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Objects, Part 3 – Deaccession

March 21st, 2009 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

Last weekend we visited the Getty Villa in Malibu.  The Villa is the Getty’s repository for its collection of antiquities.  Some time ago everything else was moved to the Getty’s “citadel on the hill” in Brentwood.  We had an enjoyable afternoon.  There is something peculiar though about antiquities.  Superficially many of them lack appeal.  They are missing extremities such as fingers, hands and noses.  Since they all look alike it’s difficult for a non-expert to evaluate their respective aesthetic merits.  The most bizarre thing though is their lack of context.  They merely are “present,” wholly divorced from their natural ecology.  The Getty has tried to combat this tendency with elaborate buildings designed to resemble a Roman villa.  They end up looking though like a movie set.  The grounds are dessicated and present strange amalgamations of objects that never would be found together in the real world.

Here is a picture of a pretty Ibis from the Getty’s collection:


And here is a picture of some interesting horses:


The subject of misplaced antiquities recently has received considerable attention.  Sharon Waxman has written a book entitled “Loot – the Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World.”  As parsed by Hugh Eakin in The Art of the Steal, a review in the New York Times: “The problem is part of a larger battle about history, in which ‘once-colonized nations’ are seeking to reclaim the ‘tangible symbols’ of national identity from the ‘great cultural shrines of the West.’”  Marion True, Getty’s former Curator of Antiquities, has commenced testifying at a trial in Rome about purloined antiquities.  She claims lack of knowledge.  In her article Getty Ex-Curator Testifies in Rome Antiquities Trial, Elisabetta Povoledo summarizes True’s testimony: “If ever there was an indication of proof of an object coming from a certain place,’ or an illegal excavation, ‘we would deaccession it and return the object.’”  Evidently the Italian government sees matters otherwise. 

True was fired by the Getty in a contretemps also involving its former director, Barry Munitz.  The Getty is indemnifying her as she defends herself and the institution in ome.  Bizarrely, a video narrated by True still is featured at the Getty Villa.

The Getty’s predicament stands in contrast to that of many other museums, which not surprisingly are running out of money given the rough economic times.  They have taken to “deaccessioning” or selling off parts of their collections to cover their operating costs.  Robin Pogrebin summarized the problem in her article Bill Seeks to Regulate Museums’ Art Sales: “These collections were not created as reservoirs of capital to be used for the benefits of the institution.”  Rather, they were meant to be displayed.  Ironically, estimates are that only 10% of most museum’s collections are on display at any one time.  In The Good Stuff in the Back Room, Geraldine Fabrikant states: “Most museums own far more art than they can display.”  The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York owns two million objects; the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston owns 450,000.  Both display only a fraction of what they have available.

The juxtaposition of these stories highlights two significant problems about objects – their provenance and purpose.  If objects cannot be meaningfully sited in context then they should be repatriated to a place where they can.  If objects never are going to be displayed then they should be returned to their place of origin rather than decaying in some art museum basement, so at least somebody can appreciate them.