November 17, 1997
Volume 50, No. 13
Changing rules affect museum acquisitions, says Hirschel
Citing a range of challenges in both ethics and mission, Carlos Museum Director Anthony Hirschel gave a lecture at Oxford Nov. 3 titled "The Education of the Eye and the Heart."
Hirschel spoke as part of this semester's Oxford Studies program and its theme, "Value and Meaning: The Liberal Education." Nearly 75 students and faculty packed into a room in the Oxford Student Center to see Hirschel's lecture and slide show.
University museums have a dual responsibility, Hirschel said, to their surrounding academic environment and to the community as a whole. "This can create a certain amount of tension. People have different ideas about what kinds of programs are suitable for the general public as opposed to academic audiences. If we're successful, we find that programs work in both contexts, but we have to work hard to make that happen."
Most museums' missions will contain the words "acquire, preserve, exhibit and interpret," Hirschel explained. Each of the four terms carries its own set of challenges.
Using the example of ancient Greek works currently residing in British collections, Hirschel said museum associations worldwide are signing accords to make determinations about collecting works that have been illegally excavated or illegally removed from their country of origin. While the British have a right to keep these Greek works, which were acquired in the early 19th century when the Turks ruled Greece, other, more recent deals are much more suspect.
For instance, Hirschel said, if the Carlos Museum bought a pre-Columbian artifact from Mexico that was illegally removed from that country, "it would make it very difficult for students from Emory to go and do research in Mexico. We now need to be very careful about the legality of these things."
Even within the United States, with the passage of the Native American Grades, Protection and Repatriation Act, museums are obligated to inform Native American tribes of any holdings they possess from those cultures. The tribe then has a right to come and look at the works.
"Then it gets very sticky," Hirschel said. "If it is an object that was never supposed to leave the tribe, and they say they want it back, do we give it back? Sometimes there are several different people who set themselves up as representatives of the same tribe, and you don't know which one of them would get it even if you're preprared to hand it over. So it's a very complicated issue."
Addressing the issue of conservation, Hirschel said museums are forced to make choices and compromises every day about the best way to preserve both the physical health and artistic intent of great works. He showed a slide of an African work that traditionally was to be oiled every day. "Do we still oil them in museums, keep them nice and sticky like this? No," he said. "Are we violating their original ritual intent by failing to do so? Yes."
Hirschel related an incident in which photographer Sally Mann sent an intimate photograph of her and her husband for an exhibition the museum was doing on loving couples. "Are we going to put it up and people just have to accept it?" Hirschel said. "Do we put it up with a cover over it, saying, 'Lift this if you dare?'
Ultimately, he said, they decided to politely thank Mann and not show the photograph. She was disappointed but understood the decision. "We did think about putting a cover over it with some sort of warning note, and we decided ultimately that wasn't fair to the work because it made it pornography, even if it wasn't."
In exhibitions, Hirschel lamented the fact that museums now are expected put on marquee shows to draw big corporate sponsors, using the example of the Picasso show currently at the High Museum of Art. "It's wonderful to have all those Picassos here, but having created this thirst for blockbusters once a year, the High Museum is now in a cycle where they cannot escape-if they want to keep their members, they have to keep feeding them something that seems like an event. It's not just good art; it's an event."
Museums should begin to move away from the task of interpreting works for the public, of portraying themselves as the sole arbiter of taste and quality, Hirschel said. "We've begun to sign our labels because that way it's a single person talking-it's an opinion. It's no longer, 'This is the truth about this object.'
"We in the museum business traditionally have only allowed visitors to see what we decide is important and beautiful. We don't tell you what else we have. Even the poorest county library has a catalogue; the librarian might make a suggestion, but ultimately you decide what you want to read. In museums, you don't have that choice; you 'read' what we tell you to read."
However, as multimedia technology becomes more advanced and accessible, museums will be able to offer access to works online to "whet the appetite" for the real museum experience. The Carlos Museum offers a touch-screen virtual tour of its works onsite, and some of the multimedia is available through the museum's website at www.emory.edu/CARLOS/.