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Posts Tagged ‘national treasures’

NHK reported yesterday that a survey by the Bunkachô (Agency for Cultural Affairs) has confirmed the locations of over 10,000 Important Cultural Properties, but in the process discovered that at least one National Treasure and at least 108 Important Cultural Properties have gone missing. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re stolen, or truly “lost” to the ages, but simply that at the moment, the Agency does not know their location. Some of these may in fact have been stolen, while others may have been sold; in some cases, the private individual owner simply moved to another house, or another city, and in other cases, the owner has passed away, and the Agency simply was not (apparently) keeping up with what happened to the objects in these cases.

The NHK report tells us that the Agency’s survey of the 10,524 National Treasures + Important Cultural Properties continues. A pamphlet the Agency has available online lists 866 National Treasures + 10,430 Important Cultural Properties that are not buildings or structures, so I’m not sure exactly how the numbers add up to 10,524, but, I just thought I’d share that number, put it out there anyway. The report does say that there are 238 objects remaining to be surveyed (including 12 National Treasures). If anyone knows how to make these numbers work out together, or notices a mistake in my understanding of what’s being said here, please let me know.

In any case, the National Treasure which has gone missing is a tanto, a short sword, forged by the swordsmith Kunimitsu. The Tokyo man who owned the sword passed away 18 years ago, and it is unclear what happened to the sword at that time. The survey tells of 24 other cases where the owner passed away, and his or her property was dispersed in some way. Thirty-three Important Cultural Properties seem to have been stolen. The agency lost track of 31 other objects when the owners moved, while another three objects have been sold, and the situation of another 17 objects remains unclear.

The Agency is sending out information to art dealers in the hopes of learning the whereabouts of the missing objects, and is also from next year asking owners of Important Cultural Properties and National Treasures to report back to the Agency once a year (by way of postage-paid postcards) on the whereabouts of their collections. Local Boards of Education will also be requested to perform surveys, once every four years, of the registered objects in their local districts.

Link to the NHK report, with video.

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While investigating something over the winter break, I came upon a question, or should I say a conundrum. I had thought, or assumed, or believed that I had read somewhere, that when the Kingdom of Ryukyu fell and the royal family and their entourage all moved to Tokyo at the end of the 1870s, they had taken just about all their royal treasures with them. Robes, lacquerware platters, whathaveyou. The royal family, the Shô family, though stripped at that time of their kingdom and “royal” status, were incorporated into a new Japanese aristocracy on the European model, alongside many former daimyô (samurai lords) and the like; they were no longer royals, but they were by no means commoners, and so I assumed that they continued to live a relatively lavish lifestyle, and kept much of their treasures with them, in Tokyo. The royal palace back on Okinawa had been transformed into an Imperial Japanese Army garrison even before the royal family left, and by 1883, a British visitor to the island noted in his diary how gutted and abandoned the whole palace looked. So, if the palace was more or less empty, and if the Shô brought so much to Tokyo, how come we’re always hearing about so many Ryukyuan treasures having been lost in the Battle of Okinawa?

As I began to investigate this question, I began to come across some very interesting stories. As it turns out, yes, a great many treasures were brought to Tokyo, but a great many others remained in Okinawa, housed (at least in part) at the former residence of the Crown Prince, the now no longer extant Nakagusuku udun, or Nakagusuku palace,1 and cared for by a team of (in 1945) eight stewards. In 1945, as the battle loomed, the stewards hid a number of these objects in a drainage ditch just outside the palace, hoping to come back for them after the battle was over. When they returned, however, they found the treasures gone. I do not know how many objects were in that ditch, what they all were, or how many have been recovered, but I have in the last couple weeks learned a little about two of them.

A photo of the Nakagusuku palace by Kamakura Yoshitarô, taken sometime in the 1920s. Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

One was a copy of the Omoro sôshi, said to have been at that time the last extant copy2 of the earliest known Okinawan text, a collection of poems which like Japan’s Kojiki and Man’yôshû reveal hints about Okinawa’s history, making the Omoro sôshi at the same time Okinawa’s earliest history. It turned up shortly afterwards, when a Commander Carl W. Sternfelt (d. 1976) brought his war loot to Langdon Warner, curator at the Harvard Museums, to see if Warner could help identify them. Warner is himself a rather interesting figure – I’ve begun a humble bio of him on the Samurai Archives Wiki. He figured out what these documents were, and it is said that Sternfelt, upon hearing just how important they were, agreed to relinquish them. The Omoro sôshi was returned to Okinawa in 1953, as part of exchanges relating to the 100th anniversary of Commodore Perry’s first visit to the islands. A number of other objects taken from Okinawa at one time or another have also been returned in recent decades. A Buddhist temple bell from Okinawa’s Gokoku-ji, taken by Perry in 1853 and hung at the Naval Academy at Annapolis until its return in 1987 may be among the most famous; a bell taken from the temple of Daishôzen-ji and hung for many years at Virginia’s Military Institute was likewise returned to Okinawa in 1991. But, I was interested to learn, there are those who believe that Commander Sternfelt, or someone else, had also taken from that drainage ditch a royal crown. Known in Japanese as a hibenkan, this crown, made of strips of gold ornamented with jewels and affixed to a cloth headpiece pierced by a massive golden hairpin, was used in investiture ceremonies, in which representatives of the Chinese Emperor came to Okinawa and formally “invested” the king, formally recognizing him as King, on behalf of the Emperor of China. A second such crown, which had been taken by the family to Tokyo, is the only such crown known to be extant. Today housed at the Naha City Museum of History in Okinawa, it has been designated as a National Treasure, alongside a considerable number of other objects as a single group, the so-called Historical Documents of the Shô Family Kings of Ryûkyû (Ryûkyû kokuô shô ke kankei shiryô).

