Lost and Found

Harvard's museums negotiate what artifacts they rightfully hold and should put on display

By Abby L. Noyes, Crimson Staff Writer

It was 1924, and the art historian Langdon Warner was face to face with a work of breathtaking proportions. The adventurer who would later help inspire Indiana Jones couldn't take his eyes off of the Tang dynasty murals painted upon the walls of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, China. They were so dazzling that “there was nothing to do but to gasp,” he later wrote in his book “The Long Old Road in China.”

But Warner would do more than just admire the painted caves. After making the appropriate arrangements to remove some of the murals in an effort to preserve them, he used a special chemical solution to peel the frescoes from the cave walls. But to his horror, the solution froze before the removal process was complete, damaging the frescoes and leaving marks on the site itself.

With a dozen murals in tow, Warner returned to Cambridge, Mass., where he had graduated from Harvard College in 1903 and now taught Chinese art. Today, nearly 90 years later, the murals remain in the collection of the Harvard Art Museums, and until the closure of the Fogg in 2008 for renovation, they had never been taken off exhibition to the public.

But back in China, Warner's acquistion caused outrage. The murals he removed are still considered stolen goods in China, and Warner is viewed by some as a thief—plaques in the museum at Dunhuang even designate him as such.

Warner's acquisitions raise questions about the way prominent museums currently acquire, hold, and display art. These questions are no less relevant for Harvard's museums, whose collections contain pieces from across the globe and throughout history. Such diverse holdings make it necessary to ethically determine who has custody over works of art and negotiate the point at which an item transcends being a piece of art and becomes an exploited piece of culture.

A section of the murals in the Mogao Caves depicts a military victory. Harvard art historian Langdon Warner controversially removed murals from the caves and brought them to Harvard, where they remain today.

Custody Battle

Although the murals have temporarily removed from display, there is no plan to send the wall paintings back to Dunhuang any time soon despite the controversy surrounding them, according to Melissa A. Moy, associate curator of Chinese art at the Harvard Art Museums.

Moy says the issue is much more complicated than some make it out to be. “It [was] such a different time, and it's hard to look back at it really with a 21st-century lens and really have that full understanding of everything,” Moy says. “I can say in my years here there have been one or two letters that we have received from people who visited Dunhuang who are outraged by the fact that Harvard has these things and are demanding them back. But all we can do is try to explain the circumstances and explain that Dunhuang themselves have not asked for it back.”

The fact that Dunhuang museum officials have not requested the return of these murals even further complicates the argument that they should be returned. “If there is a legitimately contested object that one could prove was stolen, then of course we would proceed in taking the steps to return it to its rightful owner,” Moy says. However, she does not believe this to be the case with the Dunhuang murals.

“I tend to want to think of it like, ‘Well, there were good intentions,’” she says. “[Warner] went about asking for permission. He actually paid for some of these things… and it was sort of accepted at that time because there wasn't a national widespread appreciation for the caves yet. And he was seeing a lot of natural damage and man-made damage that was happening.” Now that they are at Harvard Art Museums, Moy says, these pieces are well protected and preserved.

This 10th-century Mogao Caves painting shows monastery architecture.

However, while these murals were technically bought, the Chinese view the purchase in a much harsher light. Daniel N. T. Yue '16, a Crimson design executive, got a view very different from Moy's during his 2013 trip to China. “[In Dunhuang] there's not much debate. It's pretty clear that it's theft to them and that [the mural] should be returned,” Yue says.

Moy understands the some of such outrage. “I think what makes it hard is that one can see the obvious scars of the work he did [in Dunhuang].” Stark white gaps in the colorful Dunhuang wall paintings serve as a continued reminder of Warner's removals, which some view as an example of looting by imperialist powers.

Though Moy does not condone Warner's methods for removal, she believes that the purpose of his mission has been unfairly demonized, regardless of the damage it caused. “It was really an effort to try and promote the study of a very glorious art tradition that wasn't well understood yet,” she says. “It was kind of ironically a preservation act.”

Courtesy of Daniel N. T. Yue

Tang Dynasty Murals

Click on any image for a larger view

Fit To Travel

Even with policies like the UNESCO agreement in place, there are still other issues that museums must consider when dealing with the accession or the repatriation of pieces. Primary among these is protecting the piece from harm. “Any antiquity that is, say, buried in the ground and gets dug up is removed from a stable environment into an unstable environment,” says Joseph A. Greene, deputy director and curator at the Semitic Museum.

Moving pieces once they are in a museum is also risky, as is the case with the murals from the Mogao Caves. “They are very fragile, and it was a very experimental process that [Warner] tried to remove those things,” Moy says. The chemicals Warner used, along with the nature of the murals, have made even considering the return or even the loan of them impossible.

One of the Benin Bronzes, which depicts a warrior flanked by two shieldbearers, in the British Museum. These were taken from Nigeria in 1897 during a punitive exhibition, and have largely remained in the British Museum despite calls for repatriation.

However, Moy says that she does want to collaborate with Dunhuang scholars, noting that in 2009-10, the Harvard Yenching Institute sponsored a researcher from the Dunhuang Research Academy, who studied the Tang Dynasty frescoes. “They recognize that we have them here,” Moy says. “And there is a certain acknowledgement that this is not something that anyone here would ever do today, but it was a different world back then.”

Another concern often raised when discussing repatriation is the fitness of the source country's institutions. Some scholars view increased international collaboration as a solution to the issue. Theresa E. Sims, a Ph.D. student in art history at Harvard, brings up the example of the Benin Bronzes, a collection of hundreds of ornately figured metal plaques taken from Nigeria in a 1897 punitive expedition by the British. Though the British Museum has sold some of these works back to Nigeria, they have kept the bulk of their collection despite calls for repatriation.

