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Imran Syed: Hoarding history

BY IMRAN SYED

Published November 1, 2009

The University’s Kelsey Museum of Archeology was the site of a ribbon-cutting ceremony Sunday to commemorate the museum’s recently completed expansion. According to AnnArbor.com, the expansion was funded by an $8.5 million donation from the late Edwin and Mary Meader, and the National Endowment for Humanities also gave $200,000.

The expansion was much needed, given that the museum was originally built nearly 120 years ago and had just 1,000 square feet of gallery space — enough to squeeze in only about 300 artifacts. The new 20,000-square-foot addition to the museum will have about 1,500 artifacts on public display.

Most of these artifacts are ancient treasures either excavated by University archeologists in the early 1900s or acquired indirectly through dealers and donors. The museum’s website gives details on just about every one of the University led major excavations, which have resulted in a collection of more than 100,000 artifacts. But even with the expansion, the museum will be able to display only about 1.5 percent of its massive collection. The rest will remain in locked storage.

I’m startled by that reality, but perhaps I shouldn’t be: It’s nothing new in our society for wealth to be dubiously concentrated among the elite few. The Kelsey Museum is just one of hundreds of museums across the world that hoard priceless cultural artifacts in storage. These treasures deserve to be displayed, but get displaced because they are redundant or conventionally uninteresting to the museum.

The University might have the right to hold these surplus artifacts in closed storage. After all, it was the efforts of University archeologists that unearthed the objects in the first place. And academic institutions also have ancient artifacts for research purposes. You never know when any one of those 100,000 pieces may be needed by researchers in a hurry, and it’s good to have them all on hand.

I don’t necessarily disagree with any of those arguments. Rather, I simply want to point out and encourage consideration of the opposing argument.

Most of the major excavations that brought those artifacts to Ann Arbor happened before the modernization of antiquity laws across the world. That was a time when archeologists could walk into a foreign country and leave with extracted artifacts without any violation of law. Egypt — with leaders who were concerned more about appeasing the West than about protecting their own — was famous for actually giving away artifacts.

During that golden age, University archeologists made significant finds in places like Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt and Iraq. Expeditions to Karanis, Egypt proved especially fruitful — the museum’s website indicates that almost 45,000 Karanis objects arrived in Ann Arbor between 1926 and 1936. Another 13,000 objects were brought over from another particularly fruitful site, Seleucia-on-the-Tigris (now in Iraq).

But as that age passed, society began to realize that nations, no matter how primitive their democracies, had some right of ownership over objects extracted from their soil. After that, institutions had to be more careful and acquire artifacts only from reputable dealers.

Restrictions and attitudes have evolved further. While they could once plead ignorance, institutions today bear some responsibility for actually investigating the history of the works they acquire to make sure they were not smuggled or stolen.

There’s no reason to assume that the University has ever broken the rules. On the contrary, its researchers have generally done a great benefit to society by unearthing and investigating artifacts that tell tales of lost civilizations. But there’s a little more it could do.

Instead of holding precious cultural artifacts in storage, why not circulate them among museums in areas of the world that are not so saturated with priceless, displayable artifacts? Or better yet, why not conditionally return these artifacts to the countries from which they were taken? I think it’s a safe assumption that many of the 100,000 artifacts in storage will never be needed by a researcher. But if one ever is, the University will know exactly where it is and will have an agreement in place to get it back.

Some might argue that the artifacts should not go back because places like Iraq and Egypt cannot be trusted to secure them. How ironic that such a patronizing defense is used to protect possessions acquired in the time of blinded colonialist advances, which left these nations compromised in the first place.

I certainly don’t advocate returning artifacts to war-torn, unstable countries. At its discretion, the University would be welcome to withhold those pieces it believes might be damaged or lost if returned. I argue only that some effort be made to recognize that people once took what wasn’t theirs, and the fact that it was then legal does not make the action right.

Imran Syed can be reached at galad@umich.edu.


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