About Sunny Cherkea

Sunny Cherkea earned a BA from Northern Arizona University and went on to earn two Masters Degrees—in Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Bristol and in Museum Studies at New York University. She is presently a PhD student in the Anthropology Department at Stanford University focusing on archaeology and researching sustainable development initiatives for archaeological site museums and the preservation of cultural heritage.

Repatriation Effects: Greece’s National Archaeological Museum

In the Galleries:

While we all revile the looting of archaeological sites and the illicit trade of artifacts, we can now begin to review the effects of the repatriation of ancient material back to the countries of origin. Here I am not referring to Native American remains, but the statues and vases created by the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean. Recently, I visited the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece, which has seen financial and public relations troubles partly due to the national economic crisis. Here, I saw the 2007 repatriated kore from the J.P. Getty Museum standing amongst other statues without any bells or whistles describing its sordid history. Also on display was a bronze athlete, repatriated in 2002, propped in its own corner. I believe that the return of these objects reflect legal and ethical principles, which absolutely must be upheld.

While the national discourse in Greece regarding ancient cultural heritage is strong in its attempts to lure in tourism, I question how the everyday Greek citizen feels toward their ancient heritage. There seems to be a prevalent sense of a general disregard and annoyance bordering on anger regarding the material remains of the past. Rather than culture, most Greeks are focused on making ends meet and finding jobs as well as putting their children through school and hoping that they also will be able to find jobs. Whether or not they visit the multi-million euro, new Acropolis museum if they can afford the entrance fee is one thing, but another is the expense the country has born in order to fight for the repatriation of artifacts on the international stage (ex. The Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum).

In 2010, Greece proposed an MOU with the United States, requesting help to end the international trade in illicit antiquities (CPAC’s decision has still not been made public). Now, reports of further looting are circulating and what little funds that the government has left is being funneled into paying museum and site guards during the summer tourist season as well as other public employees who are still waiting for months and months of back pay. Greece is in an unfortunate position and I do not want to hastily simplify the complicated situation. However, I feel inclined to ask, if the preservation of heritage should be higher on the list of issues to worry about. If this is so, can or should heritage be used to bring about solidarity and social cohesion? Can heritage bring the hope that seems to be in short supply during these trying times in this most magnificent nation?

Photos taken by author July 8, 2011:

Accession #15464: Kore repatriated in 2007 from J.P. Getty Museum. Parian ca. 530 B.C. – Pictures of the specific object are not allowed, but you can attempt to discern which one it is from this gallery view.

Accession #X26087: Classicizing Roman bronze statue of an athlete of unknown provenance confiscated in Germany in 1998 and returned in 2002.

Responses to Natural (and human-made) Disasters

It is no surprise that we are quick to react to the destruction of cultural heritage. With the growth of the heritage industry, the public has taken on the responsibility of cleaning up the mess: our own and that of Mother Nature.

In addition to SAFE’s public awareness campaign to highlight the destruction caused by the earthquakes in Haiti, other organizations have participated with assessment and initiatives focused on cultural recovery such as the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield led by Corine Wegener. Recently, IMLS released a statement that paintings in Haiti are restorable, according to conservators participating in the Haitian Cultural Recovery Project.

Our reaction to the oil spill in the Gulf is still in the organizational stages or so it seems. There has been a call to the archaeological community by the Department of Interior for help to clean up and protect sites. The National Park Service (NPS) deployed personnel “to prepare for and respond to oil impacts along the Gulf Coast.” The U.S. National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (US/ICOMOS) created an interactive map highlighting heritage sites at risk.

Other public statements focus on the protection of prehistoric sites like the shell middens along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Finally, the Associated Press started asking questions about the possible damage to shipwrecks and “whether BP will be held responsible for ruining underwater sites.”

While response to protect human, plant, and animal life comes first, I hope action to preserve cultural sites and to mitigate damage will immediately follow.

Image: National Park Service, produced by Cultural Resources GIS, 11 June 2010.

Oil in the Wake

Since April 20, 2010 the world has been reeling from the shock of a massive disaster. Not a natural one, but one inflicted upon us by our own greed and desire to satisfy our way of life and need for petroleum. This disastrous oil spill was caused by British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that sank after exploding.

President Obama has been vocal about his interest in addressing efforts to clean up the mess. Additionally, the press has splashed the controversy across the headlines. We at SAFE wonder what steps have been taken to protect the archaeological heritage of the Gulf region?

