Speaking of Museums…

This Saturday is Museum Day in the United States. You can get free admission to participating museums by downloading a free admission card. If you’ve ever been curious about the National Museum of Dentistry or are brave enough to try the Atomic Testing Museum, now’s your chance! Seriously, there are some very interesting museums on the list, and if your local museum is not on it, go anyway and show your support for the preservation of culture and knowledge in your area.

via @IHahn

Treasures and Two British Museums

It was with great excitement that I finally made it to the British Museum exhibit at the Royal British Columbia Museum. Treasures: The World’s Cultures from the British Museum is a diverse collection of objects from every continent representing numerous cultures from prehistory to the present day. It’s been here since May but I cleverly managed to put off going until the last fortnight of the exhibition. I’ve made two trips now and thought I would share the bookish highlights. (As always, click images to find larger versions.)

Starting in the Egypt room there was a funerary papyrus sheet from The Book of the Dead. It would have been entombed with the mummy and contained incantations to assist the deceased in the afterlife. You have to admire a culture that provided the dead with reading material!

BM 21893The highlight for me was definitely the cuneiform tablets. I’m sure I saw scads of them when my parents took me to the BM as a child, but I have forgotten them. After reading up on Mesopotamia last year I was really looking forward to seeing some again. The first tablet dedicates a new temple to Nininsina. The writing is large, even, and very legible (assuming one can read Old Babylonian).

Next was a compact tablet which turned out to be a letter from king of Egypt to the king of Babylon, kindly requesting tribute (“send more gold!”).

Contrast those with the somewhat larger, crowded, but precise tablet from the magnificent library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh. This one is a medical text, part of a treatise on treating coughs (very topical in light of the H1N1 flu that is already sweeping the Island). The British Museum describes the writing as “very close but clear and neat Assyrian character,” and indeed the cuts look as sharp as if they were made yesterday, not 2500–3000 years ago. The image below is roughly life size, so it gives you an idea of how small and detailed the writing is.

BM K.71.b

That was the sum total of the literature displayed, apart from some pages from illuminated Islamic texts, which I can’t find pictures for (perhaps because they depict living beings which is controversial in Islam). Literature was also represented in stone by two magnificent classical busts of Euripides and Marcus Aurelius. That was it, though. Not a single scroll or book from the last 2500 years. Perhaps they are all at the British Library? Here’s hoping they start a road show too!

I also wanted to post a couple of the drawings from the exhibit. There was a mini-gallery of drawings and prints from the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, and two of them really stood out to me. The first is a chalk drawing of Saint Francis by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). I think the composition is very effective and I’m impressed by the confidence of the strokes. It’s hard to spot any restatements—every line is where it is supposed to be.

Rubens: St. Francis (BM Oo,9.27)

Another chalk drawing that caught my eye is of a woman drying her foot, by Auguste Renoir (1841–1919). You can see that Renoir repositioned her left hand and perhaps her right foot, but otherwise it is a masterful drawing. I think the natural subject makes it especially beautiful. In a way it is a foil to the Rubens—one forms an angular triangle facing upwards, towards higher things, the other forms a softened triangle facing downwards, engaged in a humble task. They don’t have much in common but I love them both.

Renoir: Woman drying her foot (BM 1968,0210.23)

Bookworms Crash Online Heritage Library

When Stefanie at So Many Books first posted about Europeana, the European Union’s new online heritage library, I virtually ran rather than walked over to the website. Unfortunately, so did every other bookworm, history buff, art lover and cultural aficionado in the Western hemisphere, and we crashed the servers. I mean hard. They were getting up to 15 million hits per hour. Who says people aren’t interested in culture and heritage any more? The site is still down but they plan to be back in a couple of weeks. You can get a full update at the New York Times.

via So Many Books

The Rape of Europa

PBS recently aired a riveting documentary called The Rape of Europa, about the theft of artworks by the Nazis during World War II. I knew before that the Nazis had stolen art from the countries they conquered, but I didn’t realize it was on such a massive scale. It is estimated that 20% of all Western art was taken away by the Nazis during the war. That’s more than the collections of the Louvre, the British Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum combined. Most of it was soon recovered by the Allies, but there are still 100,000 pieces known to be missing. The real number of stolen artworks may be even greater but those who might claim them were also taken away and never heard from again.

