“Museum directors are cultural diplomats,” educator David Ross told the audience at the Metropolitan Club early this afternoon. Speaking to the roles that cultural institutions might play in nourishing peace and understanding between nations, the group of experts gathered at the first “Culture Beyond Borders” discussion panel at the Blouin Creative Leadership Summit seemed to agree that museums and auction houses have the potential to be increasingly benevolent actors in buttressing local identities and promoting international understanding.
A decisive factor in this, as Kathleen Doyle described it, has been the international art market. More than ever, institutions that deal with culturally valuable objects — including museums and auction houses — have dedicated themselves to establishing provenance in a way that gives as much dignity and respect as possible to an object's history and culture of origin. Institutions which in the past may have been the passive enablers of cultural theft committed by a hegemonic invader in an unstable region of the world have in recent decades begun to see the light. This, at least, has been Doyle's policy as the president and CEO of the auction house Doyle New York. “We feel really strongly about getting these things that have been missing back to the rightful owners,” she declared. “Nothing could make us happier than to find that thing and return it to a museum.”
This isn't to say that cultural diplomacy has not faced some gruesome challenges in recent memory. Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, a decorated officer of the U.S. Marine Corps with extensive exposure to cultural larceny, spoke in stark terms of his experience recovering Sumerian and Assyrian artifacts purloined from the National Museum of Iraq in the wake of the 2003 invasion. “The world watched in horror as the cultural patrimony of a nation — indeed, of a world — was completely destroyed and looted,” Bogdanos said, describing the 500,000 relics that were exposed to theft from the museum, a great many of which remain at large. The search to repatriate these artifacts has nevertheless been a heartening one. “These treasures were theirs,” he told the audience. “They did not belong to Saddam Hussein, and we watched month after month, year after year, how pieces of cracked alabaster with funny writing on them worked a magical cathartic charm over an entire nation and an entire region.”
To see photos from today's “Culture Beyond Borders” panel at the Blouin Creative Leadership Summit, click the slide show.