The National Park Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior is responsible for reacting to this threat to our cultural resources. According to a fact sheet, issued on their website, eight National Parks are threatened by the oil spill. While the oil slick grows daily according to updated maps, many of the parks remain open to the public even though health concerns abound. The NPS response is to undertake an assessment of the potential threat. Is there more we can do to protect our shorelines and underwater cultural heritage? Do you have the answer?

A recent New York Times article focuses on the consequences the spill has on the tourist economy of Florida along with their campaign to lure scuba divers to visit the state. Nothing is mentioned about the possible damage to or initiatives for the protection of shipwrecks. Maps are tracking oil sightings and the effects on the wildlife, but there is no mention of possible damage to cultural sites.

This is the beginning of a SAFE initiative to research the efforts for the protection and preservation of the cultural heritage sites in the Gulf. We hope to promote awareness about the issue and encourage your support.

Soon to come are a Flickr campaign to post photos of sites, responses from archaeologists and cultural resource specialists, and updates on measures undertaken.

Let’s protect these sites before they are destroyed in the wake of this disaster.

Photograph by Sean Gardner, Reuters

Ethics in the Museum?

A great topic to be discussing in this day and age! With the Metropolitan Museum of Art reviewing its policies and museum associations like the American Association of Museums drafting new guidelines, ethics in the museum should be discussed.

The Institute of Museum Ethics has announced the 1st Biennial Graduate Student Conference: “New Directions in Museum Ethics.” The event will be held on November 14, 2009 at Seton Hall University. Visit the website to register!

Your Opinion about Antiquities

Greetings! I am a New York University Graduate student in the Program in Museum Studies requesting your participation in a unique survey conducted as research for my Master’s thesis. The survey should take less than 15 minutes and is completely anonymous. Your participation could affect the understanding of public perceptions of museum collecting practices and the display of antiquities. Are you aware of the issues or hold museums accountable for their acquisition policies?

Please take your time to answer each question honestly and thoughtfully. The following link will take you to the survey, “Informing Audiences: Public Perceptions of Illicit Antiquities.”

The results will be posted on my NYU web blog or possibly published as an article at a later date.

If you have any questions or would like to know more, please feel free to e-mail Cherkea_Howery@yahoo.com

Thank you for your participation and remember your opinion matters!

Cherkea Howery, NYU Museum Studies

Using the AAMD Object Registry

After almost a year of inactivity on the Object Registry of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), it seems that a few more pieces have finally been added. Recently posted are acquisitions of sculptures from China, Mexico, and India by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These are the first additions since the Portland Art Museum presented its Indian sculpture from the 11th century on the site.

Olmec sculpture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008.637

It was on June 4, 2008 that the registry was uploaded for public use thanks to initiatives of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. At that time, the AAMD published a new report on the Acquisition of Archaeological Materials and Ancient Art. The policy was reworked as a response to the “financial and reputational harm” experienced by museums being forced to return objects. These guidelines recognize the 1970 UNESCO Convention as the threshold for future antiquities acquisitions. However, neither the guidelines nor the registry are tailored to review existing collections, which is part of the American Association of Museums (AAM) Standards regarding Archaeological Material and Ancient Art published in July 2008.

Please feel free to browse and share this information as well as look into the provenance of these objects.

The Scars of War

While time does not heal all wounds, it offers the possibility for reflection and recovery. On May 28, the New York City Bar Association called on archaeologists, lawyers, and all interested parties to gather in the halls of the House of the Association in mid-town Manhattan to discuss, “The Art of War: The Protection of Cultural Property in War and Peace.” Moderated by Lucille A. Roussin, the speakers included Donny George, former Director General of the Iraq Museum and now a visiting Professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook; Corine Wegener, President of the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield; and Colonel Matthew Bogdanos of the U.S. Marine Corps who headed the investigation into the looting of the Iraq Museum.

Dr. Donny George discussed the constitution and law of antiquities of Iraq while lamenting over the destruction caused not just by Sunni and Shiite factions, but also by attempts to increase tourism. Corine Wegener reflected on the 1954 Hague Convention that was finally ratified by the U.S. Senate on September 25, 2008. Last, Colonel Bogdanos captivated the audience with his description of the investigation into the looting of the museum and subsequent recovery of the artifacts. He explained the amnesty offered to those who would return pieces as well as his opinions about what happened, how, and why. All is explained in his book, “Thieves of Baghdad,” also reviewed on SAFEcorner, a must-read for everyone because everyone needs to be aware of what can happen if we do not work together to protect our history.