Above: The one known extant crown, on display at the Naha City Museum of History. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Finding all of this terribly interesting, I began to poke through the New York Times archives, among other places, and came across an article on the website of the US consulate in Naha, which discusses much of these issues. Entitled “Provenance of Okinawan Artifacts in the United States,” it was written by Ms. TAKAYASU Fuji,3 who has also written an MA thesis on the subject, based on an extensive survey she conducted of collections of Okinawan objects in US museums. She catalogued 1,984 Okinawan objects in 37 US museums, including “569 ceramics, 501 written documents, 420 dyed fabrics, 289 pieces of lacquerware, 10 paintings, and 194 other pieces, including old coins.” I am not at all surprised to learn that these collections include so many ceramics, textiles, and lacquerwares – the kinds of works we see so often in exhibits or other discussions of Okinawan art. I am terribly curious, though, about the written documents, and especially the paintings. I would so love to see these objects someday, maybe even get to exhibit them myself, if/when I get to be a curator. I wonder how many more objects in private and museum collections across the country, and around the world, are not recognized as Ryukyuan, and are mistaken for being Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or just unknown unusual East Asian because, of course, we cannot reasonably expect all East Asia curators to have the sort of specialized expertise to recognize Okinawan works. Many may be lacquerwares, pottery, and the like, but what if there were some paintings, royal portraits even, or important historical documents, or even royal artifacts, just hiding in a museum collection somewhere, their true identity and significance unknown?

Skipping back to the issue of stolen, looted, artifacts for a moment, when President Clinton visited Okinawa in 2000 as part of the G-8 summit, it was hoped that some Ryukyuan object(s) might be able to be returned, as the Omoro sôshi was in 1953, as a display of friendship, reconciliation, and the like. In the end, no such arrangements were made, or at least not in time. However, we are told, eleven Ryukyuan royal treasures were added to the FBI’s official National Stolen Art File. I’m not sure exactly what search terms to use to find them all, or if all 11 remain on the list today, nearly 14 years later, but I was able to find two: the missing royal investiture crown which had been hidden in that drainage ditch in 1945, and an investiture robe which would have gone along with it.

Given such high-profile news stories, from Pres. Clinton adding objects to the FBI Stolen Art File, to the repatriation of the Omoro sôshi and Gokoku-ji and Daishôzen-ji temple bells, combined with various other sources of influence, it comes as no surprise that many people in Okinawa (and, I’d imagine, among the Okinawan community in Hawaii) imagine collections of Okinawan artifacts in the United States to derive chiefly from war booty. Takayasu’s research reveals, however, that the majority of these nearly 2,000 works in 37 museums were legally purchased either before or after the war, with roughly 400 obtained before World War II, 1200 during the extended US Occupation (1945-1972), and the remaining 400 or so acquired more recently. This is good news, of course, for those of us who wish to visit museums, work with museums, and/or work at museums with a relatively clear conscience. But, we must remember that much of what was taken from Okinawa during the war most likely never made it into any museum or other publicly visible collection, and instead remains hidden away in private homes and storage lockers. How many objects that might include, of what sort, and of what historical significance, remains unknown.

But, serious as the issue of missing, stolen, looted, or destroyed objects is, I find the stories themselves quite interesting and enjoyable, and am interested to learn more about the legal collections of Okinawan art in the United States – which objects exist, in which collections, and to hopefully eventually get to see some of them.

There is, of course, a lot more to be said about these works and their stories, and I expect I will either come back and edit this post, or create new posts on the subject and I continue to read about it. But, for now, I suppose I shall just leave it here.

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1) Located just across the way from Shuri Castle, and not to be confused with Nakagusuku Castle (Nakagusuku gusuku), located elsewhere on the island.
2) William Honan, “Hunt for Royal Treasure Leads Okinawan to a House in Massachusetts,” New York Times, 13 July 1997. I find it hard to believe that this was the only surviving copy, since it was surely copied numerous times in both manuscript, and later in cyanotype or the like. But, perhaps this was the only extant original copy?
3) 高安藤 Normally, I don’t follow the practice of putting surnames in all caps like this, but after myself mistaking Fuji for being the surname and struggling to find anything more about this “Ms. Fuji” (when I should have been looking for Ms. Takayasu), I figure I might as well try to be a little clearer here.

