*Archaeologists believe they have discovered the ruins of The Curtain, a London theatre that saw the world premieres of Romeo & Juliet and Henry V. The Curtain is believed to have been the first purpose-built theatre in London, along with the creatively named The Theatre, founded the following year, in 1576, and uncovered in 2008. It’s very exciting that discoveries like these are still being made – that there are still things yet to find, and that we are finding them.
Today, of course, you can visit the rebuilt Globe Theatre, and see a show in a recreation of the way it might have been done in Shakespeare’s time. And it can be quite inexpensive, too. The one time I went to the Globe, it was a very new play about Abelard & Heloise, not a Shakespeare production, but nevertheless, the atmosphere/aesthetic was amazing, and it was only five quid. Probably the cheapest entertainment I had my entire time in London. Cheaper even than a sandwich, almost.
*Meanwhile, a survey has revealed that the Great Wall of China is about twice as long as previously believed. Previous understandings were based primarily on historical records, apparently, and now that actual measurements and investigations have been done of the actual sites, it has been determined that the wall’s many branches total over 20,000 km of length, more than double the 8,000 or so kilometers of the core section of wall (re)built during the Ming Dynasty. The wall is referred to in Chinese and in Japanese as 万里長城 – lit. “The Long Fortress of 10,000 li,” a li (or ‘ri’ in Japanese) being a traditional unit of distance; the length of a li has varied over time, but is today standardized as roughly half a kilometer. This would make the whole wall only 5,000 km long, if it were literally 10,000 li. But, of course, “ten thousand” is sort of a stand-in or euphemism for a really really great number, just as in the chant “banzai!” (万歳！), meaning that the Emperor, or the Empire, should live “ten thousand years!” In short, it’s ultimately irrelevant, what the actual length of a li is, and how many li long the wall is.
Today, only a small portion of the 20,000 km of wall is intact, and the intact sections still face various threats from erosion, development, and the like.
*Speaking of China, the Palace Museum has apparently finished cataloguing its entire collection. I’m not sure too many museums can say the same.
The BBC reports that WikiLoot would serve as a database for looted artifacts, helping professionals and others keep an eye out for such objects, whether at auction, otherwise on the market, in private collections, or in museums. Anyone could contribute, allowing the database to grow, and stay up to date, very quickly and easily (in theory), allowing it to be very extensive, and thus very effective. It does look like Mr. Jason Flech, the brains behind Chasing Aphrodite and WikiLoot, has already anticipated the problems of allowing fully free public access to the site – he says that only “experts and researchers .. will have back-end access” to edit the material on the site, while the general public (read: anyone) will have access to look at and read the site.
On the surface, this sounds like it could be a great thing. Art police types, as well as museum professionals working to ensure the above-board provenance of their acquisitions and collections, have long used published volumes listing known stolen objects. In one anecdote I remember reading about, investigators raiding a dealer’s warehouse in Geneva found just such a book, open to a picture of a stolen table, the book sitting on that very table. Books such as these help museums make sure that objects they’re considering acquiring are above-board, and that objects they already own are legally possessed; and they help investigators reclaim objects from Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions, where looted objects quite often do appear. I wouldn’t be surprised if officials use these books as well when stopping antiquities smugglers at customs at airports as well. Making such lists into an extensive, constantly-updating, online database seems the obvious next step, to bring this into the 21st century, expanding accessibility. Mr. Felch has even investigated the possibility of incorporating such a database into Google Googles, or some other sort of “computer vision” HUD, and has discussed the possibility with people at Google. Imagine walking around with Terminator-vision set to whether or not an object in front of you has good, legal provenance. What a tool!
But, as Arthur Houghton, former curator at the Getty Museum, warned during an event at Asia Society discussing the matter, having such a website publically accessible and widely known about could “flood … museums with people wanting to find out, Is this object looted or not? If it is unprovenanced, how do you know where it came from? And what should we all do about it?” In other words, it would only enhance people’s distrust of museums, and distaste for museums, inviting people to question the provenance of absolutely everything, undermining museum’s efforts to do things legally, and undermining their fragile image or reputation of doing things legally. I have, admittedly, myself, not yet watched the full discussion that took place at that Asia Society event, nor read too much other commentary on it, of which there is a fair bit out there, but I can certainly appreciate the concerns these museum people, collectors, and dealers raise. It’s not about doing illicit things and trying to ensure that it remains easy to do illicit things – quite to the contrary, I want to believe the best in people and to believe that for Mr. Houghton and others, it’s about doing licit (legal, above-board) things, and cultivating that the public is aware that museums, dealers, etc. are in fact committed to doing things ethically, legally. It’s about having a reputation for a dedication to upright ethical practices, and not threatening that reputation by inviting anyone and everyone to question the provenance of anything and everything in every museum.
If WikiLoot really took off, and if there did develop, in fact, this “flood” of public inquiry that Houghton worries about, that could put pressure on short-staffed, under-funded museums to have to do a ton of very intensive provenance research very quickly, and to replace gallery labels with more extensive descriptions of the proper provenance of each and every object. Or maybe that’s just an extreme case.
Because of the romantic, dramatic aspects of the world of black markets, looting, and illicit dealings, and because of the nationalistic feelings on the part of “source” cultures who have been looted from, it is inevitably a very dramatic, exciting, interesting topic. But it’s also a very serious one, for everyone involved, with very serious ramifications for museums, and for the art world as a whole. WikiLoot is not yet online, and the form it will take remains very much still in development (or so I gather); we shall see how this ends up developing.
All images in this post courtesy Wikimedia Commons.