Museum Objects Waiting for the Right Label

SAFECORNERCommentary6 Comments


In “The Don’s Life” blog published by The Times Literary Supplement, Cambridge professor Mary Beard has posted a cogent (and blessedly brief) observation and commentary on the corrosive effect of fakes and forgeries while viewing a rogues gallery of bogus objects that purport to be ancient, now on display in a glass case at the Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire in Brussels. “Once you had seen the ‘fakes’ case, everything [on display in the adjoining ancient art galleries in the museum] started to look not quite right … They can’t all be fakes, but once your suspicion has been aroused — it spreads. Were they all waiting to be part of a big exhibition of fakes, and just hadn’t got their labels yet?” Then Professor Beard quickly adds, “I don’t want to give the wrong impression of the museum.” Certainement pas. But let’s back up.

Professor Beard poses an excellent question. How many forgeries, or old objects that have been “improved” in modern times to make them more palatable to the modern eye (hence more profitable at the point of sale) can be found in the galleries of today’s great museums, waiting for the right labels to be applied? Another question: how many similarities do the forgeries that Professor Beard discusses, have in common with the unprovenanced (probably looted) artifacts that exist in many museums today? Similarity Number One (in a long list of parallels): both the forgery and the looted artifact have no origin or find spot, no circumstance of manufacture, no provenance or history that the museum wishes to share with the public. Relegated to the lowest and most transitory rung of understanding (“aesthetics”), the forgery (or looted artifact) remains mute, while the viewer, seeing no fact or story worth remembering on the nearby gallery label, turns and walks away.

Photo: Fakes

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6 Comments on “Museum Objects Waiting for the Right Label”

  1. David Gill

    This reminds us of the need to insist on seeing authenticated documents relating to the collecting histories for the object.

  2. kyri

    "our museums are full of objects that speak for themselves ,to the public and the scholars,without knowledge of their full or even any provenance,to claim that an object without context is worthless is pure nonsense"
    sir john boardman, and this is a quote that could have been made by a.d.trendall or beazley,not to mention many more great archaeologists/ an ideal world find spots for every piece would be available but we cant dismiss any antiquitie out of hand as mute or worthless when this information for one reason or another is not available.

  3. Paul Barford

    But surely if the object is a fake, and the viewer (nor the exhibitor) does not know it, what it "says" is not a "message" from the past. Its a false message.

    So what do these contextless objects "speak of"?

    A dressel 1 wine amphora for example? What does it "say"?
    "I am a Falernian wine jar"… so what? But the fact that Dressel 1 amphoras- even if sherds are important dating evidence over a whole area of Europe when found in context allows a far more complex story to be interrogated from the past. As does knowledge that they are found in some areas and not others. What does that "say"? Far more than "hello I am a Falernian wine jar".

  4. kyri

    paul,every object should be judged on its own merits.if i see a greek pot from south italy,even if it has no archaeological context,i could still tell you which fabric it belongs to,ie apulian,campanion,i could even give you an approximate date of manufacture and after a bit of research i could probably tell you by which school the pot was decorated,ie,the darius painter,or the c.a.painter ect.with or without context not every antiquitie is mute.i know that a few archaeologists think that attribution of pots is a load of codswallop[michael vickers comes to mind]how this bloke wrote a book on ancient greek pottery,dismissing the life times work of greats like trendall and beazley saying "atrtribution of pots is an activity whose scholarly value is slight"is beyond me. id rather go with the vast majority who seem to take a different approach.
    of course,a fake is a fake and tells us nothing but the post was lumping fakes along with genuine pieces which have no provenance.i say everypiece is important in its own right and every piece should be judged on its own merits.

  5. Damien Huffer

    Yes, a fake is a fake, agreed. BUT…without context gleaned from careful excavation, you can't tell me if darius painter-made vessel A(with appulian fabric c. X yrs BC)was used to store wine on a shelf in a wealthy family's house and abandoned there vs. identical pot B perhaps thrown into a midden vs. pot C interred as a grave good, maybe even with an otherwise "poor" individual, when compared to the burial treatment of others in said cemetery. All this information is lost to looting; You're left with broad technological comparisons at best, but the social dimension, the "flesh" of archaeology, is gone.

  6. kyri

    damien,i agree,as i said in an ideal world every piece would have an archaeological context but there have been many thousands of greek pots excavated and documented to have an idea,or if you like a starting point to be able to form an oppinion on each piece regardless of context.
    as i said i agree with the jist of the argument you and paul are making,you do lose the "flesh" as you call it,the only thing i dont agree on is the idea that every piece without context can be discarded as rubbish as some archaeologists are saying.the statement that "antiquities without context are worthless" is one that i canot agree with,of course they dont tell us as much as an excavated piece but worthless and mute they are not.every piece is unique and deserves respect.

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