Loot or Museums in New Worlds and Old

Recently, two excellent Minneapolis Institute of Arts docents guided my writing class from Metro State through a “City and Country” tour, with an added stop in the African rooms. I’ve followed this practice of taking writing students to the MIA for years, partly because many of them have never visited this astonishing treasure in our midst and because it’s a break from the rather bare walls of the classroom. After the tour, the students must write a description of a work of art that particularly intrigues them.

I wasn’t with the class during this year’s tour because I was in Italy, visiting another order of museums entirely. Museums like Ferrara’s Schifanoia, which was a palace decorated for the pleasure of the Este family, to relieve them of boredom with ranks of frescoes depicting court life and the “decades” of the zodiac, meaning every month divided into three “ten’s” or decades, with a representative image for each “decade.” Or the city’s archaeological museum with the two Roman piroques I’ve described in an earlier blog. Or a convent with its own set of frescoes, badly damaged by water seepage, but still curious and interesting.

What does one do, in the middle of a prairie and river city, in the wilds of the “New World” to bring the world’s art into your midst? As I understand it, the MIA was founded around private collections, and still benefits from the extraordinary generosity of individuals who donate either funds or art itself to the museum. I’ve never studied the means of this acquisition, though from time to time, I’ve read about collectors, and am currently writing a novel based on the lives of Libby and James Jackson Jarves. He acquired Italian “gold-ground,” late medieval paintings for almost a song in the middle of the nineteenth century. Often he bought these works from former religious houses destroyed by Napoleon or from aristocratic families fallen on hard times whose chapels were destroyed.

This year, my Metro State writing class contains students from around the world: Laos, the Sudan, Liberia, Nigeria, Kenya, even Greece by way of North Africa. Not to mention Minnesota or Wisconsin-born students with their own sets of attitudes and experiences. It’s quite exciting to work with such students. The class’s visit to the African wing meant to elicit their questions about the purpose of what we call art, and along the way to raise their awareness or at least concern about how we acquire art.

Of course much Western art was initially intended for religious purposes. Fra Angelico, for instance, was a priest whose radiant images of the Madonna or Christ or other figures from his life continue to evoke devotion when one visits the monastery of San Marco in Florence. Yet over the centuries some of his work has become detached from its original religious purpose and now hangs in museums. We Westernized Christians who frequent museums have become used to this. But when my students from Africa encountered objects which had spiritual significance in their original countries, they were disturbed. They used the term “loot,” implying that the images were stolen or taken without permission from the people who made them.

The docents explained that many American museums return works from Native American and African people if they discover that works have been stolen or sold to middlemen during wars and other violence. Likewise, the attitudes of colonialism and racism have led explorers and other “visitors” to “lift” statues and other objects from communities these visitors considered “primitive” which is another word for ignorant, superstitious. In the name of science, such “looting” occured for the purpose of study and the advancement of knowledge.

Yet, when my students from African confront us in the United States with their concern, the goal of advancing science rings hollow. I relate the bits of information I have about Native American tribes petitioning institutions like the Smithsonian in Washington for the return of sacred objects as well as the bones of their ancestors, brought into the museum more than a century ago during what we casually call the Indian wars. Yes, restitution for past errors is going on.

My students’ concern reminds me of the distance we frequent museum goers have traveled from one kind of devotion to another. It’s not a mistake that, for someone like me, museums evoke spiritual awe–at the range of human devotion, the beauty or compelling strangeness of religious objects, and overall, the astonishing creativity of humankind. Yes, visiting the MIA, I feel linked to an impulse toward reverence, appreciation for natural beauty, and the need to portray what is morally troubling–impulses that travel the world. But objects from other cultures cannot have for me the intense meaning they evoke in those who actually bow down and worship them. Placing such objects in museums may preserve them, may spread their essence wider, but it inevitably denatures them. And for people who know firsthand the religious power of these objects, seeing them out of their natural context is, indeed, troubling, even shocking. Something inside them shouts, “This is wrong.” Unless they are told the entire story of how these objects made their way into the museum, they will probably continue to feel this way.

Thus, our visit to the museum sends education in many directions: my students continue to teach me not to treat what I see in American museums as “given,” but to ask how these works got there. It’s a huge question which cannot be answered all at once because the answer is different for every object.

At least becoming more sensitive makes me aware of the question

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