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.

Remember September

I have been neglecting my blogging duties… mostly because life and volunteering got in the way. Although I did post two short bits of news since telling you about my trip to Italy, I now need to go back to the week after the Florence conference—the first week of September.

Instead of going back home, I flew up to Munich, Germany… for another conference! The CIPEG annual meeting was much smaller, which was quite pleasant, and consisted of a single session of presentations each day (as has always been the case since I started attending). There was no need to run from one room to the other, coffee and tea were offered right there in the small conference hall… and we had the cutest cookies in world on which to munch! Egyptological cookies… take a look!

I was very excited about this conference because of this year’s theme “From Historicism to the Multimedia Age: Content, Concept and Design of Egyptian Museums and Collections.” Having been doing mostly classical art research since 2012 and with my Egyptological projects have already been presented or not advanced enough to present, I have very little to share at Egyptological conferences these days. This topic, however, allowed me to present a paper at the conference, focusing the NCMA’s Egyptian galleries, which I designed for the new permanent collection building that opened 5 years ago. My presentation went really well (so I gathered by the many great comments I received) and I was very pleased.

A friend snapped a shot during my presentation (as I'm talking about the NCMA campus and its new building)

A friend snapped a shot during my presentation (as I’m talking about the NCMA campus and its new building).

What was nice about this meeting was the fact that it was held at the Egyptian Museum in Munich (Staatliche Museum Ägyptischer Kunst, the state museum of Egyptian art). The new building opened a couple of years ago and I had heard nothing but great things about it. I was looking forward to an opportunity to visit… and this conference was it. Wow! I had seen the Munich collection a few years ago at a different location, but that old building didn’t do it justice. This new building is entirely underground (but with natural light coming in) and quite stunning in its minimalist and modernist way… and it presents the collection like never before! I’ll present it on An Archaeologist’s Diary when I have time to put together a photo page. It’ll be worth the wait!

Now that I’m all caught up with the scholarly activities that have taken place abroad in late summer, we can go back to the future… I mean to the present!

International Congress of Egyptologists

My volunteer work has kept me away from my computer. Actually, let me rephrase that. It hasn’t kept me away from the computer, it’s kept me so busy that I didn’t even have time to blog! However, this alone isn’t the reason of my rather sporadic posting activities. I thought I would backtrack a little and tell you what I have been up to.

Banner of the International Congress of Egyptologists hanging at the University of Florence

Banner of the International Congress of Egyptologists hanging at the University of Florence

Back in August, I attended the International Congress of Egyptologists, which was held in Florence, Italy. It was my first time at the ICE and it was a bit of a zoo! There were something like 750 Egyptologists attending… can you imagine? Despite the large number of people that made it difficult to find a seat as we hopped from lecture hall to lecture hall (which meant that people left during the question periods, so as to get a seat when they got to another room—which I thought was a little rude), there were some really good papers. Some were about recent archaeological discovered, other on really great topics… there were so many to chose from!

Of course, being in Italy, we ate very well and the coffee break spread at the conference was absolutely amazing!  Baristas making espressos and cappuccinos (can you believe it?), lots of sweet treats (but not too sweet), fruits and yogurt, finger sandwiches…  All in all, it was a good conference.

Women in Science

Today, I participated in the North Carolina GlaxoSmithKline Foundation’s Women in Science spring conference, which was held at the Museum.  The GSK Foundation funds and mentors female students enrolled in science programmes in North Carolina.  I gave a tour entitled ‘Ancient Art, New Science: When Curatorial Research Meets Materials Analysis,’ which  was a special tour of the ancient art galleries that focused on the scientific analyses we have been conducting over the last few months.

I was delighted to be asked and I said yes immediately because I feel I owe so much to GSK: I started out at the museum practically 10 years ago as GlaxoSmithKline Curatorial Fellow and GSK later funded position and my research on the Egyptian collection as well as the publication of the catalogue. GSK’s support of the Museum’s curatorial research (conducted by fellows who are ABD doctoral students or recent PhDs) over the years has been tremendous. I’m beyond grateful to GSK…

My tour included Bacchus, which was brought from the conservation lab for this special occasion, Hercules, the Celestial god or hero and the Egyptian Head of a deity.  As you can imagine, I talked about UVF, VIL, IRR, pXRF, marble sampling and thermoluminescence. The participants seem to have greatly enjoyed the visit because I got many interested questions, enthusiastic comments and requests for my business card. A few hours of my time was the least I could do for a foundation that’s been so generous to me and the Museum. It was a fun and enriching day…

Nubian Conference in Neuchâtel

After the CIPEG annual meeting in Copenhagen, I took a flight down to Switzerland for yet another conference. This time, it was the ‘Nubian Conference’ (the International Conference for Nubian Studies), which was held in Neuchâtel.  My colleague Matthieu Honegger did a wonderful job in organising this conference and you will have more details on La Vida Aegyptiaca about what I did in  Switzerland and Denmark on this last trip.

There was also a lovely exhibition on ancient Nubia at the Laténium and I had my photo taken with two of the the superb statues of Kushite kings (Taharqo and Tanwetamani) found at Dukki Gel (near Kerma) in 2003… and then I read the label and realised that they are actually copies of the originals!  The technical precision and workmanship are astounding!  The statues were 3D scanned, carved from an agglomerate rock and then hand-painted by a conservator! This was very interesting to me because there is some 3d scanning in my near future. The things we can do with technology these days…

Tanwetamani, Taharqo and me at the Laténium in Neuchâtel (the statues are replicas of the originals).

Tanwetamani, Taharqo and I at the Laténium in Neuchâtel (the statues are replicas of the originals).

 

 

 

CIPEG 2014

In late August, I attended the annual conference of CIPEG (Comité international pour l’égyptologie), one of the many committees of ICOM (International Council of Museums).  The meeting is mostly attended by curators who have charge of Egyptian and Nubian collections in museums around the world.  It was a very well attended event: I met old friends and made new ones…

Attendees of the CIPEG meeting, at least those who were there on the first day.

Attendees of the 2014 CIPEG meeting, at least those who were there on the first day.

 

The meeting was held in Copenhagen (my first visit!) at the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters and we had extremely interesting papers on the theme of ‘sources and resources’.  I did not present at this meeting, but I hope to do so next year.

My colleague Tine Bagh, curator of Egyptian art at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, and her team did a fabulous job of organising this lovely conference and scheduling activities that allowed us to discover Copenhagen and Denmark. Cheers!