A Provenance Didactic: Foregrounding Museum Provenance

Abstract/Artist's Statement: Since UNESCO’s 1970 convention on looting of cultural property, a focus on provenance research has resulted in the accession and deaccession of antiquities in many museum collections. Provenance is the record of ownership for an object, perhaps leading back to its archeological find-spot, or its provenience. The Collections Analysis Collaborative—a project in conjunction with the Menil Collection and Rice University—hosted a conference in October that brought museum professionals and scholars together to discuss the processes of provenance research. The conference papers revealed a field heavily weighted with the ethical, political, and cultural issues that make this research relevant and inhibit transparent communication. After working with the collaborators and attending the conference proceedings, I wanted to contribute to the important work being done, and the next conversation to begin was the one with the public.

Though the conference is evidence that communications between museums and localities are budding, there is less discussion of changing museum visitor’s experience to reflect a more immediate engagement with provenance and its implications. After conducting some of my own research over the course of the semester, the expanded didactic provided an appropriate platform for communicating the process of the research as well as its content. The installation centers around the archival material for the Funerary Winged Lion, an Etruscan statue accessioned into the Menils’ antiquities collection in 1969. The installation simultaneously mimics wading through correspondences, catalogue entries, and photographs, while becoming a physical continuation of the object. My goal for the project is not to present a solution for the display of provenance in museums, but to convey the expansive nature of this research and direct discourse to the practical application of provenance didactics.


“Amnesiacs that we are, we believe that they adored the god or goddess sculpted in stone or wood. No: they were giving to the thing itself, marble or bronze, the power of speech.”

–Michel Serres, The Natural Contract, quoted in Bill Brown, "Objects, Others, and Us (The Refabrication of Things)."

Over the last semester, I had the privilege to aid in the proceedings of a conference organized by the Collections Analysis Collaborative at the Menil Collection. The Collections Analysis Collaborative is the brain child of Dr. John Hopkins, Dr. Sarah Costello, and Dr. Paul Davis, and the issue they face is, as Dr. Costello described in her conference paper, “antiquities with incomplete life stories.” The solution is provenance research, or tracing an object’s history of ownership from the present day to its archeological find-spot, or its provenience. The CAC conference in October invited world renowned scholars and archeologists to engage in collaboration about ethical, political, and cultural obstacles researchers in the field face. Despite the forum the conference provided for public engagement, I felt that there was more to be said about how to convey the task’s immensity and importance to the public. Today, I will pick up here, with the question of the public eye. I will discuss the necessity of provenance research, the contributions of the conference proceedings, and lastly discuss how for my final project I attempted to bridge conference proceedings and public museumgoing by translating the provenance documentation relating to the Menil's Etruscan Funerary Winged Lion into physicality, with an experimental exhibit based on the conference and my own research.Menil Collection, Arts of the Ancient World. Center: Etruscan Lion, 6th century BCE Photography by Reagan Williamson

Provenance research is, I posit, the most accessible tool for combatting the annihilation of cultural heritage. It is the basis for the “life narrative” needed to form the understanding that, in turn, inspires the protection of objects of cultural value. However, provenance strives for objectivity in the narratives it provides, often challenging our systems of value. As Dr. Brian Rose discussed in his CAC conference keynote, it is difficult to talk about provenance without discussing the turmoil in the middle east. These discussions often begin with Palmyra, the world heritage site ISIS attacked in September of 2015. The photographs, like this one of the bombing at the Temple of Baal, incite global reactions of horror, panic, and war crime convictions. There are other examples of the same brand of destruction however, that garner much less public outrage. Dr. Rose spoke of the “House of Abraham” built by Sadam Hussein near the site of Ur. The archeology supervisor of the district hoped to see the decimation of the site due to its propagandistic and political role during Sadam Hussein’s leadership. Similarly, statues of or monuments associated with dictator’s like Lenin and Mussolini are under constant attack, often resulting in their destruction.