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The other major exhibit I was very glad to catch this winter at the Metropolitan Museum is one entitled “Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom,” featuring artifacts from the Korean kingdom of Silla (57 BCE – 935 CE), including a number of National Treasures.

The exhibit, located in a special gallery I don’t think I knew existed, off of the Greco-Roman galleries, begins with this expansive video screen, providing a beautiful view of the Hwangnam Daechong tomb mounds, in Gyeongju, a nod to the idea that you’re actually visiting this sunny, green, public park and entering into the tomb mounds yourself. This was surely expensive, and is only there for spectacle and atmosphere, but boy does it succeed in making the exhibit look/feel top-notch and cutting edge. I also appreciated, snarkily, how all the video screens in the exhibit were not only provided by Samsung, but included brief blurbs on the gallery labels explaining why Samsung’s technology is so amazing. You’d think you were at an industry show, or living inside a commercial or something. “Samsung’s newest such-and-such monitor includes the latest in swiveling, anti-glare, and touchscreen technology, making it the ideal device for any museum exhibition.” You can almost imagine the “wink” and plastic customer service smile at the end of it. Haha.

Tumuli Park (Daereungwon) in Gyeongju. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

But, back to the artifacts. The exhibit begins with a brief explanation of the chronology and geography of the kingdom, and a short video clip showing how the tomb mounds were constructed. Prior to the introduction of Buddhism in the early 6th century, Silla’s royal tombs tended to be made of wooden caskets in above-ground wooden chambers, covered over in earth and stones, creating a mound with no direct passageway or entrance. Various grave goods, including pottery, objects in gold, and even glass imported from as far away as Rome (via the Silk Road), were incorporated into the mounds, meaning (I gather) that as one excavates, it’s not a matter of simply digging down to the burial chamber and finding things laid there, but, rather, that these goods are mixed right in with the earth and stones that form the mound. I don’t know enough about the details of kofun in Japan to draw a comparison, so I’ll have to leave that alone…

Right: National Treasure 191, Queen’s crown and belt from Hwangnam Daechong. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Most of the objects on display in the first portion of the exhibit were these sorts of grave goods, including some heavy, and extremely finely detailed & elaborate golden earrings, with huge, thick rings, and then finely intertwined and filigreed elements dangling from the rings. Perhaps most interesting for me was the queen’s golden crown and belt, each with pendants, altogether sporting tens of jade gogok, or magatama as they’re called in Japanese. My friend who studies shamanism in Japan could surely speak more informedly to this, but throughout the region (Korea, Japan, Ryukyu, though I’m not sure if anywhere else), this particular shape of bead, like a comma, or half a yin-yang, is traditionally, especially in more ancient times, a major spiritual item. One such stone, the Yasakani no Magatama, supposedly housed at the Tokyo Imperial Palace, is one of the Three Imperial Regalia of Japan – that is, one of the three most sacred artifacts associated with the legitimacy of Imperial rule. In Ryukyu, large magatama were the central pendant item on necklaces worn by priestesses and queens, and I gather from this exhibit that similar practices & beliefs were current in Silla as well. Having seen smaller magatama before, of a much more typical size for necklace pendants today (half an inch? just a very rough guess), though I can’t quite remember where, I was surprised at how large some of the gogok were in this exhibit. Those hanging from the queen’s crown were mostly of that smaller size, but the ones on the necklaces were serious hunks of stone, maybe half the size of a fist. I’ve seen pictures of similar crowns, one of the most classic or standard canonical examples of Korean style of that time, and of the similarities between Korean and Japanese styles especially of Japan’s kofun period. So, it was really nice to get to see such an object, and especially one in such excellent, almost complete, restored(?) or conserved condition, in person.

Once Buddhism was introduced to Korea from China, burial practices shifted to more closely emulating the Chinese mode. The tomb mounds became a thing of the past, and burials became much smaller, centered around stone caskets, in stone chambers, with definitive entrance passages, and “spirit paths,” rows of pillars, stelae, or sculptures leading up to the entrance on the exterior. Cremation rather than bodily burial became more common, and ceramic figures of servants, horses, mansions, boats, and the like, included directly in the burial chamber, much as in the Chinese fashion, became common. The exhibit includes a number of these figurines, as well as a few stone sculptures from “spirit paths.” The Chinese zodiac may have been introduced at this time as well, and it’s believed that it was relatively standard to have sculptures of each of the twelve zodiac animals (rat, cow, tiger, snake, monkey, dog, etc.) arranged along a tomb’s spirit path.

Korean National Treasure #83. Maitreya (K: Mireuk), c. 6th-7th century, bronze. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Moving forward, much of the rest of the exhibit consisted of Buddhist artifacts. The true highlight of the exhibit comes at this point. Situated in its own dedicated alcove, I feel so genuinely privileged to have gotten to see, in person, Korean National Treasure Number 83. A gilt bronze sculpture of Mireuk (Maitreya, J: Miroku) dating to roughly the 6th or 7th century, and roughly three feet in height, it sits in the pensive pose, with one hand up to its cheek, and one leg crossed over. An extremely similar sculpture, likely also originally from Korea, and today housed at the temple of Kôryû-ji in Kyoto, was (I believe) the first object designated a National Treasure of Japan. I do not know if I will ever get to see that sculpture, but to see this one is by no means second best.

