A Talk With: Philippe de Montebello

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Over the past few months I’ve been having a series of conversations with museum directors about the controversies over “cultural property” and the demands by nations like Greece, Italy and Egypt that museums in the U.S. and elsewhere return treasured antiquities. I sat down recently with Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. As you already know, in response to demands from the Italian Minister of Culture Francesco Rutelli, the Met agreed last year to return 20 artifacts to Italy, including the prized Euphronios krater.

As I usually do, I’ll divide the excerpts from that conversation into a couple of posts.

LACAYO: The Met’s acquisitions policy is updated from time to time. The last update was in September, 2004. Your museum’s policy now is that it will not acquire any object that cannot be shown to have been out of its country of origin for at least ten years. Have you considered further changes as a consequence of your dealings last year with Mr. Rutelli?

DE MONTEBELLO: There haven’t been changes and [the current policy] has been extremely effective, since it is the policy that also applies to the Association of Art Museum Directors. Acquisitions of antiquities on the part of American museums have fallen to almost zero. Out of a sense of new ethical standards and a not inconsequential fiduciary responsibility — they don’t want to make an acquisition that is likely to be subject to claims — most museums have imposed on themselves standards that, as a matter of praxis, are even more stringent than ten years. And so it’s been very effective on one level —  if you take pleasure in the fact that antiquities are practically no longer entering American collections.

LACAYO: Should the Met have gone about things differently when it made acquisitions in the past?

DE MONTEBELLO: I don’t know, should Enrico Dandolo not have taken the horses of San Marco [from Constantinople] in 1204? Everybody lives according to the norms, the ethics and the behavioral patterns of their own day. Retrospective judgments aren’t very useful. There was a laissez-faire attitude then that there isn’t today. Times change. And the good thing about museums is that they evolve, they respond to societal and other pressures. One is alert to the world around us. It’s a different world.

LACAYO: Rutelli has made it plain that he’s not interested in pursuing objects that came into the U.S., say, more than a century ago. For that reason, for instance he’s not supporting the claim that the Italian town of Monteleone is trying to press for the return of the Etruscan chariot in your own collection.

DE MONTEBELLO: He’s very embarassed by that claim. Because it undermines what he considers to be legitimate claims. It’s completely frivolous and long antedates any Italian laws.

LACAYO: All the same, some nations, like Greece and Egypt, are still demanding the return of objects taken in the 19th century, long before their own cultural property laws were adopted.

DE MONTEBELLO: There are rhetorical claims everywhere.

LACAYO: Do you think demands of that kind can ever be valid?

DE MONTEBELLO: They are rhetorical claims. They have no basis in anything except home consumption in politics and pronounced nationalism. I am not one of these people who believes in re-writing history. Where do you stop? At what point then is Turkey going to return the Alexander Sarcophagus to Sidon in Lebanon? In the 19th century it was brought from Sidon when Lebanon was part of the Ottoman empire. Where do you stop? On what grounds should you return and not return?

I never see a questioner asking “Isn’t there value to these objects having been in the western museums, having been studied?” When Layard from England and Botta from France went to Mesopotamia, got the great winged horses and brought them back to the Louvre and to the British Museum, to describe the local attitude towards these pieces as indifferent would be generous, because most of them were being quarried to build local buildings and so forth. The whole history of Egyptology comes out of Dominique-Vivant Denon and the expeditions of Napoleon in Egypt, again at a time when there was less local interest in the subject. One has to consider the repayment in knowledge that these objects have given and that these institutions and nations have given.