The Case of the Missing Museums

It was a dark and stormy night…or a bright and sunny day, you choose. Only in 2020 would be possible to lurk and riot at the same time. Everything is strange, everything feels uncertain and therefore possibly dangerous.

Take art, for instance. No, literally ‘take art’, from wherever you can get it. The museum industry has done this for a very long time, and part of the changes being wrought upon the current World are the upheavals to human culture. Museums are under obvious financial pressure from lack of attendees, but also under pressure to return items that were acquired through various means for hundreds of years. Museums have had social pressure put upon them not to display anything even potentially controversial, which adds another limit to their inventory. Larger museums are also facing challenges from their governing boards regarding sales of works in order to pay the bills and retain staff, many of whom have been laid-off since early in the year like everyone else.

The whole returning of artifacts thing should be an obvious action, but remember that nothing is obvious this year, and there are strange problems with returning things sometimes. Way back in October, activist Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza was arrested twice for attempting to ‘take back what was pillaged from Africa’ from the Louvre and the Quai Branly Museum, even though one of the figures was Indonesian. Still, it was his protest against French colonialism, and cost him several thousand sous. It cost both museums a certain degree of security, not only with increased staff, but also in the trustworthiness of their inventory’s provenance.

French President Macron has vowed to return all African artifacts still in French museums, and this seems to be happening now, as well as many museums around the world taking a closer look at their sources. Museums everywhere are also beginning the long, difficult process of returning art looted in WWII. So this is good, but expensive.

Re-homing older collections (deaccessioning) and pieces that might fetch a bill-paying price at Christie’s seems like a logical move to make up their losses, but it’s 2020, and we’re closed yet again. Virtual galleries aren’t paying the bills, and surprisingly, some museum governing bodies disallow selling off collections or pieces at all, because of the museums community obligations and original mission statements regardless of financial hardship. At least, this is surprising to me. This situation is because, according to Michael O’Hare from the UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, ‘the principle that a balance sheet show all a firm’s assets, valued in money by some systematic principle, in particular the accepted practice among art museums that their art collections are not listed, let alone valued’.

Whoever could have thought that this was a sustainable idea? So these museums don’t have to declare the value of their collections, or even list them? How can they be insured? How can they acquire new works? I don’t understand the reasoning behind this, nor should you. This isn’t all museums, but in the older and more established ones, yes it’s true. Now they are being forced to choose between keeping their collections, or keeping their staff, which they wouldn’t have without the collections.

Museums are usually buildings, and buildings get full of stuff, especially art. My house will confirm this mess. So the building gets full, and collections have to change. The art is supposed to be held in the public trust, but even with selling off some of it, the public can maybe enjoy it even more. The Denver Art Museum is looking at selling off some of their works in order to allow the museum to allow for free admission.

The majority of the art collections perhaps need some updating anyway, says I, thinking of all the subtle nuance of the ‘Banana’ taped to possibly my very own wall. While selling off Museum’s artworks causes some to shudder with revulsion (why??), I think a community’s most precious asset must remain its people, and museum staff are certainly valuable. I say, sell off that Banana, and keep the doors open. If the dreaded Disease-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named insists on continuing to plague us, then I cannot think of any place easier to socially distance within than an art museum.

So, it’s settled then. The museums will give back all stolen art, including legally bought art that they did not do due diligence on which ends up having been stolen, including dead bodies and parts thereof in decorative dried forms or whatever. Give back Grandpa! If the museums have collections no longer deemed socially acceptable to the general public, then return those to the artists estate, or sell them off to the public that wants them. Allow museums to sell off their works as needed, but let’s have them declare their assets and be more transparent with their dealings.

Oh, and save me that ‘Banana’, though since it’s in-valuable as a work of art, I should get it for free. With ice cream.

Tasty art!

Published by kjensenstudio

I'm a lifelong artist living and creating in Eugene, Oregon right now, originally from California, and have lived all up and down the West Coast. Eugene is...interesting.

2 thoughts on “The Case of the Missing Museums

  1. With the pandemic, I am really concerned about the death of some museums, performance groups, theaters, dance troupes, and other cultural resources. One of our theater groups just announced their own obituary. Some dance groups, a Flamenco group I know for example, is just hunkering down – suspended until things improve.

    I was given a tour of the inner sanctum of our metro art museum — where the stuff sits or hangs, unseen, due to lack of exhibit space and lack of a relevant “theme” to be included in an exhibit. There was an antique car and a back-bar from a western saloon and women’s dresses and a lot of paintings and sculptures. I doubt seriously that anyone has seen many of the items and there is slim chance that they will be on display any time soon. Being an art museum, there were no bodies or body parts.

    It was interesting that there were very few American Indian items: a few pots or baskets and some carvings and beadwork. This is “Indian Country” so there is a good deal of respect shown to native cultural items but apparently either they did not acquire those artifacts or they returned or “re-homed” them. Re-homing and repatriating are not necessarily the same. I actually think Antiques Roadshow has more Indian items most weeks than I saw in the vault. Acquiring collection items was once more haphazard. People died and their kids gave their stuff to the museum and provenance was seldom confirmed. People still want to do that but the practice is now tightly controlled — but back in the day it was more like salvaging things that would otherwise be thrown out. Sometimes items are portrayed as brazenly stolen cultural artifacts (which some are) when it really is more of a case of safe custody evolving into museum ownership over the years. Had the museum not cared for the items over the decades they might not be available to be returned today.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. That’s an interesting take on a new, completely unexpected dilemma for the museums. Who would ever have believed a year like this? Who will get through it without major damage? I hope some creative brains are at work back there! Thanks for exploring it and encouraging readers to think. RR in Larkspur

    Liked by 1 person

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