Met Museum Head Talks Art of Repatriation and Relevance | India News

It’s not easy running one of the world’s largest museums with more than 1.5 million works spanning 5,000 years. And certainly not easy amidst heightened scrutiny over looted objects and mounting pressure for repatriation. Max Hollein—who took charge of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met), New York as director in 2018 and CEO last July—knows this all too well. Fresh from signing an MoU with India’s Ministry of Culture, being “blown away” by the Sanchi Stupa, Jantar Mantar and the Kanheri Caves and ahead of delivering a lecture at the CSMVS on Friday, Hollein remained composed as he sat down for a chat about policing its art and artefacts with a problematic past, recent restitutions and keeping the museum relevant in an age of sensory overload.

What kind of collaborations do you foresee with the signing of the MoU with India’s culture ministry?
It marks a continuation of our close collaboration on multiple levels and reflects our mutual willingness to further expand on that partnership. We’ve done a number of important exhibitions on Indian art. We’ve run fellowship programs in India for a decade to train the next generation of conservators. The MoU signals our commitment to continue mounting important exhibitions at the Met, ideally ones that will have strong resonance in India and can also be exhibited in Indian institutions. We want to foster collaborations between institutions, bring more staff together and develop more fellowship programs focused on educational and cultural exchange.

The US government was reported to return over 1,400 artefacts to India last year, including 15 sculptures that were housed at the Met. What is the current status of the repatriation?
I’m unable to provide specific details on that. However, the works that we have restituted — sculptures (ranging from the 1st century BCE to the 11th century CE, and include terracotta, copper, and stone) were sold by Subhash Kapoor (Indian American art dealer currently serving a prison sentence in India for running a smuggling racket) — that were transferred to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and subsequently to the Indian Consulate in New York. They are no longer housed in the museum. The physical return of the objects is likely being coordinated between the Indian government and the District Attorney’s office, and probably involves logistics and the question of when someone from India is coming to pick them up.

Met is said to have returned several items to a variety of countries in the past year, including India. What is guiding the scrutiny and repatriation of ‘looted objects’ or those with a problematic past?
On one hand, we have a commitment to provenance research and transparency, leading to restitutions whenever we see that a work illegally left its country of origin. On the other hand, our process involves considering new evidence, such as seized dealer archives, which may provide additional information. It’s important to remember that we often were not the initial buyer or part of the transaction. Objects pass through many hands after leaving their country of origin. Our research includes examining information from source countries or the District Attorney in New York. Our repatriation efforts are reflected in several recent returns we have made, most recently to Nepal, Yemen, India, and Turkey. Our research on works from Cambodia and Thailand led the Museum to repatriate 16 Angkorian sculptures known to be associated with the disgraced dealer Douglas Latchford.


Please elaborate on the in-house ‘provenance research team’ that the Met set up last year to address questions about returns…
The Met has always had provenance researchers. What we’ve done now is further staffed the team with additional experts and a head of provenance research to ensure that the work is prioritised. In an institution as large as the Met, this allows for better coordination in terms of criteria and use of different tools. The researchers are also supported by different colleagues in the curatorial and legal departments. Our research examines each object diligently, considering factors such as when, how, and where it was created, who made it, and why, alongside the historical context of that time and place. We undertake independent research to examine a work’s ownership history and its care to determine whether the provenance meets relevant laws and guidelines and whether the artwork should remain in the museum’s collection.

How does the Met make its collections transparent?
One can freely search our entire collection online where we show gaps in provenance. It’s about providing as much information and being in touch with different entities and cultural ministries. The museum has revised its ‘collection management policy’ so that all loans of antiquities should have provenance dating back to 1970, the date of the UNESCO convention. In addition, an image and provenance information for all loans are made available online.

You recently expressed concern about nationalist sentiments overshadowing the mission of museums. How does the Met balance showcasing cultural heritage with its ethical responsibility to return stolen objects to their countries of origin?
It’s important for museums like the Met to showcase the world’s cultures and their confluence. We’re a private foundation and not a national museum with a nationalist agenda. If we discover an object was illegally exported from its source country, and we are not the rightful owner, we will return it. Simultaneously, we take pride in showcasing art from various cultures, such as India, that fosters dialogue and understanding. We are also setting examples of how complex provenance issues can be resolved. A New York collector recently brought together the biggest and the most important collection of over 140 Cycladic idols from Greece at his home that he wanted to give to the Met. We couldn’t accept it because it didn’t have proper provenance documentation. On the other hand there was no evidence that these were stolen. So, we drew up an agreement with the Greek government that Greece was lending the works from the collector to the Met for 25 years. It was also something that the Greek parliament voted on. The main progress for us was that the collection is made public and the ownership clarified. Our ability to find ethical and legal solutions is also evident in the recent return of two ancient stone works to Yemen that they felt wasn’t safe to transfer because of the ongoing civil war. Talks with Yemen led to a historic custodial agreement by which the Met will care for and display the objects until Yemen wishes to have them returned.

How does the Met, with 153 years of history, stay relevant to younger folks?
Indeed it’s a time of sensory overload when different media like newspapers, books, films and television channels are competing for attention but our average visitor stay has not changed since the Sixties. People still come to the museum for a different pace and mindset. The biggest challenge is to make sure that the museum is a place for people to come and learn about each other and our role in the world, especially in a time when you see elements of a divisive society, populism and nationalism. The Met isn’t a counterpoint but it has a different philosophy to stay universally relevant and radiate and disseminate way beyond its physical parameters.

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