I do not know whether it’s simply the fame, or something inherent in the sculpture, aesthetically or otherwise, but I found it truly breathtaking. My heart jumped as I gazed upon it, and I felt like I wanted to look at it, examine it, appreciate it, forever. I didn’t want to leave. I think part of the reason it had such impact was because I was surprised by its size, expecting for some reason for it to be closer to handheld in size – something so valued for its age but not for its size – when in fact it is a rather respectable size for a sculpture. I’m not myself Buddhist, but something in the design or aesthetic of the object, from the gentle curves of the bodhisattva’s body, to its gentle gaze through tiny slits of eyes, made me feel such a sense of calm, benevolence, and beauty. The following day, I was privileged to see Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring at the Frick Collection (up through Jan 19), but this did not provoke in me any special response at all. Intellectually, of course, I’m glad to check it off my list of famous paintings to be able to say I’ve seen, but, sadly, for whatever reason, the actual experience of seeing it felt like nothing special. It looks just like it does on the Internet. I was fortunate, too, to see many National Treasures and other stunning, beautiful, and incredibly historical significant objects this past summer in Japan, and eagerly look forward to doing so again.

The exhibition closes with a video showing the Seokguram Buddhist grotto, an incredible cave temple built in stone in the 8th century, and also counted among Korea’s National Treasures. A large stone Buddha is surrounded on all sides by stone slabs, which form the circular walls, floor, entrance corridor, and domed roof of the grotto, all of which where then covered over in earth to form a natural-looking cave. In the late 20th century, a wooden temple building was built before the cave entrance, expanding, or enhancing, the site. Though this grotto, clearly, cannot be removed from its location and brought into the museum, in the final room of the exhibit, they show a cast iron Buddha statue, all alone in that final room, evoking the idea, or the feeling, of the cave temple.

Between this exhibit, the one I saw at the Asian Art Museum a few weeks ago, and the comicbook/manghwa anthology Korea: As Viewed by 12 Creators, I am really eager to visit Korea… though I cannot imagine when that might come to pass.

Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom is on display at the Metropolitan Museum through Feb 23, 2014.

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Just a few things that have come up this week.

*Korea’s National Treasure Number One, Seoul’s Namdaemun (“South Great Gate”), severely damaged by an arsonist in 2008, has been reopened to the public after a US$24 million restoration project.

*Speaking of heritage issues, the New York Times reports that the Metropolitan Museum has agreed to return a pair of statues to Cambodia after Cambodian officials presented clear evidence that the statues had been taken out of the country illegally in the 1970s.

I find it heartening that the Cambodian Secretary of State is quoted as saying “This shows the high ethical standards and professional practices of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which they are known for.” It is wonderful to see the Metropolitan characterized in such a positive manner, as a potential partner and not as an adversary or obstacle.

*Meanwhile, on the subject of museums, there are apparently plans for a giant bubble to be installed at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn sculpture museum, seasonally, serving as a decidedly (post-?)modernist additional gallery space.

The Smithsonian Magazine article I found discussing this (thanks for the heads up, dad!) expresses concerns that the plan may not fly, as DC, the very model of a bureaucratic city, loves its drab grey concrete too much, and similarly creative contemporary-looking sort of projects have failed in the past. I guess only time will tell if it does manage to go through.

*On a separate subject, a recent blog post posted by the Queens Museum of Art invites us to consider social activist artistic practice, and the questions of what makes it “art”? and Why call it art?

Simply protest? Or Art?

There may be a standard term out there in the scholarly or art critic discourse for this precise type of art, but if there is, I do not know it. What this Queens Museum blog post, and I, are referring to is engaging in flat-out social activist activities — whether it be a protest poster, a march or sit-in, a stand where you sell or give away something in order to raise awareness for a cause, organizing communal/public vegetable gardens, or volunteering at, e.g. a soup kitchen or hospital — and then calling it “art” or “artistic practice.”

This is only extremely tentative, but my initial reaction was to, first, say that one key element is simply whether or not it is called “art” by its creators/organizers, and whether it is called “art” by critics or scholars. I think the difference is largely in how it is conceptualized. One person might engage in a given action or activity out of (more or less) purely political motives; she might make all organizational, logistical, and aesthetic decisions about the project based chiefly on how effective they will be towards successfully achieving the political goal. And others might see this activity, and might analyze it, describe it, through a political or social sciences lens. And then someone else might engage in precisely the same activity, but might choose to see the performative and discursive aspects of the act itself as being of chief importance over (or equal with) the success of the political aims. This person might call themselves an artist, and call what they are doing “artistic practice.” And others might examine the act, conceptualize it, describe it, in terms of art, aesthetics, or performance. Somewhere in there, I think, may be the answer. Not solely, simply, a matter of calling it art or not calling it art, but, truly, conceiving of it and conceptualizing its meaning differently, on a very fundamental basis.