Despite the present day sentiment, these extinctions of historical objects are losses just as the ruin of Palmyra is. As the world of history and culture is perpetually evolving, we must recognize the dangers of assuming our value systems reign supreme. In the case of Mellart’s early excavations of Catalhoyuk, misshapen figurines were regarded as unimportant and cast into heaps, despite the clues to daily life scholars now feel they hold. In this case, the importance of documentation was cast aside completely, keeping a historical discourse of mundane life from existing. This judgement—the judgement of relevancy or irrelevancy—is the most treacherous, and we should resist the sense that we are equipped to make it. Provenance bestows a basis for meaningful history on the most trivial and controversial, if not for the appreciation it lends to the object, then for the understanding of the histories the antiquity has endured.

The CAC and organizations like it are quickly gaining momentum, and I think there is value in communicating the kind of work they are doing, and making the valuable histories they work with accessible to the public and inseparable from the museum visitor’s experience. For instance: In the Menil Collection, there is an enormous wooden mask with inlaid eyes, gazing across the collection from above. Below this mask is a single plaque, proclaiming the mask to be “possibly Nubian, possibly Egyptian”, “possibly 6th century”. At first glance those “possibly’s” might seem uninformed, but, after looking into the file myself, it became clear that every word was the result of an intense amount of research, condensed it into the single word “possibly”. As I came to understand and actually live some of the hours of work behind each line, I was inspired to make this visible in the provenance installation’s form.Possible Mask. Photography: Reagan Williamson

The de Menil’s believed strongly in the unmediated experience of the object—the reason for the gallery’s minimalistic design. I agree and disagree with this idea. I have long been asking myself how to get people to care, and it seems the more visceral the reaction, the better. However, there are dangers to the “unmediated” experience. While the transparent museum display case is undoubtedly a necessity, it attempts to eradicate any mediation between viewer and object, as if this ancient thing has only existed cleanly within its glass case. After your class with Dr. Hopkins & your semester working with the CAC? have come to believe that the experience of the object should acknowledge its inherent history and that these should be nearly inseparable in the mind of the viewer. The installation is an attempt to begin translating provenance into something legible to the viewer and inseparable from the object. It is hardly a solution, but rather a preliminary experiment to engender further discourses.

The installation explores the process of provenance for the Funerary Winged Lion, an Etruscan statue accessioned into the Menils’ antiquities collection in 1969. Herbert Hoffman directed the Menils' attention to the winged lion for its inclusion in the Ten Centuries that Shaped the West exhibition, proclaiming it to be “one of the finest”. The lion was purchased from a Marcello Simotti-Rocchi, located in Rome. The Menils' place in the statue's historical network? ends there. The installation centers around a photographic replication of the Funerary Lion, and an enlarged museum plaque. As with the Nubian face mask, I wanted to root the information web into its respective line of information, giving the installation not only a degree of legibility, but tying the research to its current physical manifestation. The installation takes the form of an expanded didactic, utilizing primary sources from the Menil’s archive as well as outside scholarship to form nodes, and the relationships between the documents forming edges. The didactic forms a color coded web, the color of the node corresponding to the relevant information on the museum plaque.

Didactic network installation at Rice HRC. Photography: Reagan Williamson.

The process of mapping out the relationships between these primary sources and organizing them legibly was perhaps most informative to the project. At many turns, my original choices proved unsuccessful. Though the lines of text on the museum plaque seemed effective in organizing the information, many documents did not inform just one area. For example, the document shown here connects to date, culture, and the title of the object, for it discusses the tradition of lion and sphinx statues in protecting tombs and details a tomb built in Vulci in the 6th century. It also mentions that these nenfro statues often appear in pairs, a connection to the sphinx head or “pendant”, Herbert Hoffman mentions in the next connected document. These documents all seem to confirm a stylistic analysis for the lion in dating, place of origin, and context. After laying the information out, it was clear that a more meaningful division of materials is stylistic versus scientific work. As it is, the left side of the installation consists of stylistic analysis and comparable objects, such as the Metropolitan museum’s winged lion and the winged sphinx from the National Archeological Museum in Vulci. The right side consists of scientific analysis, or lack thereof. I chose to tie these documents into the material of the object because the testing performed on the lion, if any, was likely spectrometry or X ray fluorescence, tests that reveal information about material.

