Cultural property is a complex topic, and I hope this article helps spur even more conversations within the Museum and externally. To summarize—as we all are aware and is reflected in near-daily news stories—museum collections are under increasingly intense scrutiny. Art museums such as The Met steward important resources of world heritage, and we welcome the growing engagement of the public in our critical long-term work as a public-serving institution. We strive to respond to all queries while balancing our responsibilities to the works in our collection, to the many and varied communities affiliated with them, to their physical care, and to scholarly investigation. Accordingly, as a preeminent voice in the global art community, it is incumbent upon The Met to engage more intensively and proactively in examining certain areas of our collection and to increase the resources we dedicate to this ongoing crucial work. This examination will build on decades of research, and it is important that we allow whatever time is necessary for this urgent work to be completed.
Our Collecting History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has always been and will always be a premier collecting institution. Founded in 1870, when New York was still a relatively young city and the United States was entering a period of rapid change, The Met began with neither art nor a building, just the aspiration to become a world-class institution reflecting the broader ambitions of the country. But unlike the great museums of Europe, most of which began as royal collections, our Museum, since its inception, was built by and for the public.
Primarily through gifts and purchases from the art market, our predecessors built a museum that today is one of the world’s premier custodians of art, both of the world and for the world, a sanctuary, accessible to anyone, where these works can be cared for, studied, and preserved for future generations. In our collecting, we are guided by the laws and practices of our time and more broadly by our ideals of the contributions that a museum can make to society.
For more than 150 years, we have benefited from the immense and unprecedented philanthropy of generations of supporters who have made purchases on the art market and then gifted these objects (and sometimes entire collections) to The Met. Perhaps unthinkable to our founders, the collection has grown to encompass 17 curatorial areas and 1.5 million objects from over 5,000 years of human creativity, and it continues to grow. With the benefit of this collection, we are able to present and share works with a global audience and to tell meaningful stories about those works from ancient times to the present day. Virtually the entire Met collection is available online through our Open Access initiative, as is much of our backlist of publications and other scholarship. As the world’s largest art museum—and the top tourism site in New York City—we bring art to millions. Diverse communities, including recent immigrants and families in our region, as well as global visitors see their wider heritage reflected in The Met’s collection galleries and through our many loan exhibitions.
Our Collecting Values. Last month I penned a Perspectives column summarizing the three values that drive our collecting activities today: research, transparency, and collaboration. This is foundational work at The Met, not just in how we approach collecting now but also in how these values have helped to transform the type of institution we are. There is much to treasure in this history, but with that sense of pride comes profound responsibility.
On research, our teams of curators, conservators, and scientists constitute a veritable university and, together with internal and external partners, are continuously developing timely and nuanced narratives around objects in our care. On transparency, we are leaders in the field in providing provenance information on most of our collection, with hundreds of thousands of objects available on metmuseum.org. And on collaboration, the Museum has partnered around the globe for more than a century. This year alone we added and renewed partnerships with a number of governments and institutions in China, Egypt, Greece, India, Italy, Nigeria, and Turkmenistan. As well, the recent milestone of having greatly expanded our collection of Native American art substantially diversified our presentation of American art and dramatically broadened our outreach and ties to tribal communities.
The Met’s contributions also extend beyond our buildings, as Museum staff are key participants in a number of international museum organizations (particularly around global crises), helping to provide conservation care, training, and other support to museum professionals around the world.
The Met has a longstanding history in the rigorous review of our collection and, when appropriate, the return of art. Following research conducted by a combination of Met colleagues, outside experts, and law enforcement, in recent decades we have returned works to Egypt, Greece, Italy, Nepal, Nigeria, and Turkey. Last month, in light of new provenance information, we returned 16 works to India, including the Celestial Dancer, a sculpture that enraptured visitors for decades. Last summer, after conversations with Nepalese officials, we returned an 8th– to 10th–century wooden temple strut, and to further advance scholarship, we recently announced that the object entry on any work returned by The Met will remain on metmuseum.org. In addition, we have a proud history of restituting works illegally appropriated from Jewish families during the Nazi era. On another sensitive issue related to cultural property, we have also developed thorough guidelines on the stewardship of human remains within our collection, recognizing their deep significance for many communities and the special care needed to hold them properly.
