Friday, February 01, 2008

The sound of artifacts disappearing
Last week, federal agents raided four Southern California museums, seeking artifacts and records linked to the owner of the Silk Roads Gallery in Los Angeles and to an alleged art smuggler. The gallery has been a favorite of celebrities and discerning nabobs, offering a large selection of Ming and Qing dynasty Buddhist statuary as well as pieces from across East Asia, including Tibet.

How much more of the world's artifacts do we need?

In museum collections across the country, ancient bowls are stacked because there is no more room. I have walked the astonishing corridors locked within the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the overstocked storage space of the Peabody at Harvard University -- four stories of towering pre-Columbian ceramics. I say enough is enough.

Kind of a funny article. The only mention of museums is a bit in the middle. Otherwise it seems to be more concerned with looting and the antiquities trade rather than museum collections.

I know of what he speaks though. A couple of years ago I was assisting in the transfer of some collections from a professor's personal collections (all excavated and exported following the host country's regulations) to the local museum. Most of it was in cardboard boxes and plastic bags. We had to rebag a LOT of it because the bags had begun to disintegrate and in many cases the writing was barely legible. Fortunately, I was familiar with the areas and could interpret what they were supposed to be. I doubt this is isolated. Recently, museums have begun assessing their storage procedures and re-storing a lot of stuff but I'd wager there's still an awful lot of junk sitting around in marginal containers.

It's not a new phenomenon either. In a 1983 volume (Lulu Linear Punctate: Essays in Honor of George Quimby) RC Dunnell did a wonderful paper reanalyzing old collections from a particular site (I think I might scan that in and post it; it really is an excellent paper). Even then, he found that nearly all of the bagged faunal remains had turned to dust rendering much possible analysis impossible.

The article mentions some study regarding museum collections but I haven't heard of it. Probably a good little research project for me over the weekend.

BTW, 'Lulu Linear Punctate' is a ceramic type. Legend hath it that it was named after an Athapascan prostitute.