This book has been on my to-be-read shelf since July of 2011 and I can’t believe I waited this long to read it! I will never forget my first Anthropology class in undergrad and the professor going off on a tangent about the looting of the museums after the fall of Saddam Hussein. It pretty much guaranteed I would be an Anthropology major. (I later switched to cultural anthropology and focused on gender in the media, but still the people were awesome!) The intrigue, the drama, the affairs and the crimes, it could be a spy novel if it were fiction and not fact! This book will count as a bonus book for my 2013 Mount TBR Reading Challenge.
What’s important to note is that this book is not academic, Waxman wrote the book for a general audience and in this she succeeds. There are very few things that would go above someone’s head who doesn’t have a degree or a heavy interest in Ancient History, Anthropology, Archaeology or Art History. She, or her editors, appear to have been very aware of this and kept to the journalistic research intent of the book.
However, this also work against her and ultimately I felt the entire purpose of writing the book got lost. Someone on Goodreads tagged the book as ‘ending goes south’ and that’s an apt description. Waxman keeps building the crescendo and it gets to a point where you just want her to tell you what happens. And then she reminds you that all of this is still happening and things are still changing rapidly totally dampens the bang that could’ve ended the book.
I don’t remember exactly how many year’s research went into the book, but it must’ve been quite a few. Waxman travelled to three continents and spoke with museum curators, looters and antiquities experts all over the world. Although her passion for antiquities came out the book felt more about her journalist skills and flexing those muscles rather than an actual attempt to uncover anything or find out about a cherished relic.
The hardest part for me, and anyone, is trying to figure out which side I lie on when it comes to repatriation. I always thought I was pro-repatriation, but after reading this book and as I’ve grown older I’ve realized I am not firmly on that side. Waxman provided prime examples to why repatriation isn’t necessarily a good thing, see the Lydian Hoard (the link is to the chapter by Waxman) and the numerous examples of museums without enough security or ability to display the repatriated objects. Or the museums with no visitors, should a masterpiece be removed from a museum that has hundreds of thousands of visitors (if not millions) in a year to be placed in a museum that has fewer than 1,000 visitors in one year?
I have seen many of the objects Waxman wrote about from the Elgin Marbles* (scroll to the end) and the Rosetta stone at the British Museum, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Egyptian sculptures and sarcophagi at the Louvre and next time I’m out at the MFA I’ll have to check out the Bust of Ankhhaf which is on display. And I know if they were all repatriated I would probably never get to see any of them. I think the museum community has made a major effort to improve where they get their artifacts from and to prove the provenance (history) of their artifacts. Now it is just going to take a long time for the museums and the governments of these countries working together to reach agreements on how antiquities are best preserved and best presented to the masses.
Recommendation: I would definitely recommend it if you’re not familiar with everything that’s happened in the last 10-15 years over repatriation of looted artifacts. It’s also an interesting read as it delves into the questionable practices of some museums and even lightly touches on the black market for antiquities.
Opening Line: “It was just like Zahi Hawass to toss a bomb into the middle of someone else’s well-laid plans.”
Closing Line: “It was as if Jean-David Cahn, from a famous family of antiquities dealers, had decided that the could still live by the phrase that accompanied an exhibit of antiquities at the Egyptian Hall in London in 1829: ‘They say it is God’s property, and he gives it to whom he pleases.'” (Not whited out as this is a work of nonfiction.)
*I have incredibly mixed feelings about the Elgin/Parthenon Marbles. I called them the Elgin Marbles as I saw them at the British Museum. Although it wasn’t 100% transparent, I felt that the British Museum did a decent job of explaining the controversy of the marbles. In addition to this I do not feel that Greece made the right decision to build a museum to house all of the marbles when they were not guaranteed to get the marbles back. That was a waste of time and money, and according to Waxman, really pissed off a lot of the local Athenians. One of the curators (pretty sure the British Museum) said that it was smart to have the marbles remain separated because if anything happened to one set the other set would remain. Although I think this is a politically expedient answer I can’t help but partially agree with this line of thought for many antiquities. Imagine if only local antiquities were in the National Museum of Iraq when it was looted in 2003 and there were very few, if any, anywhere else in the world. Imagine all that would be lost to the world.