UN Security Council adopts historic resolution for the protection of heritage

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova addressed today’s public briefing of the United Nations Security Council on “Maintenance of international peace and security: destruction and trafficking of cultural heritage by terrorist groups and in situations of armed conflict,” where the UN Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2347 for the protection of heritage.

Bokova said:

“The deliberate destruction of heritage is a war crime, it has become a tactic of war to tear societies over the long term, in a strategy of cultural cleansing. This is why defending cultural heritage is more than a cultural issue, it is a security imperative, inseparable from that of defending human lives.”


You can read the the details on the UNESCO website, where you can view the video as well.

Artifact Investigation

I love those artefact conservation posts! Here is one from Carrie at the Kelsey about a bowl from Karanis covered with some mysterious white stuff. (And I love a good detective story as well!)

The Kelsey Blog

CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

I love a good mystery, and nothing (save a really good crime novel) is better than an artifact mystery. I love the thrill of investigating an object, identifying its agents of deterioration, and nabbing those culprits one by one. I also really enjoy teaching new conservators how to use investigative tools to make their own observations. I recently spent a day looking at an object with Ellen Seidell, a U of M junior who is interning in our lab. The ceramic bowl – excavated at Karanis in 1929 – was covered with feathery white crystals, as well as a drippy, peeling surface coating. I had my suspicions as to what these were, but wanted Ellen to learn for herself how to identify unknown materials.

To do this, we examined the bowl under longwave ultraviolet light. This is a useful tool not only for…

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Bacchus TNG

The NCMA recently received a (matching) federal grant for a project I elaborated with Mark the marble guy, Corey the objects conservator and the staff in the Museum’s Art Conservation Centre (you can read the press release here). This grant will help us to complete a de-restoration project begun on the Statue of Bacchus more than 30 years ago. (Not kidding!)

You see, the Statue of Bacchus is a composite made of two ancient parts: a head (dating to the 1st-3rd century) and a magnificent torso (2nd century) as well as postantique legs, a left arm, a tree trunk and a base that were brought together to create a whole sculpture in either the late 16th or early 17th century. (Originally, it also had a right arm, but that’s been missing since before it came to the museum.)  The Statue of Bacchus was donated to the NCMA in 1958 and by 1961 the Director was asking specialists in classical art what they thought of the sculpture. They pointed out that the head and the torso were not from the same ancient statue and suggested that the statue be de-restored so the antiquities could be exhibited separately. At the time, the Museum had neither the money nor the staff to tackle such a project…

So Bacchus languished until the 1980s when it was determined that indeed the two ancient components were made from different marbles and the head was removed from the torso.  A few years later, in 1990, the post-antique leaves and grape clusters were removed from the head, which was displayed in the galleries. Unfortunately, the rest of Bacchus went back to storage… until rescued and displayed in the Kunstkamer between 2002 and 2013–not good enough to be in the Classical galleries.


While the statue of Bacchus did need a little cosmetic treatment to hide some unsightly damage, the torso embedded in it is more than good enough. It is spectacularly rare and should definitely be on display!  It is one of five  torsos of this type dating to the Roman imperial period in the whole world! (Seriously!) And the only one in the Americas.  While today completely de-restoring sculptures is rare done, leaving such an amazing and rare sculpture in art historical limbo, half de-restored is unthinkable. (As a wise Jedi Master once said, Do. Or do not. There is no try.  In other words, you either completely de-restore the statue. Or you leave it whole. You don’t half de-restore it.)  So the project is to continue and finally complete this 30-year-old de-restoration.

However, all of us working on the project felt very strongly about the postantique fragments. These limbs, tree trunk and plinth have art historical value and we believe should not be relinquished to the art historical dust bin. Technology and conservation techniques have greatly improved since the 1960s and 1980s, and part of the project is to create replicas of the ancient components (head and torso) and recreate Bacchus as he was 300+ years ago by adding these replicas to the postantique, historical core.  We’ll even have a new right arm sculpted for him! Furthermore, the de-restoration also gives us a very rare opportunity to study the methods and materials used to create this complete sculpture from various fragments.

All of this art + science is very cool and exciting and we’ll have an exhibition at the end of the project and lots of education programming.  We already have a web page about the Bacchus Conservation Project and, because we need to match the grant before we can start, we also have a donation area (click on the ‘donor list’).

Back in the 1960s, the Museum Director  suggested that they leave this important project to a future generation. I guess we are The Next Generation!


(Cue the Star Trek TNG soundtrack! Ha!)

Herakles has left the building

In the middle of the week, Herakles left the West Building for a visit to the photo studio before heading to the conservation lab. Although he weighs about 1020 lbs(!), it only took a few minutes to move the big guy off his pedestal. All you need is brawn, brain and some smooth materials.

Heracles is a very complexe sculpture and we need to look at him even closer than we did before… Actually, we need to look at his knee joins.  I’ll let you know when he gets his quasi-surgical operation!

Ethics of Acquiring Cultural Heritage Objects

On Thursday and Friday, I was in Virginia–specifically at Washington and Lee University in Lexington–to attend a conference on the Ethics of Acquiring Cultural Heritage Objects.

It all started on Thursday evening with a keynote lecture delivered by Neil Brodie, archaeology professor at Oxford whose research concentrates on  the illicit antiquities trade. In his talk, Dr. Brodie mentioned that the network and system of laundering antiquities has changed significantly in the last 10-20 years. The old system, which comprised rare and spectacular objects, suave art dealers, famous auctions houses, wealthy collectors and large museums, is dying out. The heart of the new system continues to be stolen antiquities, but these are much smaller, portable and easily concealed (which makes them easy to miss by authorities). Promotion of these illicit objects is made via social media and traffic occurs on the websites of small, unscrupulous  merchants  or via eBay.  Prices are much lower, but the quantity of available artefact is much greater. Unlike big auction houses whose reputation is at stake in looted antiquities claims, smaller merchants simply reinvent themselves after paying a piddly sum if caught, and continue their illicit business under another name! (Seriously, something needs to be done about this!)  What a fascinating lecture that was!

Friday’s programme offered several lectures by specialists in various fields such as archaeology, anthropology, art history as well as economics and criminal justice.  The focus was primarily the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria, the prey of various types of looters and terrorists. I would have liked to see more presentations concerning unprovenanced objects that have been in museum collections for more than 30-40 years, acquired when lack of provenance was not an issue. These objects are the ones that conservators of my generation have to contend with on a daily basis. These objects bought on the art market are found in most museums, especially those that have never conducted archaeological excavations in the late 19th or early 20th century and benefited from partage (the division of finds between the host country and the excavators).  Only the presentation by James Cuno mentioned the merits of partage (which he believes should be reinstate with various modifications and for a variety of reasons); he also talked about the continued role of the museum in the protection cultural heritage.

Working away from work is always fun, especially when participating in great discussions of relevance to today’s chaotic world.