Interesting questions arose in the discussion including: why did this happen? However, I am more interested in finding out how we can prevent such destruction in the future. I also am interested in remarks made about the U.S. not having a Department of Culture like many other countries throughout the world. Is there a place for such a government-funded organization? Furthermore, could you imagine the jobs this would provide?

I hope that many who listened to these speakers are inspired to get involved, especially with organizations like SAFE whose mission is to increase public awareness about protecting our past. The looting of archaeological sites in Iraq continues despite the recovery of some of the collections and the re-opening of the Iraq Museum. Some wounds are healing, but there are still scars left.


Exhibition Review: "Worshiping Women"

Worshiping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens launched in December 2008 at the Onassis Cultural Center is an exhibition composed primarily of loans from foreign institutions and museums and will be open until May 9, 2009. The introductory plaque at the beginning of the exhibition informs us that “religious rituals defined women.” The visitor is led through galleries focusing on priesthood, the cycle of life, festivals, heroines, and goddesses. Each section looks at the imagery on vases, marble stelai, or statues in order to reveal insights into the world of Classical Athenian women. Particularly intriguing is the realization of how much money it would have cost to ship these priceless artifacts from their museums to mid-town Manhattan. Loans from the British Museum, the Louvre, Italy, Berlin, and Boston among other locations fill the cases in addition to loans from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Organization is credited to the Onassis Public Benefit Foundation in collaboration with the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, curated by Dr. Nikolaos Kaltsas and Dr. Alan Shapiro.
The exhibition is remarkable because of the opportunity to see these notable pieces of history. The display, however, remains entrenched in the traditional art gallery format. Labels describe what you see while larger wall texts reveal the coherent themes for each section. Unfortunately, the exhibition does not do justice to the importance of archaeological contexts. Few sites are specifically discussed, except for the most famous: the Akropolis in Athens and the sanctuary of Demeter at Eleusis. This allows for only a few cases in which related objects are brought together in assemblages. A few dense groupings of mixed media represent artifacts found in known contexts. For most objects, however, contexts remain unknown.
The great benefit of preserved archaeological context is illustrated by the case of the grave stele (cat. no. 87) found at Rhamnous in 1892, just below the temple terrace. This funerary monument is now in the collection of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens (Γ 2309). On its label, it is observed that “the find-spot of the grave relief strongly suggests that the representation is that of the priestess of Nemesis.” What insight is made possible from preserved archaeological context! Imagine if each piece and pot in the exhibition preserved this level of information instead of bearing labels that read: “provenance unknown” or “said to be from. . .” Despite a broad attempt to inform us about provenience, the exhibition does not emphasize or explain the importance of what archaeological context can tell us about the use and meaning of objects in the ancient past.

As a graduate student in Museum Studies, I wish that the exhibition would have informed us about the state of fragmentation of the conserved artifacts and pottery displayed. Multiple breaks and missing fragments attest to the destruction of objects caused by clandestine excavations and their subsequent illegal export. I imagine that visitors, too, might wonder about the state of preservation of these objects on display. To be sure, some labels do reference that objects were acquired through confiscation within Greece. Several pieces from the National Archaeological Museum in Athens bear labels that read: “acquired by confiscation” or “confiscated from Zoumboulakis in 1938” (NAM 16346 and NAM 17297 respectively). This adds a whole new and important dimension to the display. It shows that Greece has been pro-active in protecting its cultural heritage. It does seem like a lost opportunity, however, not to have provided further information about the circumstances of the recovery of these objects. The general public would have benefited from learning about ongoing efforts to combat the illicit antiquities market.

Somewhat disturbing is one design choice in the exhibition in which two objects are treated as interior decorative elements rather than as material culture from a past and complex society. Two Hellenistic funerary columns, the sacred and lasting memorials through which the lives of priestesses—Habryllis and Mneso— were commemorated, have been built into faux-architectural columns within the exhibition space. (Cat. Nos. 82 and 83, NAM Γ 1727 and EM 11144) This looks more like a decorator’s trick from an Upper East Side townhouse than an appropriate display for what are, after all, funerary memorials commemorating actual lives lived.

