Rice and the Menil partner to probe questions of cultural heritage

More than 100 art historians, archaeologists and museum professionals representing 30 different museums and universities from across the country and as far as Italy gathered at the Menil Collection and Rice University Oct. 17-19 for the Collaborative Futures for Museum Collections: Antiquities, Provenance and Cultural Heritage conference.

Ancient columns stand above the coast of the Aegean Sea near the ruins of Troy in Turkey. Credit: shutterstock.com/Rice University

Ancient columns stand above the coast of the Aegean Sea near the ruins of Troy in Turkey. Credit: shutterstock.com/Rice University

The event highlighted the first outcomes of the Collections Analysis Collaborative, a research and educational initiative developed to probe questions of cultural heritage and to generate a rich, historical understanding of nearly 600 objects from the ancient Mediterranean in the Menil’s permanent collection. The initiative is sponsored by the Menil Collection and Rice’s Department of Art History and Humanities Research Center, among other supporters.

“It was a great success, if for no other reason than because so many prominent curators and academics from around the country spoke honestly and openly about the problems that face orphaned objects and the ways we can work together to right the course of the ship,” said John Hopkins, an assistant professor of art history and classical studies at Rice. He co-organized the conference with colleagues from the Menil and the University of Houston, Clear Lake. “This is perhaps the first time in recent memory that such a discussion has happened … and concluded with positive and proactive ways forward.”

Over the past year, 11 scholars from across the United States have been granted extraordinary access to the Menil’s object records and investigated the biography, history and significance of works in the collection, Hopkins said. Their charge has been to explore how open collaboration between museums and scholars can shed new light on the collection and on challenges that face art historians, archaeologists and museum professionals in a new era of cultural stewardship.

The initiative’s organizers said European and American collections of antiquities often manifest complicated acquisition histories that include political relationships with other nations, fieldwork and excavations, purchases from art dealers and auction houses, and gifts to institutions from collectors and patrons. An object’s aesthetic and cultural significance and its perceived authenticity have often superseded its documented origin, history of ownership and the circumstances through which collectors acquired it, Hopkins said.

Following the ratification of the UNESCO 1970 convention and the 1983 Cultural Properties Implementation Act, the political and ethical contexts of past practices are no longer tenable, initiative organizers found. This creates a complex situation for both established and growing collections. By fostering open dialogue between scholarly communities with diverse perspectives, the organizers hope the project will generate new models for research partnerships, collection stewardship and the study of art from the ancient world.

Brian Rose, the James B. Pritchard Professor of Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania and the Peter C. Ferry Curator-in-Charge of the Mediterranean Section of the Penn Museum, spoke to the challenges facing countries, scholars and museums in protecting buildings that are several thousand years old and artifacts in his keynote address Oct. 17 on “Archaeology, Museums and War in the 21st Century.”

“We have to develop new and creative ways of working together, even if there may be areas where we disagree,” Rose said. “At least in my experience, the recent wars of the Near East and Central Asia, which show no real signs of resolution, require accelerated communications … if we are to make any progress in safeguarding the cultural heritage that remains at risk.”

Rose currently serves as director for the Gordion excavations in Turkey. From 2003 to 2007, he directed the Granicus River Valley Survey Project, which focused on recording and mapping the Graeco-Persian tombs that dominate northwestern Turkey. He also served as head of post-Bronze Age excavations at Troy between 1988 and 2012.

“It’s difficult for us to realize the extent to which the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria have influenced who we are and what we do as scholars dealing with the art and material culture of antiquity,” Rose said. He said that over the past 12 years numerous academic conferences dealing with antiquity have focused on themes of war, destruction, conflict, battle, trauma and violence.

“This is true in scholarly publications as well,” he said. “One of the most interesting developments is the compression of the time periods separating the antiquity and the modern world, so that the two are now regularly viewed side by side. Sometimes it’s easier for us to understand modern conflict by viewing it through the lens of ancient conflicts, especially the Trojan War.”

Rose also stressed the need for museums to be relevant in the 21st century. “I would argue that there has never been a more urgent need for museums,” Ross said. “But in order to remain relevant, museums need to accelerate their outreach to groups with whom we have not physically engaged and situate the objects we do have in narrative frameworks that are relevant for 21st century issues. For me, a museum is an institution that recognizes the power of objects to promote an understanding of the role of the past in the present and resolve to extend that understanding to as many groups in society as possible.”

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.