Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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At the Museums: Tarnished Reputations Volume 51 Number 5, September/October 1998
by Ellen Herscher


Museums have long been regarded as guardians of civilized values, secular shrines to the muses. Even their architecture frequently invokes the classical temples of the past. And in the aftermath of World War II, as much of Europe lay in ruins, the importance of saving and preserving Western culture loomed ever larger, especially in American eyes.

Yet articles in the press have presented a much less estimable image of museums, reflected in headlines such as "Harvard Museum Acquisitions Shock Scholars," "Italy Says Ancient Silver at Met Was Smuggled," and "Questionable Collection: MFA Pre-Columbian Exhibit Faces Acquisition Queries." Some museums' policies and practices with regard to collecting antiquities are under increasing attack, but many connected to the museum world are asking why they are being pilloried for doing what they have always done. Even more puzzling for them is that much of the strongest criticism is coming from archaeologists, with whom museums have had a long and mutually beneficial relationship.

* Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

Ellen Herscher is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America