Most Americans grow up with the notion that our nation's art museums are wholly benevolent entities. It's a sentiment exemplified by our fondness for Indiana Jones, who demonstrated his heroism by rescuing valuable antiquities from the clutches of looters and other evildoers, nobly scolding that the objects "belong in a museum." But amid the same media flurry that surrounded pedophilia in the Catholic Church and steroid use by pro baseball players several years ago, an art-world scandal also unfolded, shedding light on the ethical complications America faces when its proud collections of antiquities are sourced from countries halfway around the world. At the center of it was California's Getty Museum, in an exposé that journalist authors Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino chronicle in Chasing Aphrodite.
The central problem that Aphrodite deals with is that the looting of antiquities, particularly in culture-rich countries like Italy, where even routine construction of roads and sewers often uncovers them, is widespread. In order to be able to boast impressive collections, museums the world over (though—go USA!—we have been the worst offender) often have had to look the other way when it comes to the dubious provenance of some of their most important objects. Most museums' acquisition policies address this in requiring some reasonable reassurance that dealers are authorized to sell the items they present. However the sheer number of items that have been smuggled to the market makes it nearly impossible to avoid hot goods altogether. The predicament historically has created a rift between archaeologists and curators, the former arguing that when an object is stripped of its history by having its origins obscured, museums are complicit in the destruction of the very sort of education they were founded to facilitate. Curators have argued that objects are safer in their care, and that their aesthetic value is at least as important, if not more so, than their history. The Getty was found guilty of especially flagrant disregard, even while curator Marion True, the central figure in Aphrodite, made waves in the museum community for her push toward tougher policies.
Aphrodite's tour of this world is somewhat academic, and the many names of museum employees, dealers, looters, and police may require some note-taking to track, but it raises some interesting doubts about the practices through which some of our most beloved institutions have been built. MARJORIE SKINNER