Visitors strolling by the bronze statue of an ancient Greek athlete at the Getty Villa, an antiquities museum outside of Los Angeles, may have no idea that the sculpture stands at the center of an international dispute with the Italian government that has stretched out for more than 30 years.
The five-foot-high statue was retrieved by Italian fishermen in the open waters of the Adriatic in 1964 and sold to dealers who smuggled it to Germany, where it was purchased by the J. Paul Getty Museum. Italian courts have ruled twice that the statue should be returned, but the Getty has refused, claiming that it was found in waters outside of Italy’s jurisdiction.
According to Elizabeth Marlowe, Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Chair in liberal arts studies, associate professor of art and art history, and director of Colgate’s Museum Studies Program, the lack of information in the gallery about the dispute is one more example of how the Getty Villa has failed to acknowledge its controversial acquisition practices, which have led the museum to exhibit stolen artwork.
“They still have the looted objects on display in their galleries, and they aren’t telling any of the stories that people like me know but that 99 percent of the people who come into the museum don’t know,” says Marlowe, who visited the museum in 2019 after a three-year reinstallation of its collection.
In a review for the American Journal of Archaeology published in 2020, Marlowe says she had hoped that the Getty Villa would have decided to openly discuss the issues surrounding its acquisition of Greek and Roman artwork. Those practices culminated in the indictment in 2005 of the museum’s antiquities curator by the Italian government for receiving stolen goods, prompting the Getty to return 46 objects to Greece and Italy and to adopt new acquisition guidelines.
Yet, while Marlowe found new interactive displays using cutting-edge technology, she also found that the museum’s lack of transparency about its history of collecting stolen artwork has not changed.
That is a mistake, Marlowe argues, because some museums are increasingly inviting visitors to think about the ethical issues surrounding the collecting history, or provenance, of antiquities that some countries may consider part of their cultural heritage. The benefit of this strategy, Marlowe says, is that it offers visitors a more meaningful way to interact with museum exhibits.
“I think museums that respect the intelligence of their audience and are totally transparent about these kinds of complicated matters — those are the most memorable museum experiences that people can have, where they’ve really been able to engage with these challenging issues,” Marlowe says.
Marlowe began focusing on the issue of stolen antiquities when she learned that the origin of the bronze statue of the Roman emperor Trebonianus Gallus may have been fabricated to make it easier to sell the sculpture. Owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the statue featured prominently in her doctoral dissertation.
“It was like a moment from the movie The Matrix for me,” Marlowe recalls. “It made me wonder about how many other origin stories that we repeat and repeat about canonical statues of the ancient world are based on rumors, hearsay, and vested interests.”
Instead of publishing her dissertation, Marlowe wrote a different kind of book, Shaky Ground: Context, Connoisseurship and the History of Roman Art, which she says was a manifesto to art historians to pay more attention to the provenance of ancient artwork.
“It was the first book to suggest that we know a lot less about Roman art history than we think we do because so much of what we think we know is really just a product of self-perpetuating, received wisdom that hadn’t been critically examined,” Marlowe says.
Researching the book inspired her to begin examining how major American museums, such as the Getty and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have avoided giving their audiences specific information about where their artworks come from and how they got to the museum. The issue also led her to explore the field known as critical museum theory and the movement to “decolonize” museums, which call into question the authority museums have to own and display objects from diverse cultures.
“People have started thinking really critically about the authority that museums have to shape these narratives, especially when the objects are still part of the living cultural and heritage traditions of various communities today,” she says.
In American museums, that issue has prompted questions about artwork and artifacts considered sacred to Native Americans.
“For a lot of museums, what this means is actually returning — giving back — the loot that was taken during the colonial era,” Marlowe says. “Not all, but some museums have started trying to figure out who these objects were taken from and actually restituting them to the descendants of those communities.”
Marlowe is now writing a book about the role university museums can play in shaping public attitudes toward antiquities that lack good provenance information. While public museums have stopped buying or accepting donations of unprovenanced ancient artwork because of the negative publicity associated with looted objects, Marlowe notes there are still an estimated 100,000 Greek and Roman antiquities in private hands in the United States.
“What’s going to happen to all those objects?” she asks. “They can’t be donated to museums. My argument is that university museums can be pioneers in displaying antiquities in ways that foreground both the loss of historical knowledge that results from looting and the many different things that antiquities have come to mean in the modern world.”
Adopting that approach could inspire all types of museums to use their displays to discuss what they do and do not know about an object’s origin, why it might be a forgery, and why it might be considered stolen cultural property.
“This is what museums should be doing,” she says. “And I think university museums, with their multidisciplinary setting, are perfectly positioned to blaze that path and to really put that into practice and show other museums that that’s an exciting, dynamic, engaging way of displaying objects.”