The other day my good friend, The Obedient Woman, was talking about all her warm fuzzy feelings for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and their recent Dale Chihuly exhibition. I just sat there, being all like whatever, until I had to admit that my feelings toward the MFA definitely aren’t warm or fuzzy, even when Dale Chihuly is involved. (I admit, the man has a magical way with hot sand.) The Obedient Woman and I are the kind of friends that call each other “dumb ass” affectionately and search out exhibitions of books made from human skin. (Surprisingly, not all that hard to find in Boston. Who knew.) So, as surprised as she was to hear that I’m not big on the MFA, she knows me well enough that her first question was, “Do they have a naughty collecting history?” And I was like, “GIRL, LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT THE WEARY HERAKLES BULL CRAP THEY’VE BEEN PULLING THE LAST TWENTY YEARS.”
After decades of denial and uncooperative bad behavior, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is finally returning the top half of a statue known as the Weary Herakles; they have owned the bust since it was gifted to them by Leon Levy and Shelby White in 1981, while the bottom half has remained in Turkey, the sad victim of a violent looting. This Boston.com article does a very good job of summing up the saga from start to finish but, you know me, I’m never quite satisfied with how little the media does to reinforce the fact that the MFA totally and royally screwed the eff up. Perhaps more than any other museum, the MFA has suffered from Acute Museum Denial. Despite the obviousness of this particular case (a molding of the two pieces proved they fit PERFECTLY), they have refused to gracefully acknowledge and apologize for their heavily tainted collecting history and the blatant shows of disrespect they have engaged in by denying Turkey and other countries the return of their own cultural property.
This kind of behavior is the anti-thesis of what museums are for, or at least what they should be for. Art is not simply a pretty thing; most of the time, it is also a cultural object that holds significant meaning for the culture that created it and the modern peoples acting as custodians of that culture. The golden era of taking without questioning is over; museums are no longer the sole owners of their collections, nor do I think they should be. The globalization and digitization of our world has made it increasingly impossible for these institutions to hoard history for themselves, as has been customary. The evolution of information technology has empowered origin countries to take back what was stolen from them, and museums are slow-moving in realizing that the game has changed. I think that because of these surges in the evolution of information technology, my generation has a very different understanding of “ownership”, particularly as it applies to cultural property. I think that more than any other era, our various technologies have taught us how to share information. I really hope this inherent belief in the fair and equal sharing of information for education will greatly affect how we retool museums when we ourselves are museum professionals and scholars.