It started with the Anschluss, and the looting of art galleries owned by Jews in Vienna. “Looting” isn’t exactly the right word, though. These were carefully planned and organized bureaucratic operations. They had shopping lists, and they maintained an air of legitimacy by declaring that property without owners could be confiscated by the government. Of course we all know what happened to the owners.

Poland was hit particularly hard because, as a Slavic nation, it was slated for complete annihilation. Warsaw was systematically levelled, but not before half a million books and works of art were taken away, many of which have not been returned. When the Nazis reached Paris they found the Louvre empty, and they didn’t want to antagonize the French by searching for the state art collection, so they concentrated again on Jewish art galleries, and sent boxcar after boxcar full of precious artworks back to Germany.

The scale of the plunder in Russia, another Slavic land, is mind boggling. Although the Russians made heroic attempts to evacuate the Hermitage and other museums, they lacked time, and over a million works of art were taken. To add insult to injury, historic sites were destroyed during the German retreat, including Tolstoy’s home, the Pushkin estate, and the Tchaikovsky museum. The Russians later retaliated by taking German artworks, which they still retain as a sort of compensation for the loss of life and heritage caused by a war they didn’t start.

The purpose of all this plunder was mainly to fulfill Hitler’s grandiose vision of creating the greatest art museum in the world. He wanted to turn his home town of Linz into a world arts center, with theatres, libraries, numerous art galleries, and, of course, his mausoleum. Only “pure” art would be allowed; no “degenerate” modern art, or art by Jews, Slavs, or other “inferior” peoples. It wasn’t just Hitler, though. All of the Nazi elite were involved and built up their own vast personal collections as well.

One of the heroes of this tale is French art historian Rose Valland. She was the curator of the Jeu de Paume museum, which became the holding point for artworks being taken to Germany. Unbeknownst to the Nazi officials in charge of transporting the artworks, Valland understood German, and so she heard where the works had come from and where they were going. Every night she wrote down, from memory, everything she had heard. She passed information to the French Resistance so they could avoid blowing up any trains that were carrying art. After the war her records were instrumental in recovering stolen artworks, and she received many honours from her nation and even received a medal from West Germany.

Rose Valland

If you missed The Rape of Europa, there are quite a lot of related resources online and in print. You can view the film’s trailer at the main website. The filmmakers have also created an educational website which presents a great deal of information and multimedia content on the major themes of the film. The companion book, Rescuing Da Vinci, has its own website, and there is also a website that looks specifically at the role of the Monuments Men, American servicemen whose job it was to protect and repatriate art and architecture during and after the war. The book that inspired the film was The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War, by Lynn Nicholas.

Anselm Kiefer: The Secret Life of Plants

Anselm Kiefer: The Secret Life of Plants (2001)

Blood on Paper is a new book art exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. A new edition of The Secret Life of Plants (2001) by Anselm Kiefer, seen above, was commission to be the main piece of the show, but unfortunately I can’t find a photo of it. Another variation on this theme can be seen here. If you can’t make it to London, you can see a number of works from the exhibition online, and also browse through the V&A’s collection of over 100 “artists books.” Enjoy!

via Book Patrol

British Army and British Museum Team Up to Protect Iraqi Heritage, Sort Of

The Art Newspaper and The Guardian are reporting that the British Army and the British Museum are getting together to document and restore “iconic” archaeological sites and collections in Iraq. This seems fitting since Britain has a long history of pillaging collecting artifacts from Iraq (such as the golden goat posted yesterday), but it also seems like too little too late. According to the articles, the Brits have yet to consult with Iraqi officials (perhaps this is also traditional?) and they don’t plan on actually guarding any sites to prevent further looting (???).

Part of their plan is to help restore small regional museums so that collections that were moved to Baghdad for safe-keeping (?) can move back home. Certainly it’s good for people to have access to their cultural heritage wherever they live, but it seems a bit premature. The national museum has only just partially re-opened and things are still in such a state that customs officials who confiscate looted items can be murdered on the outskirts of Baghdad.