Or, to touch upon a slightly different perspective of a closely related interpretation, perhaps what separates it is simply its cleverness and intertextuality. A protest that is powerfully clear in its targets, its aims, and its methods, may be art in the sense of the argument that everything is art, because everything contains aesthetic and performative aspects, and deeper meanings. But, when a social act is not clear in its targets, its aims, or its methods, when its purpose or meaning is not readily apparent, but requires some interpretation, discursive or intertextual references, or the like in order to understand – in short, when it’s clever – does that make it more strongly, more definitively, “art”?

As for the other question — why call it art? What does the person classifying it as such have to gain (or to lose)? — I leave it open.

What do you think? What makes an act of social engagement or protest “art”? What distinguishes it from purer, “non-art,” forms of social or political engagement?

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I was hesitant to make this my 400th post, as I wanted to save that spot for something else, something less fractured and scattered. Yet, as I wrote out this post, it developed into something much more than the few scratched out notes I had taken during the conference. The whole thing is still a little rough; my thoughts not fully thought through. But, I think it will do.

This weekend, the Western Museums Association had its annual meeting (read: conference) here in Honolulu. Museums from across the West Coast of Canada and the US, Mexico, and the Pacific paired up with the Association of Tribal Libraries, Archives, and Museums in organizing this conference, and as a result, the vast majority of the talks were about tribal and indigenous issues, which, if you read my blog regularly, you’ll know are not particularly my chief interests.

I’d been to the American Association of Museums (AAM) conference many years ago, in Boston, and back then there seemed to be a lot more talks related to what feels to me like the “mainstream” museum world. But, still, there were a small handful of interesting panels at the WMA this weekend.

I attended one panel talking about the new Pearl Harbor Museum, though, sadly, most of the talk was sort of PR-ese and vague comments about how “there were difficulties, but it all worked out in the end.” Only one speaker actually addressed the controversies and discursive difficulties that arise in discussing such an issue – looking at the section on Japanese society in the 1930s, and the political/economic/cultural background of the build-up to war; no one discussed the real core, meaty issue of the battles between interest groups who were for and against showing the Japanese point of view, for and against it being a more objective historical treatment vs. a patriotic war memorial sort of treatment. One scholar ignored all of this entirely, speaking of the native history of the site, and the importance of the land to native Hawaiians, coming quite close to what I might call a “rant” against imperialism and the US military presence in Hawaii and all of that; he ended with an anti-war [in Vietnam/Iraq/Afghanistan] song on his guitar.

I also attended a small, brief talk in the conference’s “Tech Lounge,” about one man’s research project into how different organizations are digitizing their book collections (and other manuscripts and similar materials). After this past summer, interning at the Freer-Sackler and being directly involved in their digitization project, this was of particular interest to me. And when he asked us to raise our hands if we’re involved in a digitization project, I was the only one who raised my hand – a lot of people seemed interested to talk to me about it, and I was interested to talk to them, though in the end, not too much discussion actually happened, as everyone just sort of drifted off.

Getting to the point of the topic mentioned in the title of this blog post, in one panel yesterday, entitled “Safeguarding the Past: An Exploration in the Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Artifacts,” art historian, lawyer, and published author Kate Fitz Gibbon gave a very interesting talk about the issue of the black market in artifacts.

Interesting because it took a very different stance from most other views I have read or heard on the issue. So much of what I have read sides strongly with source countries fighting for the return of “cultural heritage”, and makes the museums look like the bad guys. They make museums’ responses, speaking of the value to the world of having these objects as ambassadors of that culture to the world, or of the value of having representations of the whole world under one roof, seem unconvincing, like the museum is simply struggling to find an excuse, to hide some other motive, to justify the continued existence of an institution founded, its accusers would argue, on an outdated, and, frankly, racist & imperialist foundation. In short, that all museums are elitist and imperialist institutions, and that all cultural heritage belongs with the descendants of the people to whom it originally belonged. So many of these voices argue for the idea that just about everything is cultural heritage, and just about everything belongs back in its source countries; that there is no such thing as a licit or “above board” market in artifacts, that it’s all black market, because cultural heritage should not be ownable, buyable, sellable, transferable, exportable.

Fitz Gibbon did not specifically address such famous and unique works as the Parthenon Marbles or the Berlin Nefertiti. But, her view was truly like a breath of fresh air, arguing eloquently and compellingly for a less extreme view, and for not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. First, she says, arguments that all trade in artifacts is black market villainizes dealers and collectors, ignoring the quite valuable contributions many dealers and collectors have made to scholarship, and to conserving or preserving objects – sometimes rescuing them from destruction, in the case of war or oppressive regimes, bringing them together into academically-valuable collections [i.e. of great use to researchers], and bringing things to light that academia had never taken notice of before.

She also argued that the federal government, and many others citing such figures, grossly exaggerates and misrepresents the size of the illicit market in art and artifacts. Some sources cite it as a multi-million dollar a year operation, quoted by Interpol as the fourth largest set of criminal operations, behind only drugs, weapons, and money laundering. Yet, Fitz Gibbon argued, providing extensive figures, that this is blown out of proportion completely, creating a spectre out of what is in fact far smaller (not that there isn’t still an illicit, illegal, and immoral portion of the art/antiquities market; just that it’s much smaller than Interpol and the FBI make it out to be).

