussions regarding the best ways of presenting such information are much needed. Through a series of case studies addressing Greek, Roman, Etruscan, Egyptian, and ancient Near Eastern artifacts, the participants will explore a broad variety of themes: objects for which ownership information has been “lost” and methods and resources for recovering it; the organization of research projects and the development of common standards; the value of terms such as “said to be”; and how the nuances and ambiguities so often inherent in this subject can be presented meaningfully to scholars, students, school groups, and the general public. More broadly, we hope that this workshop will encourage more open conversation among diverse museum professionals, academics, and field archaeologists with a view to developing guidelines and models for this work that can be shared across the community. A series of short papers will be presented from a variety of museum professionals and academics.”
(Why is this description only available in the pdf program? Why can’t abstracts be put up online in a searchable format? And why do only workshops get descriptive paragraphs in the program, whilst individual abstracts are relegated to a separate publication? - random thoughts from your local digital humanist, disgruntled with the conference app and flipping through multiple books and pages)
I decided to live-tweet the series of lightning talks, mostly in order to get word out regarding the topics at hand, which were unfortunately not published individually in the AIA program (since it was a workshop). I then compiled the series of tweets in a Storify narrative here, including the names of the speakers as well as their presentation titles. How effective is tweeting and Storify? I always feel a bit self-conscious tweeting whilst someone else is speaking (lest anyone think I’m playing on my phone), but my hope was to get the word out about the workshop in real time and with the #aiascs hashtag. With 140 characters or less, however, it was challenging to summarize the thoughts of the speakers on my phone (my laptop was being used for the presentations, so I had to resort to the Twitter app on my phone). Yet Twitter and Storify provided a concise, succinct narrative to the “order of things” and the topics most prominent in the panel. The speakers highlighted issues pertinent to their own collections in various museums throughout the country. A number of themes emerged, such as the continual investment in the improvement of provenance data, the desire to see that information made accessible, and the focus on particular objects or groups of objects within the museum context that have been and often still are in need of sustained study and analysis.
After the series of lightning talks, I stopped tweeting and took freehand notes in order to concentrate on the discussion. I was struck by how many of the people in the room were from museum contexts, and there were less from university/academic settings. How different would the course of the conversation have been if it were more balanced (of course, I could simply be wrong in my knowledge of who was in the room, and a number of attendees had one foot in each world, such as myself)? Nevertheless, it was a stimulating discussion for all present, fruitful with ideas and individual case studies with overarching themes. Here are a few additional bullet point take-aways from the open floor conversation:
- Transparency is key to provenance research. How can object histories be not only a part of online catalogues of objects, but also be brought into the stories we tell in exhibitions and installations? That way, the public can be contributors to the discussion of cultural heritage, and learn that objects have histories beyond their excavation: collection, movement, storage, and display all become part of the object’s narrative life cycle.
- What words do we use to describe provenance and provenience? “Said to be from” is hardly sufficient in giving a secure findspot, but often, not much more can ever be known due to uncontrolled excavation practices that were more common in the past. Along with this, the pressure to shorten labels and limit information in the museum itself makes it difficult to be transparent and all-inclusive. How can curators do a better job at creating onion-like layers of accessible information, through publication, online resources, novel technologies, and the like?
- The legal issues surrounding antiquities collecting by museums were not discussed extensively, perhaps because this was more a panel about legally acquired objects (mostly those acquired before the 1970 UNESCO convention guidelines) that were in need of further study in order to make their ownership histories more clear - yet I was quite taken by how much audience members were interested in legal issues (like the Elgin marbles, issues of looting and illegal activity are always hot topics). There’s immense variation in individual institutional structures within the museum, as well as the laws of various countries, that makes this an even more complicated issue, and legal considerations often must be discussed on a case-by-case basis.
- We also discussed the benefits of collaborating and communicating with World War II and Nazi-era provenance researchers, as there has been extensive work done within this particular time frame (see, for example, the Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal; a number of American museums also have their own WWII provenance research pages). The challenges of this underscore the unique tasks of studying antiquities, such as the lack of systematic assessment in their descriptions in auction and dealer catalogues. Objects from antiquity are invariably described as “a woman’s head” or “a predynastic pot,” for example, making it particularly hard to trace their histories. Nazi-era provenance research, however, is often tied to specific artists, such as known painters or sculptors; antiquities provenance research does not share that luxury.
- What is the role of student involvement in doing provenance research? At the Menil (from which the Collections Analysis Collaborative stems) and at Penn, for example, undergraduate and graduate students regularly undertake provenance research as part of their coursework and are active participants in shaping this line of research; the Boston MFA also has a Mellon fellow working on provenance. What are some models we can use to encourage and support research into ownership histories moving forward?
In sum, this was a rich panel with an intelligent range of speakers from a variety of museums. What was most promising to me, however, was the intense care and concern that curators exhibit for individual objects within their respective collections. This isn’t particularly surprising, but the panel really brought to light the enormous task curators face in dealing with orphaned and undocumented objects, and the exactitude with which their research into these objects is undertaken to learn their stories. With persistence, the trend of examining the life histories of objects from their creation to their acquisition will be one that only augments from here on out.