The Ethics of Expropriated Art
Professor Gregory Bassett, Philosophy, Dr. Anne Heath, Mellon Scholars
Throughout the ages nations have removed art from other nations and housed such art in their own museums, raising the question of whether such expropriation is morally justifiable. This summer I investigated why art is expropriated, and how museums choose to present and display it. In addition to reading relevant literature, I visited various museums throughout Europe and informally interviewed museum visitors and staff. The goal of this project was to gain an understanding of the nature, causes, and ethical implications of art expropriation. I created an Omeka site with a Neatline map to host an analysis of my experiences and conclusions, as well as to provide a secondary means of understanding the subject via a visual, interactive platform. The map includes data points at various museums; each point’s color and size correlate to the type of art it represents and how many pieces of this type of art the museum has in its permanent collection, respectively. For example, the British Museum has a large yellow point, signifying that the museum has over 100,000 Egyptian artworks. Thus, viewers are able to see where Egyptian art is in the world, as well as compare Egypt’s collections to other nations. I formed three conclusions from this research. The first was that removing art in order to preserve it should continue, so long as the process is subject to oversight and the art is promptly returned when threats to it are eliminated and the nation of origin asks for its return. Secondly, sharing art among the global community would help maintain cultural heritage while continuing to increase and promote accessibility. Finally, museums should strive to maintain respect and cultural integrity with their displays of foreign art.
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