Wednesday, 20 November 2013

"Lost and Found": Harvard's museums negotiate what artifacts they rightfully hold and should put on display

A section of the murals in the Mogao Caves depicts a military victory. Harvard art historian Langdon Warner controversially removed murals from the caves and brought them to Harvard, where they remain today.


It was 1924, and the art historian Langdon Warner was face to face with a work of breathtaking proportions.

The adventurer who would later help inspire Indiana Jones couldn't take his eyes off of the Tang dynasty murals painted upon the walls of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, China. They were so dazzling that “there was nothing to do but to gasp,” he later wrote in his book “The Long Old Road in China.”

But Warner would do more than just admire the painted caves. After making the appropriate arrangements to remove some of the murals in an effort to preserve them, he used a special chemical solution to peel the frescoes from the cave walls. But to his horror, the solution froze before the removal process was complete, damaging the frescoes and leaving marks on the site itself.
With a dozen murals in tow, Warner returned to Cambridge, Mass., where he had graduated from Harvard College in 1903 and now taught Chinese art.

Today, nearly 90 years later, the murals remain in the collection of the Harvard Art Museums, and until the closure of the Fogg in 2008 for renovation, they had never been taken off exhibition to the public.

But back in China, Warner's acquistion caused outrage. The murals he removed are still considered stolen goods in China, and Warner is viewed by some as a thief—plaques in the museum at Dunhuang even designate him as such.

Warner's acquisitions raise questions about the way prominent museums currently acquire, hold, and display art. These questions are no less relevant for Harvard's museums, whose collections contain pieces from across the globe and throughout history. Such diverse holdings make it necessary to ethically determine who has custody over works of art and negotiate the point at which an item transcends being a piece of art and becomes an exploited piece of culture.

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