New blog post on SAFE blog!

Hey everyone! I’ve written a brief reflection on the 10th anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum, and SAFE’s (Saving Antiquities for Everyone) candlelight vigil in memory of the looting. You can read it here!

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Walters Art Museum Helps “Save” Ancient Iraqi Artifacts

walters screenshot

This is an interesting news segment that focuses on the Walters’ preservation and conservation of priceless ivories from Nimrud, Iraq. It shows the power of conservators and museums in steady countries to help protect the cultural heritage of countries terrorized by conflict, but I find it surprising that there’s no mention of what the Walters plans to do with the ivories in the future.

I’m happy that they’re on display so that at least some portion of the world’s population can appreciate their beauty and significance, but will they eventually be returned to Iraq? That might have been too heavy and specialist a topic for a brief news report, but I’d love to hear the Walters engaging with serious questions like the above to raise awareness of such a delicate intersection of politics, ethics and culture.

This is a great blog post from the UCL Museums & Collections Blog about how to get the most out of volunteering in museums. I spent two years volunteering at The Phillips Collection back when I lived in DC, and I’ve been volunteering at The Wiener Library in Russell Square now for just over a year. Being a volunteer is an incredible way to learn about how museums, libraries, or archives are run, as well as getting the awesome opportunity to help behind the scenes.

I spent most of my time at the Phillips working in a front of house position, which allowed me to share my love of the collection to the public. My time at the Wiener has been more focused on archival management, with projects ranging from helping with their extensive press cuttings to transcribing interviews with Holocaust survivors. Moreover, if you dedicate some of your time to volunteering at a museum or library that you love (there’s really no excuse when you only have eight hours of lectures a week!), there’s always the possibility that you’ll be able to work on your own projects at the institution, as well as gaining contacts for future opportunities. Go volunteer! Now!


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What I’m Reading Now

Just before I left the States in April, I splurged and bought tons of books I’d been eyeing (thanks for the Amazon gift cards, Aunt Diana!). Here are my spoils:

monuments men book coverThe Monuments Men, Robert M. Edsel

Focusing on the efforts of the so-called “Monuments Men,” (soldiers assigned to the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives division of the Allied armed forces during WWII), this book promise a thriller ride through a true story. I was hoping for the so-well-written-it-feels-like-fiction feel of The Lost Painting (a must-read on the stunning discovery/recovery of a lost Caravaggio), The Monuments Men reads a bit more like a Nancy Drew novel, with facts being repeated every three pages and fabricated dialogue inserted to entertain an unengaged reader. However, the simple prose serves it well. Mimicking the straightforward attitude of its pragmatic protagonists, Edsel’s flowing writing quickly guides us through the heat of battle. I wholeheartedly agree with Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post who deems the work “a terrific story,” and one that ought to be part of the canon of incredible war feats. More importantly, the story is soon to be a major motion picture directed by and starting George Clooney! While “The Thomas Crown Affair” will always hold a special place in my heart, I’m willing to make room for a story that actually happened.

After I finish The Monuments Men, here’s what’s next on my list:

The Man Who Made Vermeers, Jonathan Lopez

The story of Dutch forger Han van Meegeren, who claimed to have sold fake Vermeers to Hermann Goering. Lopez aims to “unvarnish” Van Meegeren’s legend, drawing on never-before-seen documents.

Loot, Sharon Waxman

Museums in Europe and the United States have knowingly purchased and displayed looted objects for decades. Waxman explores why this behavior has been allowed to persist, and who’s trying to stop it.

The Holocaust and the Liberal Imagination, Tony Kushner

From the Wiener Library, I’m hoping this book will help me understand political and diplomatic responses to the Holocaust, especially those directly following the end of World War II.

The Art of the Heist, Myles J. Connor Jr. (with Jenny Siler)

And then a bit of fun for summer! This memoir follows Connor’s career as an infamous art thief, at one time one of the suspects for the Isabella Stewart Gardner robbery (although he was in jail at the time). I love this quote on the back cover:

“Myles Connor is a dangerous psychopath and a violent man. He’s also brilliant, which makes him even more dangerous.” – Tom Daly, Federal Bureau of Investigation

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Book Review: Pictures at an Exhibition, Sara Houghteling

pictures at an exibition book coverThis book follows the attempts of Max Berenzon, a Parisian Jew, to recover the paintings looted from his father’s gallery during the Nazi occupation. Plagued by familial and romantic drama, “Max chases his twin obsessions: the lost paintings and Rose Clément.”

