Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Conversation Starter for High School Art #1: Who Owns Art?

My AP Art History class is studying Art of the Ancient Near East. I left them with this question: If Babylon was located where present-day Iraq is now, why is the Ishtar Gate in the Pergamom Museum in Berlin, Germany? I already know that one student is on the right track, and another is on the wrong track, but that doesn't matter. What matters is the conversation afterward. I plan to show them this article from May, 2002. It details how the Ishtar Gate was removed, and Iraq's attempts to have the gate returned to Iraq. At this point, I expect many of my students will agree, but then I plan to point out that this article was written less than a year before the US invasion of Iraq. They have already seen images of artwork labeled 'recovered' that were damaged between the looting of Iraq's National Museum and their recovery. Worse, some artwork is labeled 'missing' in the presentations I show my students.

I plan to close with this article, about the Iraq National Museum's reopening a couple of years ago.

I hope to discuss some of the following: Who owns art? Does it belong to the country in whose soil it is found? What if the sites are being looted by citizens of that country? Should it belong to the country that finances the archaeologists? What if it's art from the 'cradle of civilization' - shouldn't it belong to all of humanity, if we all have roots there? What if that country can't protect (or is in danger of losing) these antiquities? Should antiquities always remain in the country where they are found, or should they be spread throughout the world so that more people may view them?

We will revisit this conversation when we get to Greek Art. This time we will be discussing the Parthenon Marbles and Greece's attempts to have them returned from the British Museum.  The website linked here encourages classrooms to have a discussion about where the marbles, which were removed from the Parthenon, and to send in their results, which are then posted to the site.

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