Global networks: objects and the people that care about them

Amidst COVID-19 travel restrictions and a return to cloud-covered skies and irregular rainfalls (reality check: the northern hemisphere is drifting alarmingly quickly into Autumn – where did Summer go?), I thought I’d begin this post by reflecting for a moment on sunny Italian skies… but more specifically the day our cohort attended the L’Arte Di Salvare L’Arte exhibition in Rome as part of the 2019 ARCA postgraduate certificate programme on Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection. The L’Arte Di Salveare L’Arte exhibition provides the perfect springboard for discussing the benefits of working together, of universal cohesion, in cases of art crime.

Figure 1: The 14th Century Franciscan Boccarini cloister where lectures and the Amelia Conference took place, June 2019.

ARCA and L’Arte Di Salvare L’Arte

As the theme of today’s blog-post revolves around the importance of cross-cultural exchange, I thought I’d begin by providing a brief summary of the postgraduate certificate on Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection. The programme was an intensive twelve-courses that spanned three of the hottest months in Italy. Classes took place in the 14th Century Franciscan Boccarini cloister (or Biblioteca Comunale Luciano Lama) and, following Italian custom, were structured around the mid-afternoon siesta. Thus students attended lectures from 10:30am to 1pm, and then again from 3pm to 5:30pm, Monday to Friday (and the occasional Saturday).

The 10th summer interdisciplinary Art Crime Conference, also known as ‘the Amelia Conference’, took place during the semester on the 21st of June. This event aimed to facilitate a critical appraisal of art crimes and in doing so brought together researchers and academics, police, and individuals from many of the allied professions that interact with the art and antiquities markets. The conference presented the perfect opportunity for students to hear from and interact with some of the most innovative minds in the field.

During the term three group excursions took place. One of which was to visit the L’Arte Di Slavare L’Arte exhibition at the Quirinal Palace in Rome. The trip occurred on the 5th of June. Students travelled by taxi into the bustling metropolis to view the collection of repatriated goods, those most recently salvaged by the Carabinieri of the Department for the Protection of Cultural Heritage (TPC). The cohort were fortunate enough to witness some of the most significant works recovered by the Carabinieri, including the Euphronios krater (stolen in the ‘70s from one of Cerveteri’s necropolises); the only complete Capitoline Triad (stolen from the Tenuta dell’Inviolata in 1992); the Il giardiniere by Vincent Van Gogh (stolen in 1998 from the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome); and a pair of fourth century marble griffins (stolen from the tomb of Ascoli Satriano in 1976).

Over the last 50 years the Carabinieri Task Force has recovered about 3 million finds, a significant number. However this was only achieved with the help of a growing global network. The L’Arte Di Slavare L’Arte exhibition highlighted the power of international cooperation and indicates that success can really only be achieved with universal acknowledgement, support and response.

Figure 2: The Capitoline Triad, he L’Arte Di Slavare L’Arte exhibition at the Quirinal Palace in Rome, June 2019.

The University of Manchester: a case study

In a similar vein, Irit Narkiss and Mark Furness from the Museum of Manchester and John Iris Library reflected upon their experience of art crime in the Gilding & Decorative Surfaces Group Symposium: Devotional Objects at the Little Ship Club in London on 6th of March 2020. The talk focussed on how cultural heritage institutions respond to claims of repatriation/restitution, and the consequences of their actions.

A delegation of Traditional Owners from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Straits Studies (AIATSIS) have been working with the Manchester Museum, part of The University of Manchester, on a project that has the scope to facilitate the return of cultural heritage back to Country. Funded by the Australian Government to mark the 250th anniversary of Cook’s first voyage to the East Coast of Australia, the project not only involved initial secondary source research of institutional holdings but was also followed up with the targeted investigation of online collections and direct contact with community stakeholders.

By developing conversations around the future of their collections and, critically, taking action, the Museum of Manchester leads by personal, professional and sectoral example. ‘Repatriation is not about what is lost but about what is gained’[1]. Narkiss and Furness refined their ‘First Pass’ collections report during custodian meetings on Country, promoting cross-cultural collaboration and revitalisation. This dialogue has since led to specific reacquisitions being made.

Repatriation is by no means an easy process and the work currently being implemented at the Museum of Manchester not only addresses unrequited colonialism, which promotes healing and reconciliation, but draws attention to the lasting impact/post-colonial trauma of art crime. The University of Manchester has since identified and plan to return 43 secret sacred and/or ceremonial objects to the Aranda, Gangalidda Garawa, Nyamal, and Yawuru peoples[2].

In conservation the principles and ethics resulting from a science-based agenda, inspired by universal values inherited from the Enlightenment, incites detachment from object biographies. As conservators we remove, obscure or bring to the fore specific elements relating to the tangible with often less consideration of the intangible. I believe that how we as individuals treat objects is reflective of the discipline as a whole. With the Manchester Museum example it was the act of bringing those secret sacred objects back to Country that was most important and necessary for cultural revitalisation. The act unlocked the objects’ lore, history, tradition and story and in turn highlights the art of value. Objects don’t have needs; they only have the needs of the people that care about them.

Reflecting on cohesion: objects and the people that care about them

It is impossible to remain isolated and introspective within such a fast-paced environment. Art, antiques and antiquities are exchanged, trafficked and smuggled daily with or without the stakeholder’s knowledge. I suppose one of the reasons I was so inspired to broach the topic of universality is because of the BREXIT negotiations currently taking place. In a world that is fast becoming more insulated and nationalistic there’s no time like the present to integrate frameworks that proactively endorse the protection of our shared cultural heritage.

Figure 3: Inside the Pantheon, Rome, July 2019.

Whilst science is politically attractive the Arts are not. Contingent valuation questionnaires regarding the economics of cultural heritage have surfaced to provide proof that growing awareness around cultural policy exists but there is a need for comprehensive groups to unite and, ideally, challenge the existing model[3]. The discussion point: fragmentary dialogue concerning art crime requires better interdisciplinary cohesion, came up again and again during Amelia’s Art Crime Conference last year.

Training modules like ARCA’s postgraduate certificate programme and allocating funding towards specific research endeavours, such as the Trafficking Culture (https://traffickingculture.org/), has and will continue to generate vital interest on an international scale.

I’ve come to understand that communities look to us for advice and leadership in the arena of cultural heritage protection because we hold positions of immediate and unparalleled power. And in this position we can choose whether or not to implement the necessary growth and change in the way heritage, art and antiquities are understood, respected and valued. The conservation lab/studio is not a neutral space and we can no longer pretend that what we do to objects doesn’t ‘count’ as part of that object’s biography. Objects don’t have needs; they only have the needs of the people that care about them.


Disclaimer: this article is intended for educational purposes, and does not purport to provide legal advice. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.

[1] Institute of Conservation (ICON) (2020), ‘The return of cultural heritage project: what does it take to unconditionally repatriate?’ in Gilding & Decorative Surfaces Group Symposium: Devotional Objects, Little Ship Club, 6th of March 2020.

[2] Institute of Conservation (ICON) (2020), ‘The return of cultural heritage project: what does it take to unconditionally repatriate?’ in Gilding & Decorative Surfaces Group Symposium: Devotional Objects, Little Ship Club, 6th of March 2020.

[3] Mourato Mazzanti (2002), ‘Economic Valuation of Cultural Heritage: Evidence and Prospects’ in Assessing the Values of Cultural Heritage, Marta de la Torre (Ed.), The Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, p. 52