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How objects get to museums

Sending stolen statues back to Cambodia, the Met sets a responsible standard

This month, the Metropolitan Museum of Art repatriated two 10th century statues, “Kneeling Pandavas”, to Cambodia. These had been illicitly obtained in the 1970s from the archaeological site of Koh Ker during the civil war in Cambodia, and donated privately to the museum in the ’90s. After establishing their dubious history of acquisition, the Met voluntarily decided to return the statues to the Cambodian people.

This event is remarkable not simply because two great cultural artefacts get to go home again (as the Latin roots of “repatriate” imply), but also because it sets a benchmark for responsible museum practices.

Public museums are wonderful spaces because they allow us to see and imagine things and societies that most of us will never get to witness firsthand. At the same time, we rarely question how these objects have been obtained; how they move through the world and ultimately come to rest in a museum where we can see and be moved by them. The Met’s actions force us to ask this question, and to realise that many collections, private and public, contain items that have been obtained by violent means — previously by imperial and colonial governments, and more recently through looting during stressful times such as civil war, in the case of these Cambodian statues, or war, in the case of the National Museum of Iraq in 2003. It is clear that such plunder happens precisely because of the great aesthetic and cultural value of the artefacts, often at the behest of private collectors. For example, the looting of the Iraqi museum was clearly organised, as if some of the looters were working from a list.

Illicit traffic is hardly unique to cultural objects. But in these cases, museums play a critical role because the provenance, or the history of ownership, of such objects is difficult, if not impossible to establish. So when an object is loaned or donated to a museum, with little verifiable information about origins, its display in a public institution masks its violent acquisition, assigns it value and legitimises it. In other words, displaying a statue looted from a remote site in Cambodia in the halls of the Metropolitan Museum allows similar artefacts to circulate, and gather value in the international art market. We must recognise that the movement of the object is a process, and each step — from its looting, smuggling, sale to a private collector, donation to a museum, its display in a gallery and our appreciation of it as museum-goers — is connected. It is our appreciation of the art on the walls and the statues in a hall, and our unquestioning belief in the credibility of the museum that confers final value on the artefact. As public institutions, museums then have a special responsibility to ensure that the objects they display are not dubiously acquired.

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