A Talk With: Michael Conforti

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When I was up at the Clark a few weeks ago to check out their new Tadao Ando-designed building, I stopped in to talk with the Clark’s director Michael Conforti, who is also the new president of the Association of Art Museum Directors. In a big step to defuse the antiquities wars, the AAMD recently adopted new guidelines to govern the acquisition of antiquities.

The AAMD now accepts that 1970, the year of the UNESCO agreement on the transfer of cultural property, should be a bright line for museums in acquiring antiquities. If something can be proven to have been out of the ground before that year, and to have a lawful chain of ownership, it’s safe to acquire. But if something only emerged into the public record after that year, museums will usually be expected to establish that it was dug up earlier or that it was exported legally. Stress there on “usually” — exceptions will be allowed. In that connection, member museums also promise to post on the AAMD website full information about any new acquisitions of ancient material that have a hazy ownership history after 1970. As of this date the registry has nothing listed.

Conforti has been very active in the debate over how museums should operate in a world where the origins of a lot of ancient works are disputed by source nations that claim, often with good reason, that they were stolen from archeological digs. Last year, at the height of the Italian reclamation campaign, he organized an important meeting/peace conference in Rome between Italian cultural officials and representatives of American museums. I’ll put this conversation all in one post.

LACAYO: A few weeks ago the Archeological Institute of America (AIA) published a reply to the new AAMD guidelines on its website that was pretty positive. You must have found that encouraging.

CONFORTI: The AIA has taken a position that’s quite conciliatory and very much about the future. They question a couple of things.

LACAYO: One of those things is the fact that your group would still sometimes permit member museums to acquire important objects that have an incomplete provenance, rather than leave them out in the cold.

CONFORTI: The AAMD has chosen a route that could be seen as a license to collect, but I think it absolutely isn’t. It’s a way of making choices. You can accession a post-1970 thing by gift or purchase, but always with the obligation that you put it on the AAMD website so that the public knows about it. You do research on it, and a potential claimant country could use that research and make a claim.

LACAYO: All the same, the potentially suspicious object would still then be in the possession of the museum. Some people in the archeological world still think that’s a big loophole, that it will still allow museums to bring in looted material.

CONFORTI: I don’t think this encourages collecting of post-1970 objects. At very few institutions will a director recommend to his or her board of trustees that they spend money on an object that they suspect might be subject later to claims [by a source country]. With gifts, museums are taking less risk, because they’re gifts. But to make those objects available to the public and to potential claimants by means of these websites is better than doing nothing at all. But what do you do with these important objects that are out there because A, countries haven’t created licit markets, something we think it’s important for them to do, and because B, countries haven’t been able to secure their archeological sites?

LACAYO: All of your member museums will now adhere to these new rules, correct? Including places that had looser rules in the past?

CONFORTI: The members of AAMD have voted and that is the policy. And if you’re a member you’ve also made a commitment to put the provenance of objects on the AAMD maintained website, not only on your own website.

LACAYO: Museums are always arguing that source nations need to do more than just shut down illegal exports. They also have to help create conditions for a lawful — a licit — trade in antiquities. What do you think a licit market would look like?

CONFORTI: For example, a cultural ministry in say, Sicily, could decide that there was value to sharing certain objects that come out of Morgantina, a famous site there. That there is value in sharing and money to be gained, and that certain objects, once they’re excavated properly, once we know the context and all the documentation is done, are allowed to go into the marketplace for the benefit of that cultural ministry or the archeological site.

The fact that the Euro-American world has now has recognized 1970 as a cut off point, and the fact that archeologists are very pleased about our move, also allows us to begin talking about cooperative ventures in a way they we would not be able to do in the past. What could those be? One would be joint excavations with source nations that allow long term loans to the museums of partner nations, a sort of partage.

Once things settle down and confidence begins to build, once you have examples of reasonably successful sharing between source nations and nations with museums seeking objects, people will see there is something to be gained. I’m quite sure it will happen. It’s just a question of time.