This post comes out of a side interest that I have had for a couple of years in cultural heritage protection, the international trade in antiquities and art, and the role that the US plays in both these arenas. As an archaeologist, these topics are particularly important because of the implications they have for solving the problem of archaeological site looting. For this first post however, I would like to discuss, very simply, a few points about this large, discipline-wide issue that relate to us and this class, namely, the representations of cultural heritage that we can find in New York, and what these representations might signify about New York’s culture
New York has had a long history with global cultural heritage going back to the establishments of its first major art collections. During the 1800s, art collecting in the US surged alongside the country’s growth as a powerful industrialized nation; wealthy New York citizens were the first to amass huge collections of art objects, antiquities, and “curiosities” from different cultures around the world. Over time, these private collections were donated to public museums and have become the cores of many of New York’s most famous museum collections (ex: The Lehman Collection of Art at the MET). In addition, wealthy New York denizens were also the sponsors of large-scale explorative expeditions that aided not only in the continued building of these collections, but also in jump-starting the careers of many of the today’s most heralded pioneers of anthropological, ethnographic, archaeological, and art-historical scholarship.
Looking back upon the history of this time period, it is possible to infer a connection between wealth and power, intellectual pursuit, and emergence of New York City as an international center of elite culture and Western civilized society. In many ways, the formation of large art collections that were eventually to become the pillars of museums like the Metopolitan Museum of Art were signs of New York’s (and in many ways the US’s) entrance onto the global scene. They were physical representations of New York’s wealth and intellectual prowess.
At the same time, however, these art collections were also physical representations of other cultures. Although largely incomplete and usually quite biased, the objects within the collections were meant to recreate (imperfectly) the culture of a distant land and people, contact with whom the average US citizen, no matter how wealthy, was unlikely ever to have. They were thus simultaneously signs of “otherness” as well as signs of New York elite culture.
My point in bringing up this topic in particular is to try and think about how New York’s representation through these collections has changed from the early days of their creation. The days of direct, large-scale art and antiquities collecting is over, and with the advent of cultural heritage protection laws, museum policies have come under serious scrutiny. In the past several years, many of the Western world’s most elite institutions have been pressured to return objects that source nations claim were unlawfully removed (one of the most notorious of these cases was the recent return to Italy of the MET’s Eurphronios Krater). What do these issues signify about New York’s history of art and antiquities collecting? Was it a bad thing? Have these recent legal troubles changed the way in which New York elite society is represented?
Walking down Madison Avenue on the east side, one encounters the shops of dozens if not hundreds of art and antiquities dealers. The owners of some of the largest of these establishments are powerful denizens of New York society, carry much weight in elite circles, and often have large collections of art and antiquities themselves. In many ways, the continued existence of well-regarded private art collectors and dealers, many of whom pride themselves on their connoisseurship signifies that the old ideals of intellectual culture still thrive among New York’s elite despite the somewhat harsh criticism that collecting has garnered in the past several years. That the art market is a multi-billion dollar industry today also shows that the connection between art and wealth has also been retained.
I suppose a question to close with could then be: What part of New York is represented through its art collections in the modern world? New York has become so diverse since the days of its first art collections, and the cultures that were once represented and glimpsed only through art objects can now be seen, heard, and tasted on any street corner of the city (ie: there is no need to visit a museum in order to experience Ethiopian culture). New York’s multi-culturalism is one of its most interesting aspects, so what have the art objects that were once the only window into the outside world come to signify these days?