You can’t spend time in a museum without thinking about where objects have come from and how they were acquired. I have touched on this briefly with a blog on the Benin Bronzes at the Pitt Rivers Museum1. Perhaps the most high profile objects at the centre of controversial calls for reclamation are the Elgin Marbles2. Museums are very aware that if they start down the road of repatriation, they are not sure where it will end.
Objects are found, donated, gifted, presented and bought. Some were taken, stolen, they were trophies and status symbols. Exact details can be hard to find and track down, original information on how objects were acquired is often missing (or not sought out). Although stringent acquisition policies are now in place for museums who have to know the full details of objects they want to acquire3, there are many stories of acquisition that are never fully told and few museums who would see the benefit of uncovering them.
These controversies and tangled threads of ownership are fascinating to me and why I have come to listen to Dr Lindsay Allen, a lecturer in Greek and Near Eastern History at King’s College London, talk at Asia House in London on an incredibly wet evening in May.
Allen is mapping the fragments of Persepolis across the world from museums and private collections, she is a detective uncovering the story behind each stone carving. Persepolis, founded by Darius I in 518 B.C., was the capital of the Achaemenid Empire. The site in south-western Iran is among the world’s greatest archaeological sites.
The history of heritage is often one of destruction, recent news of Palmyra in Syria is a prime example4. We have an image of cataclysmic wholesale change but our attention is not always drawn to the same destruction when it occurs as part of a slow gradual erosion through lack of money or mismanagement.
Allen tells us that the fragments of Persepolis were not taken under armed conflict but driven more by geo-political inequalities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many fragments begin their journey as unofficial removals tagged on to official excavations, the destruction of Persepolis was a slow trickle of cultural appropriation that is clear from the photographs that Allen shares with us on the night.
Alexander of Macedon was responsible for extensive destruction of the site of Persepolis in 330 BC but Allen tells us the site –
“was never wholly concealed or lost. Some architectural elements were transported from the platform for local prestige building projects at nearby Istakhr and Qasr-i Abu Nasr in the late antique and medieval periods.” 5
She has set herself the task of tracing the rest of the story, painstakingly piecing together individual tales of individual pieces through documentation, photographs and visiting the precious fragments themselves. 142 fragments spread across 50 collections and museums is the scale of the task and with the generous backing of the Soudavar Memorial Foundation Allen has been able to visit 43 of these sites from America to Japan.
She has tracked removals to sanctioned excavations and begun to see correlations between the amount and size of objects to specific time periods. Some pieces even taken from a second semi-ruinous site at nearby Istakhr and Qasr-i Abu Nasr.
I love it when Allen outlines her mains sources for provenance of the pieces, object records from museums often only take you so far and it is here that the real detective work has been. She has found directors correspondence before 1960 to be particularly useful for small museums born out of an individual’s collection. Dealer archives have proved fruitful from the 1930s, when only three main dealers sold to America, often allowing her to piece together the trail of when an item was bought and who it was sold onto.
Random prospecting from 19th century letter collections has added details, she mentions the Aberdeen Paper of Robert Gordon where she found a drawing of one piece. There is a fascinating letter in the British Museum archives that outlines how a piece was bought by bribes of gun powder and spectacles. More random prospecting of photographic archives have also played a part. Many photos were taken in a secondary context so although not providing proof of when items first left Iran, they play their part in a complicated jigsaw puzzle.
There are fascinating ancillary effects to the project when Allen has turned up at far flung museums, her interest and knowledge on specific pieces has conferred new found status on many Persepolis pieces in collections across the globe. Even with digitisation of some objects Allen has extolled the virtue of seeing an object in ‘the flesh’ allowing her to carefully map the edges of pieces and build her own ethnographic record of seeing the parts of a once whole now shattered and spread.
Some fragments have lost their identity and mistakenly been attributed to the wrong era. There is a wonderful story of a piece re-discovered at the V&A Museum6 and Allen shows us a brilliant slide on the night placing the piece up against a photograph of its original location.
Allen has tracked trade routes and stopping off points, it is a history of plunder and the aspirational social capital and status conferred on the 19th century collector who acquired pieces of another time and culture. In the questions at the end there is even more intrigue around a piece stolen from the Montreal Museum in 2011 now suddenly appearing on the auction market7. A Guardian piece places the price at a mere £2.2 million8 it seems the complicated web of the dispersal of Persepolis is still very much on going.
I could listen to Allen’s stories all night, I am in awe of the scale and dedication, the depth and scope of her work. The journey behind each piece carefully teased out, their links to original home, orientation and situation slowed put together. Museums across the globe are a part of the story, not only a witness to the destruction of heritage but their preservation too.
I can’t imagine undertaking a project like this, I would be lost down a rabbit hole and never find my way back. Allen’s work is not only a gift to future generations of Persepolis researchers but also a case study and working methodology on tracking the history of a site.
I have always felt objects are alive with their own stories but Allen really has highlighted to me the depth and colour of these tales that can be told with time, energy, financial backing, skill and of course endless enthusiasm.
Allen still has more to visit and see, more amazing stories to uncover. It is proof that even the destruction of heritage is never the end of the story, in some ways it is just the beginning.
With thanks to Lindsay for inviting me to her lecture, any inaccuracies are purely my own.
Resources and further reading –
1- Benin Bronzes at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Tincture of Museum blog, November 2016 [access 30 May 2017] https://tinctureofmuseum.wordpress.com/2016/11/10/pitt-rivers-museum-oxford-november-2016/
2 – First-ever legal bid for return of Elgin Marbles to Greece thrown out by European Court of Human Rights, Independent Newspaper online, 19 July 2016 [accessed 30 May 2017] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/elgin-marbles-return-greece-legal-bid-thrown-out-eu-court-human-rights-a7145216.html
3 – Acquisition – Guidance on the ethics and practicalities of acquisition from the Museums Association, second edition 2004 [accessed 30 May 2017] https://www.museumsassociation.org/download?id=11114
4 – ISIS’s destruction of Palmyra: ‘The heart has been ripped out of the city’, Independent Newspaper online, 2 September 2015 [accessed 30 May 2017] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/02/isis-destruction-of-palmyra-syria-heart-been-ripped-out-of-the-city
5 – From Silence: A Persepolis relief in the Victoria and Albert Museum, V&A Online Journal, Issue No.5, Autumn 2013, [accessed 30 May 2017] http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/journals/research-journal/issue-no.-5-2013/from-silence-a-persepolis-relief-in-the-victoria-and-albert-museum/
6 — From Silence: A Persepolis relief in the Victoria and Albert Museum, V&A Online Journal, Issue No.5, Autumn 2013, [accessed 30 May 2017] http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/journals/research-journal/issue-no.-5-2013/from-silence-a-persepolis-relief-in-the-victoria-and-albert-museum/
7 – A Persian soldier from Persepolis loses his second home, Blog Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA), 9th October 2016 [accessed 30 May 2017] http://art-crime.blogspot.co.uk/2016/10/a-persian-soldier-from-persepolis-loses.html
8 – Frieze Masters review – for the billionaire who has everything, what about a Magritte? Guardian Newspaper Online, 5 October 2016, [accessed 30 May 2017] https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/oct/05/frieze-masters-2016-review-regents-park