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Sharon Waxman: On the trail of 'Loot'

Posted by David Beard, Globe Staff  December 2, 2008 07:22 AM

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Sharon Waxman, a former Washington Post and New York Times culture reporter, appears in Cambridge on Wednesday to speak about "Loot'' (Times Books), her account of the US and European plunder of Third World antiquities -- and the return home for some of the art. She spoke from her home in Los Angeles.

Q: Your last book, "Rebels on the Backlot,'' was about six Hollywood bad boy film directors of the 1990s. Could "Loot" be any more different?

A: I wasn’t trying to choose a subject that was half a globe away from my last book, but it did turn out that "Loot" took me back into foreign correspondent territory, where I started my career. I ended up going to eight countries to report this book, which was both incredibly fun and deeply exhausting. But totally rewarding.

Q: After this art book, to paraphrase a quote about your town and movies, didn’t you feel you’d never have lunch in this museum again?

A: Touche. I got real pushback from the J. Paul Getty museum, which was somewhat understandable, since I tell a number of embarrassing episodes in the museum’s not very distant past. But the other museums, including the Metropolitan in New York, The British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris, have not put my picture by the guardpost -- as far as I know.

Q: It would be easy to brand a few of the figures in your book as cultural pirates, remnants of an age when tourists plundered Roman ruins. Yet you offer a more nuanced view. Can you elaborate?

A: Sure. The reality of the creation of the great, universal museums of the West is not pretty. The collections were largely based on plunder, or at least appropriation of artifacts taken without the permission of the local populace for the glory of the French or British empires, for example. At the same time, these museums have served – and I’m stating the obvious – an incredibly important role in preserving ancient cultures where they may otherwise have been destroyed. And there is an undeniable value in the educational role they play, in scholarship, in elevating the civil life of our society. But the question is, have they done so at the cost of someone else’s cultural identity?

Q: I notice Boston doesn’t escape your scrutiny.

A: The Museum of Fine Arts is in the crosshairs of Egypt at the moment, because the chief archeologist of that country, Zahi Hawass, has demanded the loan of the bust of Prince Ankhaf, the architect of one of the great pyramids. Boston has turned him down on the basis of its fragile condition, a position that Hawass rejects. He has threatened to ban further loans to Boston and to take other punitive measures. It should be noted that Ankhaf was acquired legally, but it’s this kind of perceived arrogance (of museums) that makes source countries angry and resentful.

Q: Can you understand how curators could covet a piece of art? Was there a piece you ever yearned for?

A: My childhood is really framed by visits to the Museum of Art in Cleveland, which incidentally just returned a number of artifacts to Italy. One of Rodin’s Thinkers sits outside that museum, and nearly every Cleveland child including me knows it well. But as an adult the artifact I would wonder at for hours is probably the gold Macedonian wreath that used to be at the Getty, which is in “Loot.” It is believed to have belonged to the father of Alexander the Great, and is in pristine condition, made of thousands of tiny gold leaves. It was looted, and sent back to Greece in 2007, where I visited it with nostalgia during the reporting of the book. I can definitely understand how the drive to possess beautiful objects can overwhelm good sense or better angels.

Waxman appears at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Cambridge Forum at First Parish Church, 3 Church St., Cambridge. More information here.
She writes about Hollywood and media on her blog, and more on the book is here.

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