The Nasher Museum of Art is about to unwrap a monumental gift.
The Past is Present: Classical Antiquities at the Nasher Museum opens today. The exhibit consists of more than 50 ancient relics selected from an anonymous donation that nearly doubles the size of the Nasher's permanent collection.
The exhibit is co-curated by Carla Antonaccio, professor of archaeology and classical studies, and Sheila Dillon, Andrew W. Mellon assistant professor of art history. The two professors co-teach a class in which students participate in the research and cataloging of the collection.
"We are a teaching institution," said Anne Schroder, curator of academic programs at the Nasher and coordinating curator of The Past is Present. "We consider the museum a laboratory."
The antiquities exhibit provides both students and the surrounding community with significantly greater access to ancient art of such high quality, she said.
"It used to be that students would have to go to other museums to see works like these and now it's here on campus," Schroder said.
Seven classes have been able to study the collection in the first year since its arrival at the Nasher.
Students have had the opportunity to examine artifacts out of their cases in a seminar room in the basement of the museum, where they are permitted to use flashlights, black lights and magnifying glasses to explore the work in its minutest detail.
"It's always great to handle objects," Antonaccio said. "One of the greatest part of this project was getting students right in front of the objects without Plexiglas in front of them."
Schroder points to the "Attic Black Droop cup" (550-500 BCE) as one of the highlights of the collection. The cup, which boasts exquisitely intricate design, provides insights into its ancient culture of origin.
The curators and their students have selected six concepts by which to organize the exhibit. Themes such as "Women, Beauty and Adornment" and "The Greek Mixer: Symposia and Drinking Games," resonate particularly with the Duke student community. The past is present indeed.
The exhibit is also significant to the present in the context of current events in the art world. In light of the recent controversy over stolen antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Nasher staff took every precaution in establishing the integrity of the collection.
"Since we've been here we've had to turn down several gifts," Schroder said. "We do ask for documentation, provenance, history of the pieces."
If ownership cannot be established, the museum is legally and ethically bound to refuse donations of antiquities.
"We did consult with University lawyers, because it is extraordinary to acquire such antiquities, and to be sure that we [legally] can," Schroder said.
After obtaining the legal go-ahead, the museum was thrilled to accept a donation of this magnitude and import-an addition that will undoubtedly enrich the character and depth of the Nasher collection, as well as the museum itself as an academic institution.
I find the concept that a museum might be 'ethically bound to refuse donations of antiquities' interesting/disturbing ... kind of like leaving that crying baby in a basket on your doorstep and hoping 'it all works out'. If it's a donation and there's some question of provenance, wouldn't the 'ethically correct' thing to do be to accept the donation then return it to Greece or Italy?