Other Benin Bronzes in the British Museum's collection. Though some of these works have been sold back to Nigeria, many remain in London.

“[One] argument that [has] been made about the Benin Bronzes and other pieces of artwork that are in Western institutions is that Nigeria doesn't have the resources to take care of them properly as they should, and the British Museum sees itself as this custodian of world culture,” Sims says.

But the British Museum is not the only institution to possess these bronzes—a 2012 donation of Western African art made to the Museum of Fine Arts included a number of works stripped from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin during the 1897 invasion. The Peabody holds some of these bronze plaques in its collection as well.

Moving forward, Sims would like there to be a greater effort to improve foreign art facilities. “I would be interested in seeing more of an interest on the part of Western museums in ways that they can collaborate with institutions of the continent [of Africa] so that it's not just like a black-and-white, ‘Well, we have the resources, so we're just going to keep the art because these African institutions just can't handle it.’”

Behind The Masks

Whether a museum holds a bill of sale or believes itself to be serving as protectors, there might still be some moral implications to consider in the display of some pieces. The displaying of African masks, for example, presents a much deeper ethical issue than a legal question of who technically owns the piece. “There's a lot of scholarly debate about the problem associated with taking something like a mask out of its original context and putting it into a museum. Especially because masquerades generally do have a more spiritual significance,” Sims says.

The displaying of masks in museums as merely pieces of art or culture poses potential problems within the source societies at large, even if one member of the society was willing to sell or donate the mask. At Harvard, the Peabody Museum has a collection of such masks, many of which were purchased by George Harley. “Their sale to him was something that was very fraught,” Sims says. “He had to buy them from people in secret because it was a real taboo within the community to sell these things.”

These masks are not currently on display at the Peabody Museum for space reasons; however, Sims asserts that museums should take this latter reason into consideration more. “With particular types of masks that are customarily not meant to be seen outside of a ritual context or that or that have those kinds of attributes attached to them, I would be more wary about displaying that in a museum.”

One of the Liberian masks in the Peabody's collection. Though currently not on display, the existence of such ritual items in the museum's collection brings up questions about what is culturally sensitive to exhibit. Courtesy of the Peabody Museum.

Giving Back

In 1990, the United States passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, disallowing the display of certain Native American cultural items and requiring all institutions receiving government funding to return items that were classified as human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or cultural patrimony.

“The [Peabody] Museum has repatriated in all of those [NAGPRA] categories,” says Patricia Capone, curator and repatriation coordinator at the Peabody. According to Capone, the museum has returned hundreds of items. “The law dictates what is returned and what isn't… Harvard has given a great deal of support to implementation, and the university is in compliance with the act,” Capone says. “As a university museum, we try to be as well informed as we can.”

In 2001, the Peabody Museum repatriated a totem pole to Cape Fox in southeast Alaska. This pole had been taken from an empty Tlingit village in Cape Fox in 1899. A year before the totem pole was returned, the museum was given a red cedar trunk and commissioned Nathan Jackson, a traditional Tlingit artist, to craft a totem pole out of it. Now this newly constructed totem pole, named Kaats' and Brown Bear Totem Pole, stands in the Peabody, replacing the original totem pole that resides again in Cape Fox. To the museum, the totem pole is a representation of an ongoing friendship between the Peabody and the Tlingit people.

“Kaats' and Brown Bear Totem Pole” was carved from a red cedar trunk by traditional Tlingit artist Nathan Jackson. The totem pole, which now stands in Harvard's Peabody Museum, was commissioned to replace a pole that was repatriated to the Tlingit people in Cape Fox.

Tiana A. Abdulmassih, Crimson Photographer

Work To Be Done

But while NAGPRA has resulted in the return of the totem pole and other cultural items that scholars may declare unethical to display, it may not be enough.

“There is no global convention that parallels NAGPRA in terms of the display, control of, and repatriation of these kinds of items,” Greene says. The UNESCO agreement addresses only illegally exported items, not items of cultural sensitivity. But, Greene adds, “Individual countries might in fact adopt these kinds of procedures. There's a particular sensitivity to the display of mummies and mummy remains in Egypt. Museums that actually have mummified remains that have displayed them have actually drawn back from that, I think in deference to Egyptian sensibilities.”

In time, an agreement similar to NAGPRA may be proposed to define an international code for ethical possession and display. But at the moment, no such law is in place, and museum directors and curators are left to make their best judgment calls.

But the obligation to return objects to their places of origin must also be weighed against the positive aspects of the museum environment. “I think that the purpose of an art museum is to allow people encounters with objects that are informed by the scholarship that happens in a museum,” says Sarah Kianovsky, curator of the collection in the division of modern and contemporary art at the Harvard Art Museums. “Rather than encountering an object without any context or without information, visitors to a museum get to take advantage of the accumulated scholarship of centuries of art historians and museum curators.” Balancing this with the duty to respect the communities from which these pieces are acquired is an ongoing challenge for curators.

“We have the responsibility to care for [our pieces] and make sure they don't suffer any further damage and that we maintain them and preserve them and teach with them and make them available the best that we can,” Moy says. “So I can only say [this]confidently about my institution, but I know that we do a good job of that.”

—Staff writer Abby L. Noyes can be reached at abby.noyes@thecrimson.com.

Mural photo courtesy of Daniel N. T. Yue. Mask photo courtesy of the Peabody Museum. All other photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise credited.