Fitz Gibbon went on to speak about the idea that there are many who cast far too wide a net in their definitions of cultural heritage, and of art, and of things that should not be commodified. It was on this point in particular that I thought the presentation really soared, as she dared make some rather controversial comments. And, after all, isn’t that what makes academic presentations, especially conferences, intriguing and exciting? If not for controversial statements, new and groundbreaking arguments, if it was all just platitudes, wouldn’t we all just be asleep in our chairs?

Native Hawaiians and other tribal organizations may be a different story, she said, as what little they have of their cultural heritage is all the more precious because it is so limited. But places like Egypt and Italy are basically swimming in art and artifacts, and so long as many of the most famous, most important & significant, pieces remain in (or are returned to) the country, why can’t other objects – such as pieces of pottery of which hundreds or thousands of relatively similar examples are also extant – be allowed to flow more freely across international borders, through the hands of dealers and collectors, and into the hands as well of museums which will share Egyptian and Italian culture with the world, educating and inspiring others?

Fitz Gibbons cited the National Treasures system of Japan as one of the best systems in the world, which you know of course made me happy, to see Japan singled out and mentioned, and to see it praised. A limited number of objects (and architectural structures) are designated National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties, and most of these are prohibited from leaving the country. Yet, a system of permits and such exists for other art and artifacts to leave the country, and to be privately owned; the Japanese government seems quite cognizant of the idea of these objects serving as cultural ambassadors, and of the value of soft power throughout the world. Those objects that are of the greatest importance are protected, while other objects are allowed to flow more freely; the Japanese recognize the value in not going to extremes to protect and keep *everything* that might be considered cultural heritage. Furthermore, private ownership of Important Cultural Properties and even National Treasures within Japan is allowed (probably largely because so many of these objects have already a centuries-long history of being owned privately by a particular temple or aristocratic family), and the objects are not seized by the government. On the contrary, owners of such properties are entitled to eligibility for conservation funding and other sorts of benefits to help protect the objects. In total, there are only about 1400 objects that are prohibited from leaving the country. Unlike some who call for a total return of all objects of cultural heritage to the source countries, or a total ban on objects leaving the source countries, Japan seems to recognize the value in making value judgements on the importance or significance of objects, of what does and does not merit protection as a “National Treasure,” and allowing people from all around the world to learn about, be inspired by, and otherwise enjoy and engage with Japanese culture, through visiting museum exhibits, and through being able to privately own Japanese art objects. How many thousands upon thousands of objects of ceramic, lacquerware, textiles, etc. are out there? Paintings and rare books are a bit more rare and precious, but even then, I think it’s okay to not consider every single object “sacred” when it’s not – Edo period books and prints were very much commercial objects, and I have a hard time believing that each and every Hawaiian artifact out there, every calabash bowl, every piece of tapa, is truly a sacred ritual object and not a utilitarian everyday object – and I think it’s okay that some of these objects flow more freely around the world, through the art market and the museum world.

I have just touched upon it above, but one phrase, one idea, stuck out to me in particular during the talk. Paraphrasing, Fitz Gibbon said something to the effect of that we must not cast our net too wide, and call “sacred” all manner of things that are not. Egypt has apparently recently done away with private ownership of art, and is building giant government storehouses to hold everything which I guess I presume will at some point be seized from citizens by the authorities. Who does this benefit?

Fitz Gibbon specifically omitted native & indigenous groups, citing that they have so little left of their cultural heritage that every little thing is precious, and rightfully so. Still, her comments struck a chord, reminding me of thoughts I had a year or so ago in my [Indigenous Issues] Museum Studies course. We must be careful not to cast our net too wide. What happens when every single spot of land is sacred, and is argued for as a site of great historical or cultural importance that has been defiled by “modern” human settlement (and more specifically by settlement by outsiders, especially whites)? You’re left with nowhere to have your modern houses, your roads, your shops and stores, your bars and restaurants. I honestly wonder, if every spot of land that someone says is sacred and of great cultural and historical importance were to be set aside as a Native Hawaiian Cultural Site or whatever, is there anywhere at all in these islands that would be left for people (i.e. Natives themselves) to live their modern lives? Similarly, what happens when everything, not just ritual objects, but everything from gourds and bowls to spears and baskets, is deemed “sacred, inviolate, cultural heritage?” What happens when we take all of these objects out of museums, out of public view and public use entirely, and rebury them in caves and elsewhere? Not only does the outside world lose the potential for greater understanding, appreciation, knowledge about your people, but your own people lose access to that cultural knowledge, now buried, now set aside, and inaccessible even to you who are trying to reclaim and revive your traditions.