The success of the exhibition manifests the importance of giving audiences access to extraordinary objects from the past. Comments such as, “It looks contemporary, it’s fascinating!” could be heard reverberating throughout the gallery on the days I visited. Broad public interest in ancient Greek women and religion was peaked just a few years ago with the publication of Joan Breton Connelly’s book, Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece, winner of the Archaeological Institute of America’s James Wiseman Book Prize and added to the New York Times Book Review list of “Notable Books of 2007.” Connelly was approached by the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and spent a term there as a Visiting Fellow in Anthropology to undertake a feasibility study for turning her book into a traveling exhibition. In preparation for her show on Greek Priestesses, which had been anticipated for 2011-12, Connelly taught a course at New York University in the spring semester of 2008. I was lucky enough to be a student in the seminar: “The Lost History of Greek Priestesses: Curating an Exhibition.” Nineteen graduate and undergraduate students were encouraged to implement innovative ideas to create contextual galleries tracking the female experience of Greek ritual from childhood, through maidenhood, to maturity and death. Special galleries focused on women in the theater and on the Delphic Oracle, all placing women and priestesses in their full social and cultural contexts. Students labored with the hope that their work would find culmination in a future exhibition at the Field Museum of Natural History, one that would travel to venues on the East and West coasts and on to Greece. A museum of Natural History would have provided an ideal setting for a show that emphasized the human narrative of Greek ritual as well as the archaeological and anthropological contexts that inform us about it. Unfortunately for the students in our class, “Worshiping Women” has preempted the “Greek Priestesses” exhibition, duplicating much of the checklist of objects gathered in Portrait of a Priestess. While this has put our class show in jeopardy, one can only hope that one day the pieces will be allowed to travel again for the kind of exhibition designed in our seminar.

As a student from the class, I have an intimate knowledge of the works, their meaning, and how they have strengthened our understanding of the lives of women. Looking at the exhibition “Worshiping Women,” and its traditional art historical display, I cannot help but wonder what the impact of these pieces might have been had they been shown through an anthropological lens, focusing on the human narrative of their ancient contexts and meanings. Artifacts with known context, like the Rhamnous stele, provide insight, but the provenience of most other pieces is lost to us, in many cases forcing an object to remain just another pretty pot.

In the Limelight: Female figurines and provenance

Applause must be gathered for a small exhibition at The Brooklyn Museum. Hosted by the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, The Fertile Goddess prominently focuses on the topic of provenance as a format for discussion. One wonders why the curators made such bold statements about the museum’s collections. Perhaps this was allowed because of the unique position of the Sackler Center as an institution functioning simultaneously within and beyond the confines of the museum’s hierarchy. This space in the Brooklyn Museum, known as the “Herstory” gallery, explores the guests of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party with The Fertile Goddess on view until May 31, 2009.

The didactic text that amazed me is set as a prominent wall panel placed in the center of the exhibition. It discusses the acquisition of collections “through archaeological excavations, as gifts or loans, or by purchase.” For example, the Halaf figurine on display was purchased from a dealer. Its provenance is unknown and its reconstruction is also questioned. The plaque recognizes partage and later retention by countries of origin while relating information about the current collections policy. “Brooklyn Museum curators now check an object’s history to determine if its acquisition follows international, U.S., and country-of-origin laws and professional ethics codes before a purchase or the acceptance of a gift.” This is an amazingly bold statement by a U.S. art museum revealing the new era we live in where past behaviors are unacceptable.
Read more. . .

The curators, Maura Reilly and Madeleine Cody, also explain that provenance is “guessed at by comparison with excavated examples.” For some scholars, this is still an acceptable form of identification. However, the panel asserts that “such an archaeological context can provide essential evidence for authenticity, function, and dating that cannot be determined from the object alone.” More art museums need to realize that too much is lost when objects are ripped from the ground and they are forced to compensate by searching in the dark for answers. Of the nine figures on view, only two were scientifically excavated. New feminist re-examinations of these figurines challenge earlier interpretations, suggesting that they depict ancient women as active subjects who may have held the reins of power. This is shown in the work presented by scholars, Ellen Belcher and Diana Craig Patch, during a panel discussion on March 14, 2009. Also discussed was the possibility of false reconstructions as well as the fakes and forgeries that saturate the market.

Within the exhibition, the visitor’s agency for interpretation is expressed by asking, “Who is she?” The objects may be talisman, ritual or magical objects, votive offerings, the embodiment of a cultural ideal of the female form, or images of goddesses. By involving their audience, the curators provide an option for the visitor to interpret history for themselves.