Considering that British Museum is chockablock with priceless Mesopotamian artifacts, it seems only right that they stay and protect the sites they discovered from the chaos they helped create. But this project is being called their “legacy,” which says to me that they just want to make a few noble gestures before running out the door. Such a shame.

via Awilum

Stolen Mesopotamian Antiquities Starting to Resurface

I’ve reported a couple of times on the mass looting of Mesopotamian artifacts that took place after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It seems that thanks to government rewards, some of the tens of thousands of missing pieces are trickling back to their home in the National Museum of Iraq.

Piece by priceless piece, artefact by ancient artefact, Iraq is slowly recovering its Mesopotamian treasures looted by bandits, militiamen and soldiers after Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.

An Iraqi government official says lured by offers of rewards, Iraqis are increasingly handing in an assortment of cups, vases, statuettes, daggers, plates and coins dating back to the very cradle of civilisation.

“We had 594 pieces returned this week alone,” Abdul Zahra al-Talaqani, media director in the ministry of culture, tourism and antiquities, said in his office in Baghdad’s tightly-protected Green Zone.

“Each day we get more and more.” [more…]

Returned Mesopotamian artifacts So far the museum has recovered about 4000 of its 15,000 missing items, but there are another 17,000 items recorded missing from archaeological sites, and an untold number of unrecorded items that have been dug up from the countryside.

The director of the museum, Donny George, had to leave the country because of death threats, and before he left he had the museum sealed with bricks and concrete. Now the acting director, Amira Emiran, has decided that it’s time to re-open the museum, albeit in a limited way. Only two of the 18 galleries will be opened, and they will contain only items that are too heavy to be stolen. It’s hard for people to value their heritage if they are never exposed to it, so this is probably a good move if they can keep the museum secure.

Iraq’s looted past slowing [sic] being returned

Reopening of looted museum signals a calmer Baghdad

via Moderato

More on Archaeological Looting in Iraq

Thanks to the exeptionally cultured Moderato for this:

In a long and devastating appraisal to be published in December, Lebanese archaeologist Joanne Farchakh says that armies of looters have not spared “one metre of these Sumerian capitals that have been buried under the sand for thousands of years.

“They systematically destroyed the remains of this civilisation in their tireless search for sellable artefacts: ancient cities, covering an estimated surface area of 20 square kilometres, which – if properly excavated – could have provided extensive new information concerning the development of the human race.

“Humankind is losing its past for a cuneiform tablet or a sculpture or piece of jewellery that the dealer buys and pays for in cash in a country devastated by war. Humankind is losing its history for the pleasure of private collectors living safely in their luxurious houses and ordering specific objects for their collection.”

Some officials are trying to stop the looting, but the cost is extreme:

Last year, Dr Hamdani’s antiquities department received notice from the local authorities, approving the creation of mud-brick factories in areas surrounding Sumerian archaeological sites. But it quickly became apparent that the factory owners intended to buy the land from the Iraqi government because it covered several Sumerian capitals and other archaeological sites. The new landlord would “dig” the archaeological site, dissolve the “old mud brick” to form the new one for the market and sell the unearthed finds to antiquity traders.

Dr Hamdani bravely refused to sign the dossier. Ms Farchakh says: “His rejection had rapid consequences. The religious parties controlling Nassariyah sent the police to see him with orders to jail him on corruption charges. He was imprisoned for three months, awaiting trial. The State Board of Antiquities and Heritage defended him during his trial, as did his powerful tribe. He was released and regained his position. The mud-brick factories are ‘frozen projects’, but reports have surfaced of a similar strategy being employed in other cities and in nearby archaeological sites such as the Aqarakouf Ziggarat near Baghdad. For how long can Iraqi archaeologists maintain order? This is a question only Iraqi politicians affiliated to the different religious parties can answer, since they approve these projects.”

Police efforts to break the power of the looters, now with a well-organised support structure helped by tribal leaders, have proved lethal. In 2005, the Iraqi customs arrested – with the help of Western troops – several antiquities dealers in the town of Al Fajr, near Nasseriyah. They seized hundreds of artefacts and decided to take them to the museum in Baghdad. It was a fatal mistake.

The convoy was stopped a few miles from Baghdad, eight of the customs agents were murdered, and their bodies burnt and left to rot in the desert. The artefacts disappeared. “It was a clear message from the antiquities dealers to the world,” Ms Farchakh says.

—Robert Fisk, “It is the death of history” [The Independent]