The situation with cultures such as Italy is a bit different, in that it is not so closely tied to conceptions of the “sacred” and “inviolate.” No Italian will ever tell you that any ancient Roman artifact or Etruscan pot is not meant to be seen by outsiders, or is not meant to be seen by men (or by women), or is not meant to be placed next to such-and-such other object, and that, in short, the placement of these objects in a museum is offensive and culturally insensitive to the core. That’s an indigenous concept, shared, somehow, by a wide swath of cultures from around the world, from the Pacific to Native Americans to certain African and Asian tribal peoples. Yet, still, there are many who argue on behalf of Italy, Egypt, and others, that every single pot, every single stone, every single object, is “cultural heritage”, and should be returned. That no art, no artifact, should be allowed to be a commodity, at all; which brings us back to Fitz Gibbon’s argument about the great good so many dealers and collectors have done, and about how many dealers and collectors are in fact “good guys”, not to be lumped in with some shadowy stereotype of the black market antiquities dealer. There are a few, she says, who give the rest of us (them) a bad name, and who inspire the authorities and the law to react in ways which harm us all in wide blanket sort of ways.

To take just one, particularly appalling example, UNESCO and other organizations (Interpol? I’m not sure exactly who) have placed bans on objects leaving source countries, within certain specifications. So, when a crate of ancient Akkadian cylinder seals arrive at JFK, they are sent back to the Iraq Museum from which they were stolen. Good job. Yet, when the Afghanistan Museum in Kabul tries to send crateloads upon crateloads of objects to Switzerland, specifically in order to get them out of the country to keep them safe from the war, and these bans are blindly applied, the ancient, priceless objects get returned to Afghanistan where they are promptly smashed to bits by members of the Taliban. Yes, that apparently happened.

Because, as Fitz Gibbons quite rightfully pointed out, government is not always right when it comes to cultural heritage. Every government has political aims, and will use culture and history to further those goals. Every government has misconceptions and misunderstandings about these issues, especially as the vast majority of politicians and bureaucrats in any government are made up of political & economics experts, and not art, history, and cultural issues experts. Just because a government is the government of that country does not mean that they have the best interests of that country’s art and artifacts in mind, as evidenced by the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, and now of these cratefuls of ancient Mesopotamian artifacts. And while the Taliban may be one of the worst in these respects, that does not mean that we should trust or believe that the Italian, Turkish, and Egyptian governments (or, to be fair, for that matter, our own, here in the US, or in the UK, or wherever) are 100% in the right when they set cultural policy.

I have yet to read Fitz Gibbons’ book “Who Owns the Past?“, but am all the more eager to read it now. While I cannot presume that she, or I, or anyone, has all the answers – and perhaps these issues are indeed so complex that no single blanket solution, or no good solution at all, can ever be reached – it is wonderfully refreshing to hear a different opinion, a different argument, so eloquently elaborated. Maybe museums, dealers, and collectors are not the enemy after all. Maybe there are valid sections of the art market; maybe it’s not all illicit, and should not be seen that way. Maybe not everything should be considered “sacred” and “cultural heritage.” Maybe it’s okay to allow some things to be commodified, some things to flow more freely, while the proportion of things that might more truly be considered Treasures are protected.

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In skimming through a handful of snippets from the MFA Bulletin in search of more information on Kôjirô Tomita’s life and career, I just came across a description he gave of an exhibition held at the MFA in Nov-Dec 1953, of art treasures on loan from Japan.

I am not particularly familiar with the ins and outs and intricate details of the history of policies involving National Treasures and the loan or export of such objects, nor of all the issues, discussions, and controversy surrounding such matters today, but suffice it to say that I was amazed – truly, floored – at the objects included in this exhibition, knowing that under current policies, it is extremely extremely unlikely that any of these objects will ever be seen on exhibition overseas (i.e. here in the US). These are objects that can be found in any Japanese art history textbook; images with which any scholar or student of Japanese art would be familiar, and with which the vast majority of Japanese might also be expected to be familiar. These are the Mona Lisas of Japanese art – and while the Mona Lisa is on permanent display in a museum accessible to the public, outside of its home country (remember, Da Vinci was Italian; the Louvre is in France), the great majority of the most famous and most treasured Japanese works of art are held by Buddhist temples, who rarely if ever put them on display.

I fully understand and appreciate concerns about conservation issues, about the potential (the possibility is always there) for loss, should the airplane crash or some other disaster befall the artworks, … but without getting into it too much, suffice it to say that I get the distinct impression that all in all the Japanese government has in recent years or recent decades tightened up their restrictions on overseas loans to a far greater extent than is considered reasonable by many Western museum professionals (curators of Japanese art, etc.).

Shaka Nyorai, Jingô-ji

Yamagoshi Raigô (Descent of Amida Bodhisattva over the Mountains), Kômyô-ji

Chôjû-jinbutsu-giga, Kôzanji

Ban Dainagon Ekotoba, Idemitsu Museum (previously owned by the family of the daimyo of Obama domain.)

Kitano Tenjin Engi Emaki, Kitano Tenmangû

Portrait of Minamoto no Yoritomo, attri. Fujiwara no Takanobu, Jingô-ji

Raijin and Fûjin (Thunder God & Wind God), Tawaraya Sôtatsu, Kennin-ji

Cheers to those who were able to see this amazing exhibition in 1953. Or, perhaps, cheers to us in 2010, who can view all these objects right here, on the Internet, and who can more easily than ever travel to Japan, where we can see tons of other artworks, if not these particular ones.

