Sponsored by: Archaeological Institute of America
This lecture will offer a new way of thinking about the tensions between those who wish to own the past and those who wish to learn from its remains. Many U.S. museums continue to collect in restricted areas such as classical antiquity; and even those that have ceased to do so, in belated acceptance of the terms of the 1970 UNESCO convention, shudder at the prospect of forfeiting antiquities acquired between then and now. I argue that these attitudes can undermine their educational missions if they prompt museums to withhold key information about the objects’ history from the public. Equally harmful to museums’ educational goals is the desire to preserve their aura of authority and infallibility. Mistakes and uncertainty are central to the practice of historical interpretation, but very few gallery labels acknowledge shifting or competing views, over-restorations, forgery, or the connection between an object’s looting and our ignorance of its ancient context. This lecture will discuss the histories and gallery labels of a number of classical antiquities currently on display in major U.S. art museums, and teach audiences how to detect instances of omission, half-truth, and even deliberate obfuscation. The lecture will close by considering best practices and presenting examples from a handful of museums that have successfully applied them in their classical galleries.