Carlos PicÃ³n, curator of the Department of Greek and Roman Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sounds off against those who would rain on his parade (the opening, later this month, of the Museum’s new Greek and Roman galleries) ad nauseum in Den of Antiquity by Rebecca Mead in this week’s issue of The New Yorker (it’s not online, but there is a slideshow). Its provocatively promising title notwithstanding, the article is a slow wet kiss that gives PicÃ³n an open platform for trashing critics around the world who want to see what they call “cultural property” (i.e. antiquities) returned to “countries of origin” (i.e. the countries from whose earth they were dug up).
I’ve posted on this before here and here (and as an aside, Mead’s article confirms my report that Metropolitan trustee Shelby White is negotiating with Italy for the return of disputed objects in her collection). I am not at all one of the absolutists who feel that encyclopaedic museums should be emptied of their contents. But neither should they be enabled to roll over their opponents like tanks.
Over eight dense pages, PicÃ³n huffs, puffs and rages at those, archaeologists in particular, who dare ask the Museum to abide by both the letter and spirit of the 1970 UNESCO convention aimed at curtailing the illicit traffic in antiquities, calling them “deadly dull… demented” ignoramuses who “only care about the dirt.” In an astonishing lapse of even-handedness, the magazine gives those dirt-lovers but a single paragraph of un-equal time for response (to be fair, a lawyer for the town of Monteleone de Spoleto gets another two paragraphs to speak of its desire for the return of the Met’s great bronze Etruscan chariot).
Also, astonishingly, mugged by both museum and magazine: Dietrich von Bothmer, Picon’s retired predecessor, who is dismissed as didactic, despondent, frustrated and, according to museum director Philippe de Montebello, an “old-fashioned… rather boring” curator. A hero and Bronze Star-winner in World War II, and one of the great, if controversial, curators of his era, von Bothmer deserves better than to become collateral damage of the museum’s defensive war aganst archaeologists.