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Through formal designations of “National Treasures” (国宝, kokuhou), “Important Cultural Properties” (重要文化財, juuyou bunkazai), and “Important Art Objects” (重要美術品, juuyou bijutsu-hin), the Japanese government has perhaps a tighter control over the canon of its art history than that of any other country.

This is one of several arguments made by Princeton University Professor of Art History Yoshiaki Shimizu in an article entitled “Japan in American Museums – But Which Japan?”, published in the March 2001 volume of the Art Bulletin. The article also includes an excellent survey of the history of post-war exhibitions of Japanese art in the US, and trends in the types of art shown, and in attitudes of American curators towards the subject.

Perhaps most intriguing, however, is his argument that the Japanese regard themselves in some ways the owners of all Japanese art objects, including those in museum collections abroad, particularly those of such historical or art historical significance that they would surely be designated National Treasures were they returned to Japan, where the Japanese government would have the jurisdiction to make such a designation. Shimizu extends upon this concept, contending that Japanese scholars (curators, conservators, etc) feel that foreigners are incapable of appreciating Japanese art as well as they themselves (the Japanese) do. According to this view, foreign scholars cannot understand Japanese art history as well as the Japanese; they cannot conserve or preserve or otherwise care for Japanese art as well as the Japanese can.

Shimizu cites the example of the first major Japanese art exhibition to travel to the US in the post-war period, explaining that the Japanese saw no need to send their finest works, believing that the ignorant gaijin wouldn’t know the difference, that they wouldn’t know a Kanô if it hit them in the head. They, however, did not account for the abilities of Sherman Lee, an American expert in Japanese art. This 1953 exhibit, entitled simply “Japanese Painting and Sculpture”, played a key role in establishing the canon of Japanese “masterpieces”, selected by Japanese scholars and government officials and confirmed by Sherman Lee. To this day, most surveys of Japanese art will use precisely the same examples of Japanese painting, sculpture, architecture, and ceramics.

This attitude can make it quite difficult to work with Japanese scholars and museums, particularly when it comes to negotiating loans. Japanese museums are quite reluctant to let any works of quality or significance leave the country, with negotiations being quite drawn-out, paperwork associated with loans or traveling exhibits quite extensive, and museums (or other collectors and owners of art, such as temples and shrines) very frequently denying loans on account of fears that the works might be damaged in transit. The Japanese can get quite paranoid and worked up about the idea of great examples of Japanese art leaving the country – an interesting attitude considering that Japan was never the victim of the kind of mass looting or colonial exploitation that so many other countries have suffered.

When a Kamakura period Buddha statue was sold this past March for an amount representing a new high record for any Japanese art object, rumors abounded that the anonymous buyer had plans to ship the statue out of the country. Judging from certain news articles, it was easy to imagine the Japanese having a collective panic attack over this. In fact, when it was revealed the statue was to stay in Japan, the official English version of the Asahi Shimbun report began with the words “The Japanese art world breathed a sigh of relief“. As if the prosperity, well-being, and honor of the entire country rested on this one, previously unknown, Buddha statue.

Returning to the point of this post, I would like to summarize the main points of Shimizu’s article through selected quotes.
*”Japanese artworks collected and displayed in museums of the United States have been, directly or indirectly, conditioned by the Japanese national policy towards its cultural patrimony…” Unlike what I imagine the case is for most fields of art history, when it comes to Japanese art, the government supports a strict system of periodization and classification; there is little room for scholars, particularly Western scholars, to re-analyze and re-structure the narrative of Japanese art history, to reassess which works are most significant and why, or how to best classify art by school, style, or type.
*”The Japanese implicitly claim ownership over artistic works abroad as part of their cultural patrimony.”
*”Concerning research and conservation of Japanese works of art in foreign countries, the Japanese … feel they are the ones who have to do these tasks for foreigners.” Yet, “one might ask whether Japanese expertise in Japanese art… is benefiting the non-Japanese audience abroad.” Japanese scholars believe that only they can appreciate, understand, and explain Japanese art properly, and that this cannot be trusted to foreigners; yet, not only do they publish almost exclusively in Japanese, giving no attention whatsoever to the idea that they would best educate the outside world by publishing in English, French, or German, but they also all but completely ignore foreign scholarship.

Even as they claim that only they understand and appreciate Japanese art, and that only they are qualified to represent (teach about) their art to the world, the Japanese fail utterly at working amicably with Western scholars to effectively share and educate. They refuse to recognize passion, interest, and expertise when they see it, and refuse to admit that any foreigner could ever properly understand or appreciate anything about Japan, even as they talk about the need to educate, to share, to improve American (or Western) perceptions of and knowledge about Japan.

These are all major serious problems I believe, and present for myself in particular a rather disheartening picture if I want to hold out any hope at all of ever obtaining a position at a Japanese museum.

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