Art or Artifact? An opinion of “Beyond Babylon”

A brief review of the exhibition, Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C. at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Special Exhibitions: Beyond Babylon) allowed this author to reflect on current practices of exhibiting ancient artifacts. (A more comprehensive exhibition review was undertaken by Archaeology Magazine Editor Eti Bonn-Muller: ARCHAEOLOGY: The Art of Foreign Influence).

Participating institutions as well as foreign Ministries of Culture provided artifacts for display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA). Lebanon, Greece, and Egypt among many other source countries were an integral part of the exhibition. Loans from Turkey suggest good relations with the country after the 1993 return of the Lydian hoard. However, a large amount of loans also came from Western museums in France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In each case, the source of the loan was documented on labels and plaques highlighting their contributions, also acknowledged in the glossy exhibition catalogue.
Read more. . .

In the extensive publication, the MMA included entries of objects that are not on display. Apparently, the Syrian government was very cooperative with the museum; however, their loans were not processed because it was “too difficult and risky” as suggested on a plaque fixed to the wall near the entrance. Initially, I thought this was posted as an admonishment by the museum of legislative restrictions and current politics. After further research, I discovered this curious addition refers to the 2008 amendment of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) regarding the immunity of seizure for temporary loans further discussed in the AIA Statement on Attachment of Cultural Objects. It seems as though the MMA is admirably following established legal codes.

Within the gallery, the visitor is struck by an issue all too familiar in the fabrication of exhibitions, that some of the objects lack details about provenance. It is always remarkable to see that the funders’ or lenders’ names are displayed without fail. However, the visitor is not always presented with information regarding the history of where and how an object was found and came to be displayed. Didactic plaques claim certain objects originated in ‘suggested’ contexts based on stylistic criteria or are “said to have come from” somewhere. Further information is omitted, which, in all actuality, may not be known by either the collectors or the museums that possess the pieces. For an exhibition like this, provenance is an important aspect because of the desire to relate the object to the archaeological context in order to express the variety of cultures exhibited. A large section comprised of objects discovered from the Uluburun shipwreck shows that information is possible when a legitimate excavation occurs. We know exactly what was dredged up from the sea, where it laid in the ships hull, and the associated artifacts. Additionally, this information is widely published and publicly available.

The contextual information that is available from legitimate excavations is outlined in the exhibition catalogue. According to Philippe de Montebello in the Foreword, “The rich resources of the museums of western Europe, whose pioneering archaeological work in many of these lands has been rewarded with a division of the finds, have also ensured that we are able to present as full a picture as possible. . .” This statement is problematic for several reasons. It is a shame that the “most significant works” are found outside of their countries of origin, but a bigger shame that contexts have been lost by collectors who ripped treasures from the ground. The sordid origins of archaeology and the glories of partage have been duly noted in other publications. Scholars argue that the restitution of historically looted artifacts is not the primary issue, but instead that looting of archaeological sites today is the major problem. I agree, but also feel that amends still need to be made and congratulations should not be so heartily issued to institutions that pioneered the rape of the past.

Overall, Beyond Babylon emphasizes the good relations between the MMA and its bed-fellows in order to organize this blockbuster exhibition. Similarly, Babylon: Myth and Reality is on display at the British Museum, attesting to the current interest in the subject and archaeology. The extent of material is admirable as well as the small fortune invested to organize and logistically realize the exhibition. However, visitors should be better equipped to ask tough questions about current issues. The audience should emerge from the exhibition wondering what is going on in the here-and-now at the sites highlighted. Excavations are taking place beyond the 1980s discovery of the Uluburun shipwreck and are only fleetingly alluded to, for example, the 2002 excavation of the Royal Palace of Qatna (Tell Mishrifeh). The introductory text offers good explanations of the various chambers of the tomb, while mounted photographs and a slide video replace the display of objects from the site.

Others more experienced with the subject matter than I would be better suited to point out the missing pieces and inconsistencies. I would be happy to entertain other comments and critiques. For one engaged in battling the crisis of the illicit antiquities trade and the looting of archaeological sites, it is a highly motivating exhibition that represents how artifacts are still displayed as art. However, this exhibition can also represent the future of museums where loans are issued for temporary exhibitions rather than continuing to support the acquisition of illicit objects.