The cover of this book informs me that it “will conjure up the colors of Manet and Picasso more effectively than a glossy reproduction” (Minneapolis Star Tribune). I so desperately wanted to love this book and its apparently awe-inspiring textual “reproductions,” but felt wholeheartedly disappointed at the implausible and melodramatic twists the plot often took. The primary weakness of this otherwise fairly straightforward story of unrequited love and father-son tension is that Houghteling was too excited about her historical research to leave any of it out. As such, the characters know and witness just a bit too much in rather all too convenient ways, which, for me, made them more annoying than endearing.

It is certainly difficult to approach such a well-documented period as World War II because we can with great certainty confirm who was at, for example, the moving of Winged Victory from the Louvre.  While Houghteling is undeniably a talented wordsmith, littering the text with beautiful phrases providing respite from the haze of war-torn France, she sometimes loses the thread of believability.

The most frustrating aspect for me was the supreme unlikeability of the woman our young protagonist has fallen for — Rose Clément. To base one of your main characters on the real life personality Rose Valland (a Parisian museum employee whose meticulous records tracked and subsequently saved many of the artworks looted by the Nazis) is to ask for comparison and disappointment. Beginning as a caricature of an art world climber and ending as a woman nearly driven to insanity from the pressures of record-keeping under the heavy hand of the Nazi occupation, Rose Clément seems to be an irreconcilably polarized character. Our narrator Max Berenzon’s love for her reminds me of the similarly unbelievable romance that drives Steve Martin’s An Object of Beauty.

Pictures at an Exhibition is an easy read, although I think that its strange combination of minute historical detail and superficial character developments will prove unsatisfying for both those interested in Nazi looting and those interested in a good novel.

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INTERPOL Trafficking in Illicit Goods Program moves into North Africa

In this very dry video (doesn’t INTERPOL have enough money to hire a social media intern?), Roberto Manriquez, the Acting Director of the Trafficking in Illicit Goods Program, explains that INTERPOL is very excited to start working in the North African region. After the dramatic — and traumatic for the cultural heritage community — events in Mali earlier this year, I think this move can be considered belated at best.

However, by expanding their operations to consider some of the world’s most violently threatened regions of cultural heritage (for instance, the extreme looting of Djenne terracotta figurines from Mali — there are less than twenty figures recovered through archaeological excavations while hundreds reside in museums worldwide), INTERPOL is certainly taking a step in the right direction. Archaeologists cannot save the world on their own, and INTERPOL is a formidable ally to have.

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New Year, New Book

Hello everyone! One of my New Year’s Resolution (love em or hate em) is to update this blog more frequently, which really wouldn’t take very much considering the scarcity with which I posted last year. Another resolution is to read for pleasure more, which dovetails nicely with this blog.

Last week I visited my local library’s used book store, and picked up The Medici Conspiracy by Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini. Published in 2006, this book follows the trail of looted antiquities from Italy and Greece across the world. I’m only 15 pages in, but already hooked. The writing style is reminiscent of The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr in that it reads like a novel but is completely non-fiction and saturated with historical context and cold hard facts (Harr’s book is a must-read for art aficionados, taking the reader through the exciting discovery of a lost Caravaggio painting).

I managed to pick up The Medici Conspiracy for only two dollars (thank you, public libraries!), and I’m going to go ahead and issue a preliminary recommendation for anyone looking for a new book to ring in the new year. If you’re interested in hearing more about the book, listen to this interview from NPR, which also features a short excerpt.

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Somehow the people responsible for this found a way in and a way out and they found time to take seven paintings.

Roland Ekkers, a spokesman for Rotterdam police, on the recent theft of seven paintings from the city’s Kunsthal Museum. I find it shocking that only a day after one of the biggest art thefts in history, the story no longer makes it onto the front page of the websites of either the Washington Post or the New York Times. Sad, isn’t it?

Stories of Rescue: Niels Bohr

Stories of Rescue: Niels Bohr

If you’re interested in reading something slightly different, take a look at this short blog I wrote for the Wiener Library on Niels Bohr’s efforts as a rescuer during the Holocaust. Bohr’s attempts to get young scientists out of Nazi-occupied Europe make me think about the ways in which globalization has helped create a discourse between researchers around the world.

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Why do people steal art?

For a short but interesting follow-up to yesterday’s robbery, check out this article by the Washington Post’s Olga Khazan. It summarizes the main reasons why people steal art, making the complex issue palatable for someone who hasn’t read extensively on the subject.

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