Other choices worth noting are the trailing edges, indicating where there is still information to be found. For example, I didn’t know the lion had been restored until discovering it was sent to Keating and Company in New York to be worked on by a David Miller. I believe the David Miller mentioned to be the current senior conservator of art for the Indianapolis Museum of Art, though he would have taken on the piece during the first two years of his career, when he worked as a private conservator on Long Island. An email inquiry yielded no response, but, because I believe this to be a promising lead, the edge trails out of the diagram space.

This was my intention for the project—to walk the tightrope between interest and interpretation and recognize in retrospect what would have been true to the process of provenance. As my good friend Mitch told me when I consulted his advice-every choice made must be for a reason, it must be tied to the nature of the thing.

Over the duration of the conference, every nuance of provenance research’s application and implication was discussed, demonstrating the sheer enormity of the field. In reflecting on the conference proceedings, there are many issues my installation does not engage with. Sue Langdon, for example, discussed a kind of counterpoint to the disregard of undocumented items at Catalhoyuk. In the case of Cycladic figures, the “dire effects of collecting and the impact of desirable pedigree on value” lead to skyrocketing prices, forgeries, and lootings. Would streamlining provenance in museums contribute to or detract from this problem? Other conference papers engaged closely with the de Menil’s collecting practices, namely the “image of the black”, and other images of Africans in the collection. Collecting practices are both fascinating and informative, especially in the case of the de Menils, another aspect the installation cannot engage with in a straightforward way. David Saunders, assistant curator at the Ghetty, could not attend the conference, but he co-authored the paper that Nicole Budrovich represented. Included in their paper was mention of the Getty’s own provenance revolution, which capitalized on online resources. Some progress they hope to make in the future includes “a database of dealer signatures and letterheads; the digitization of antiquities auction catalogues; and common standards for presenting provenance information online”. David Saunders, coincidentally, also looked at the piece I chose for my installment on his last visit. It is this wide breadth and unending web of collaboration inspired the form of the installation, as well as the message behind it. I, like the Getty curators, hope that the presentation of provenance can one day become streamlined across museum experience. The conference proves that conversations between scholars, museum professionals, and archeologists are budding, and I expect in light of the proceedings the obstacles will lessen with the aid of open collaboration. There are undoubtedly many barriers left to overcome, and I do not discount them, but instead look to the future.CAC Conference, Rice University. Photography: Reagan Williamson.

As I have stated, this installation does not propose a solution or an answer. It is more accurate to say it asks a question, in fact. The question, identical to the one John, Paul, and Sarah faced at the outset of their journey, is “how do we do this?” The expanded didactic is undoubtedly impractical for a true museum setting, but it does touch on one of the most important aspects of visually translating provenance—size. A physical manifestation, much like the thickness of an archival file, communicates in an instant one thing, before a single word is read—how much work has been done, or how little. The immensity of provenance is what makes it impressive, or the minuteness of it that makes it curious. Though this preliminary installation does not have a pragmatic application, it does inspire other ideas that do. One such application that has stuck with me is another idea that came up in my collaboration with Mitch, who is an architecture student here at Rice. We were both interested in the idea of transparency—how it was at once something the field lacked and something I wanted to rid the museum display of. We discussed then, the idea of etching into the glass of the museum case. A method that at once would not obstruct the viewing of the object, but that would acknowledge the mediation through which visitor’s view it. A perfect layering of the object and its provenance, a literal glance through history to the thing itself. I had an image of entering a museum gallery, and knowing at once which objects were documented heavily, and which were not. The immediacy of this visual, especially where a large contrast in size of information existed, could spark wonder in museum visitors and point scholars easily toward objects in need of research.

The objects we face in a glass case are silent. It is provenance research that gives them a voice, that forces them into relevancy with the life narrative of their existence. Through provenance, we understand relevance, and, I posit, everything is relevant. Though the changes I have discussed today may not happen any time in the near future, I urge you to take matters into your own hands, to visit museums, look at didactics, and question everything. Remember that it is more than a line of text, but rather the result of months or years of research, as well as a tool for preserving culture. Remember that something like this (slide of warrior figure), can come to mean the world if you take the time to dig up its life narrative and listen.