A Changing Landscape. It is important to acknowledge that the landscape on cultural property is undergoing rapid and substantive transformation as a result of several recent developments. Some of this shift reflects changing legal perspectives both in this country and overseas; evolving contemporary views of important ethical issues; and, in some cases, political sentiment. On the latter, we live in a time when the idea of a cosmopolitan, global society is being challenged, and some, more nationalist voices embrace cultural artifacts less as ambassadors of a people but more as evidence of national identity. This creates its own dynamic and also a complex revisiting of cultural history. For others, it is also a time of reckoning with history, and museum collections have become icons and emblems in this struggle.
In addition, the digitization of our collection and other archives in recent years, along with greater activity and interest from external experts, law-enforcement agencies, and claimants, has made new information available on both the provenance of works in our care and the alleged criminal behavior of a group of art dealers.
These developments—from changes in policies and practices about how art is collected and the provenance deemed necessary for an object to become part of a museum collection, to new provenance information coming to light—have recently precipitated the return of some objects and made it clear that there are works in our collection whose history must be probed more thoroughly.
Our Path Ahead. Over recent months I have been working with The Met’s president and CEO Dan Weiss, the Board of Trustees, and staff leadership to develop the right framework for this important topic. It is a very complex area, and we are constantly reminded that each individual object within each curatorial area has its own history and deserves its own paradigm of consideration. How we engage in this work has consequences not just for certain individual art objects but for the entire Met collection. This is because we are not merely an institution with 1.5 million works of art in our care: we are the stewards of a collection that, as a whole, has its own important history and, as such, merits careful consideration. To that end, we are mindful not to make decisions prematurely that cannot be reversed. In some areas, we are able to make swift and definite moves, and in others it may literally take years to acquire the needed provenance information and even more time to collaborate with other museums, nations, or individuals to find the right solution.
Navigating this terrain is never easy, and it demands that we be both responsive and proactive. The sheer magnitude of our collection and our involvement in so many cultural areas requires that we prioritize the most urgent matters, which sometimes means that other areas are not addressed with either the pace or responsiveness that they deserve. Despite the urgency the media environment may suggest, we must be diligent, thoughtful, and fair in our evaluation of any evidence being presented to us. We are committed to getting it right, and equally committed to taking the time necessary to do so.
Four Upcoming Initiatives. With this approach in mind, let me share information on four initiatives that we have been developing. First, we will broaden, expedite, and intensify our research into all works that came to the Museum from art dealers who have been under investigation. Most of these objects came to the Museum in the period between 1970 and 1990, a period of both very fast and wide growth at The Met, and a period when there was less information available and less scrutiny on the provenance of many of these works. We currently estimate that this examination will include several hundred or more objects.
Second, we will hire a manager of provenance research, reporting to the Director’s Office, who will coordinate ongoing provenance research activities in all curatorial areas. The Museum will also hire three additional provenance researchers to build upon the work already underway. To be clear, this initiative is supplemental, as our curators, conservators, and other researchers have been deeply engaged in researching the collection for many decades. The emergence of new and additional information, along with the changing climate on cultural property, demands that we dedicate additional resources to this work.
Third, we will make an expanded contribution to the public discourse on cultural property. We will convene thought leaders, advocates, and opinion makers in the area of cultural property in various ways, both within the Museum and outside. We will also share more of our current work in this area, such as, for example, a report on our recent Indian conservation partnership, a panel conversation on our MOU with the Nigerian Cultural Ministry, as well as other types of speaking engagements at peer institutions.
Finally, this work requires counsel from both our staff colleagues and the Board of Trustees. To that end, we have formed a committee of 18 curators, conservators, and others from relevant departments to consider our policies and practices in these areas, and last month the Board formed a task force with the mandate of offering their experience and counsel on collecting activities, including legal and public policy.
In closing, I want to reiterate that this work is important and it is a priority, but it is also highly complex and will take time. Dan Weiss and the Board leadership have been tremendous partners in this effort, and I thank them, along with staff leadership, for their hard work in recent months. I am also grateful to the many department heads, curators, conservators, and researchers who engage in this area on a daily basis; to the Board legal committee; and especially to those members of the staff who help guide the Museum on this high-profile topic.
These initiatives—the intensive review of our collection; the infusion of additional research resources; the counsel of our curators, conservators, and Trustees; and the convening of conversations on cultural property—will make The Met an even stronger institution and a more powerful voice within the global community. As our mission statement wonderfully captures, “The Metropolitan Museum of Art collects, studies, conserves, and presents significant works of art across time and cultures in order to connect all people to creativity, knowledge, ideas, and one another.” I look forward to sharing news of our future contributions on this most important undertaking.