Collections such as the new 'Art of the Americas' wing at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts provide hours of education and appreciation. But beware the origins of some of the choice items from Mesoamerica.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
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.