Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Museum Art Collections and Cultural Heritage

Every time when friends and families come to visit, it is a great opportunity for me to reacquaint with some amazing art works in museums of the area. Recently, I had a chance to visit the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia and the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Arts) in New York City.

Rodin Museum, as its name suggests, is dedicated to work by the famous French Sculptor Auguste Rodin. The building and its contents was a gift to the city by Jules Mastbaum, a not so-well-known Philadelphia based movie theater magnate and philanthropist. This tiny museum sits quietly off the fabulous Benjamin Franklin Parkway and is only a stone-throw away from the massive and popular Philadelphia Museum of Art.

At the entrance to the courtyard and building, there stands the most well-known sculpture of the world by Rodin in 1880 – The Thinker (if you have seen it at other places, it is because there are 61 of it cast from the original mold). It is so special because it captures
not only the essence of human thinking but, as Rodin himself put it, “What makes my Thinker think is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils, and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back, and legs, with his clenched fist and his gripping toes.” By the way, to get another angle of “The Thinker”, here is a photo of the oil painting of Rodin's the Thinker by the revered Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (you may have seen or heard of his most famous work The Scream) that is now with the Louvre in Paris.

Rodin’s other most famous works include The Burghers of Calais, The Gates of Hell, and The Kiss. A cast of the first two are available for viewing in the museum with The Gates of Hell placed right at the front of the building. But the most intriguing work for me is “The Secret”;
for your convenience, I include a photo here from Adam Fagan’s Flickr page. This is one of several distinct hand expressions in Rodin’s study for Secret that I thought is the best among all. The two right hands are engaged in a conversation in silence. What are they saying to each other with that peculiar gesture? Are they exchanging a secret? Or are they trying to tell each to keep a secret? By not saying a word or write a letter, the artist conveyed such a rich expression in grace and left so much for us to our imagination!

Few days earlier, we visited The Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) in New York City, one of the largest museums and art galleries of the world with more than 2 million items of art collections of practically all major civilizations in 2 million square feet. In contrast, Rodin museum has about 100+ pieces of sculptures in approx 5,000 square feet.

The Met has an impressive collection of Asian arts, among others. Its collections of Chinese Arts are of exceptionally high quality that sooth Chinese American’s home sickness a little bit and introduce to others treasures from a major civilization. Unlike Rodin Museum's, there are controversies with some of its collections however.

If you stop by the 2nd floor galleries for Asian Collections, you will not miss the monumental Chinese stone sculptures from the fifth through the eighth century (Northern Wei 460-525 AD to Tang dynasty) in Arthur Sackler Gallery. As you enter the gallery, what catches everyone’s eyes is a huge mural over 30 ft tall from Yuan Dynasty about 900 years ago. The real priceless treasure is on the opposite wall, a 1500 years old embossed stone sculpture of Worship of Buddha by Northern Wei
Emperor XiaoWen 北魏孝文帝禮佛圖 that was removed illegally from Guiyang Cave of the Longmen Grottoes 龍門石窟 in Henan Province of China sometime late 19th century and ended up with The Met. Similar examples can be found at several major museums in U.S., Great Britain, France, etc.

While I appreciate very much the opportunity to enjoy the precious arts, this begs the question of how did cultural treasures like this end up outside their home country? Have the museums done enough to avoid acquiring stolen objects? How many of them and which ones were acquired illegally? Indeed, by UNESCO’s estimate, about 1.67 million pieces of Chinese relics have been collected by two hundred museums across 47 countries. It is also believed that there could be 10 times more relics are in private collectors’ hands across the world. It is a massive and challenging undertaking to acquire the corporations and sort out the information even just for a small portion of them.

The recent auction incident at Christie’s for a pair of bronze animal heads 圓明園獸首 from collections of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge served all of us a reminder. These are rat’s and rabbit’s heads in bronze, two of the sculptures made for the Zodiac fountain of the Emperor Qianlong's Summer Palace, aka Old Summer Palace and YuanMing Garden, in mid 18th century under the supervision of by the Italian Jesuit priest Giuseppe Castiglione 郎世寧. They appear to have been looted during the Second Opium War in 1860 when about 20,000 British and French troops invaded Beijing, looted the palaces and burned down the Old Summer Palace. The auction ended with a bid from a Chinese collector for over 14 million Euros each. However the transaction was never completed as the buyer indicated that he has no intention to complete the transaction and that the bidding is a part of an effort in seeking the return of the stolen objects to China.

This obviously is not an isolated case or issue and is not limited to Chinese. There are plenty of examples, past, current, and no doubtedly in the future whenever there are corruptions, chaos, and wars in any corner of the world.
The 2006 book of Art and Cultural Heritage: Law, Policy, and Practice by Barbara Hoffman has extensive discussions of this very topic from legalistic perspectives. It is impractical to believe like some with patriotic and nationalistic fever that one can get the lost objects back unilaterally and quickly somehow. Persistent multi-pronged approach is needed in economic, political and legal fronts with coordinated government and private efforts. What is encouraging is the very first step of systematic investigation and documentation of lost objects has begun in China, according to some reports. We look forward to seeing more rigorous record keeping and return of cultural treasures to their rightful owners one day, along with frequent exhibits in musuems worldwide under loan.

Talk to you soon!

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