The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has reviewed its process in accepting eight artifacts loaned by Joseph Lewis, who was indicted last week in a massive antiquities bust, to determine that their process was thorough and that they accepted the artifacts “in good faith.” In the Richmond Times-Dispatch interview, Alex Nyerges, the museum director and CEO, called Lewis, “a charming fellow, a passionate collector and somebody that I would say from a personal standpoint is a reliable and I think conscientious collector.” Yeah, well, they said that about Marion True, too. Nyerges said the museum re-examined their process in accepting Lewis’s donation to determine whether they had been thorough enough in making their decision, coming to the conclusion that “the answer is yes.” The article doesn’t mention exactly what this process entailed, and the museum has not released a statement explaining their process. To their credit, the museum has been quite transparent in providing information on the artifacts from the Lewis collection. They even notified the U.S. Attorney’s Office in new York through the Virginia attorney general’s office to state their willingness to cooperate in the investigation.
However, the quote that really gets me going is when Nyerges says that the eight artifacts loaned “are not particularly rare or valuable objects.” He is quoted, “They actually speak much more to the cultural history of the ancient Egyptian civilization. They are not what I would consider to be priceless or extremely valuable. And this is not meant to be a pejorative statement, but they are more common and ordinary than not.”
I don’t even know where to begin with this statement. So, ancient cultural objects are only worth the money they could fetch at auction? The information they contain about the people and cultures who made them is really just a bonus, and definitely not necessary at an art museum, where it’s all about how pretty the stuff is anyway, right? Is this a “once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” kind of deal? Oh, and the prettiest things don’t communicate information about their culture? It’s only the less pretty, more boring things that have anything to say? How is he defining “common and ordinary”? Is he suggesting that we’ve all got some of this stuff in our grandmothers’ attics? That if I brought an Egyptian canopic jar to The Antiques Roadshow, I’d only get enough money to buy a used car?
This is a truly unacceptable show of disrespect to the objects, the people who made them, and the people whose organs they contained (and thought would accompany them for forever in the afterlife) by a man who is supposed to be their guardian and ambassador. I love museums, and I do not think vilifying museums does anyone any good in dealing with the illicit antiquities trade, but I believe these kinds of statements from museum officials are indicative of how little has changed despite years of scandal and embarrassment over antiquities. From what I am seeing as a student, the mindset toward cultural property in art museums is still highly influenced by a collector’s point of view. That is, they emphasize the monetary value and aesthetic appeal of cultural objects over the objects’ original cultural meaning and function. I personally think this view is too narrow and corrupt to do museum-goers much good. I am so unimpressed by Alex Nyerges right now, despite his efforts to take responsibility for the artifacts in his temporary care.