Nov 7, 2011

"Participatory Stewardship" at the Menil

The Byzantine Fresco Chapel in Houston
Last Thursday I attended a terrific panel discussion at the Menil. It affirmed for me why cultural heritage offers such a rich area of study. It gives us an opportunity to think beyond who owns what and offers new ways of envisioning things like patent rights in the human body, the trade in works of art, stewardship, engineering design above and beyond contractual relationships, open source museums which can extend beyond cultural walls and bureaucracy, and the creative commons. As Rex Koontz, Director of the School of Art at the University of Houston noted, short of discussing pre-Columbian art, his area of focus, a conversation about heritage and stewardship is the most important conversation we could be having. The discussion touched on all these areas in exciting ways.

The moderator, Kristina Van Dyke facilitated the free-flowing exchange. She began the conversation by pointing out that artworks have lives and a offer us an opportunity for each visitor to "possess" them in a way. If I like to stand and absorb and really take in a work of art, I've created a connection with the work which might not be the same as ownership, but is in many ways a richer more fulfilling relationship. The starting point was the recent announcement that the Menil would return the Byzantine Mosaics which were on long term loan from Cyprus.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Dominique de Menil was offered the mosaics for sale in 1983. The pieces had been stolen from a small church in the Northern Turkish-controlled region of Cyprus. After consulting the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus Ms. de Menil purchases the mosaics, restored them, and they have been on display in a specially-constructed building near the Menil since 1997. Recently it was announced that this long-term loan will end and the mosaics will return to Cyprus. The acquisition, restoration and long-term loan of the mosaics offers lessons for the antiquities trade, and was a remarkable act of stewardship which eschewed the concept of permanent ownership and instead produced a collaborative relationship which benefitted the original owner—the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus—and also allowed Ms. de Menil to put the mosaics on display for many visitors to see. You can read more about the story at the Menil's chapel website.

This was the starting point for the conversation which took on a number of interesting themes. Prof. James Leach from the University of Aberdeen offered his thoughts on property. He is an anthropologist who has worked in Papua New Guinea and he provided an overview of property theory, which he defined as the relationships among people with respect to things. Property in fact stands as a particular form of ownership, while other conceptions of property offer a richer and more meaningful way to foster relationships. In fact anthropology, and the law grudgingly, has begun to increasingly view property not as mechanical rights but as a complex web of interconnected relationships. This is an idea I've tried to think a lot about, and I wish I'd had the benefit of this exchange before I tackled the ideas of property and heritage. Before the event, the audience may have been skeptical that biomedical research, the legal relationships of Schlumberger and intellectual property would link up to heritage. But of course they do if you move beyond property and examine these problems through the lense of stewardship and conceive of property as a web of relationships.
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