All over the world, great museums showcase pieces of the past for people of the present. We marvel at ancient craftsmanship. A stroll through a museum can be restorative and mind-expanding, as a recent walk through the new Art of the Americas wing of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston reminded me. It is a grand space and its fascinating collection.
But not all museum pieces are created equal. A Thomas Seymour sideboard is one thing, an Egyptian jar another, a Mayan cup yet another. The sideboard has a pedigree. You know the chain of custody over the centuries. Its provenance is clean. The Egyptian jar is a little problematic, given that Egypt was under foreign rule until the early 20th century and thus didn’t have complete say over its patrimony.
How did Egyptian objects come to the MFA or other Western museums? A note at the MFA explains that the “Egyptian Antiquities Service generously awarded a portion of all archaeological discoveries to the institutions that conducted the digs.” Fair enough. But there’s no such note in the Mesoamerican collection. And there’s no escaping the troubling past of some of the pieces. You see, most Mayan antiquities in American and European museums were looted.
Think about it. Who provided those pieces of a former civilization to dealers, collectors, and museums? Rarely are they a gift from a government. National laws usually prohibit private ownership and export of national treasures. Most likely, they were robbed from ancient graves, smuggled out of the country, sold to art dealers, traded among collectors (acquiring a patina of respectability as the paper trail grew), and eventually donated by a generous patron who may not have been aware that grave robbers started the process.
Like a lot of bad practices, the modern world has tried to put a stop to archaeological plundering. You may be surprised, though, at how recent the effort is. In 1970, a United Nations convention called for an end to trafficking in looted objects. In 1983, the United States adopted a law abiding by the convention. Still, arbitrary as it may seem, a line was drawn. Some of the Mayan pieces at the MFA were donated in 1988. They may have entered the US earlier. No one is sure. The Guatemalan government has asked for their return, saying that since 1947 Guatemala’s laws have prohibited antiquities leaving the country without a permit.
Collectors and curators contend that antiquities are safer in museums like the MFA than in the often unstable countries from which they were taken. Archaeologists argue that removed from their surrounds the objects lose much of their important information. Nations like Guatemala simply say they were stolen and warn that the Indiana Jones business creates an incentive for more looting.
In 1997, when the MFA first put the Mayan pieces on display, I traveled to Guatemala’s Mirador River Basin for the Boston Globe to try to learn where they came from. Dense jungle covers vast complexes of pyramids and burial sites. Days before I arrived, a gang armed with AK-47s had stolen a massive stone monument. The vice minister of culture, Carlos Enrique Zea Flores, whom I met in the region, figured the piece had been sliced up and been sold to middlemen. “They are pages ripped out of the history book of our nation,” he said.
The good news is that as time has gone by, museums in the US and Europe have gradually become more aware of the provenance question. Fewer Mayan pieces are being acquired as a result. And just as it did for objects in the ground or pieces changing hands, time tends to work for museums, adding layers of acceptability over the years. If you’ve visited the MFA for a decade or so you may think of a Tikal vase or a piece Nakbe pottery as an old friend. They are safe and honored in their well-lighted display cabinets. They are also far from home.
John Yemma is editor of The Christian Science Monitor.