Keynote by Erin Thompson: The Ethics of Collecting in the 21st Century
In August 1967, Mary Slusser, the wife of an American diplomat, photographed a painting on display in the Nepali monastery where it had been consecrated in 1565. A few days later, Slusser encountered the painting “trundled around town on the back of a bicycle in search of a prospective customer.” Although she knew this work of sacred art had likely been stolen from the monastery, Slusser arranged for its purchase and helped it leave the country. Slusser became a respected expert on Nepali art. The painting remains in an American museum.
American scholars, curators, and archivists are increasingly confronting questions about what ethical obligations we now owe the individuals and communities that produced the materials we attend to, including this painting from Nepal. How do these obligations relate to others owed to the donors and institutions that facilitate this attention – and to the materials themselves? Should we give thanks for the preservation of the painting, as Slusser did when she wrote about her role in its history, or think about the damage done by Western demand for trophies of “Eastern spirituality”?
Beginning from the example of the role of scholars in facilitating the trade in stolen sacred artwork in Nepal, I will think through some of these questions about the ethics of preservation with scenarios from my other work, including digitization of threatened cultural heritage in the Middle East, curation of artwork made by detainees at Guantánamo Bay, and protests over controversial monuments.
Erin L. Thompson holds a PhD in Art History and a JD, both from Columbia, and is an associate professor of art crime at John Jay College (City University of New York). She studies topics including the black market for antiquities, the deliberate destruction of art, and the production of art by detainees at the United States military prison camp known as Guantánamo Bay. Besides traditional scholarly publications, she has written for general audience publications including The New York Times, Hyperallergic, Smithsonian Magazine, and bitch, and has spoken on CNN, NPR, BBC, TEDx conferences, and the Freakonomics podcast. She has curated several exhibits of detainee artwork, is a member of the Advisory Committee for the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign, and was a Fellow at the Rice University Humanities Research Center from 2017-2018 and a Public Scholar of the New York Council for the Humanities from 2015-2018. Her first book, Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors (Yale University Press) was named an NPR Best Book of 2016. Her second book, Smashing Statues: On the Rise and Fall of American Public Monuments, will be published by Norton in February 2022.