09 May 2011

Pearls of wisdom from the May 6-7, 2011 Provenance Research Seminar

“You can’t restitute if you don’t have good research,” Kaywin Feldman, AAMD

Interesting comment in view of the fact that, traditionally, American museums are loath to restitute regardless of how thorough and meticulous the historical research is on objects being claimed by victims.

“Who knew what when?.... There is no statute of limitations on genocide.” Jim Leach, National Endowment for the Humanities.

A marvelous truism by former Congressman Jim Leach, who was the most outspoken advocate of a public dialogue on Holocaust-era looted assets in Congress during the Clinton years. The principle that genocide trumps statutory limits is an ethical principle that has not permeated national courts either in the Americas or in Europe.

“Provenance research is restitution research,” Lynn Nicholas, author, The Rape of Europa

Here, I beg to differ with Lynne Nicholas. Restitution is a possible outcome of provenance research but it is not the incentive underlying it. Provenance research, above all, is about due diligence, transparency, and intellectual honesty.

“Why do we need footnote.com? Why not open source access to historical documents?”, Uwe Hartmann, Bureau for Provenance Investigation and Research, Berlin

Uwe Hartmann raised a fundamental point about the proprietary and for-profit nature of current research tools in the digital world that are being made available to the general and specialized publics. Indeed, the National Archives in the United States had entered into a contract with a private company that produces digital versions of archival records, www.footnote.com. Unfortunately, the idea of paying to have access to an un-indexed, un-catalogued, un-organized document that could just easily be retrieved from an archive without having to pay off is somewhat injurious, unless, of course, you have no plans on coming to College Park, MD, or Washington, DC, for that matter. The same holds true for the National Archives of the United Kingdom which charge for downloads of archival documents.

The idea of open source is one that is extremely popular in the computer programming world but one which has not entered into the habits of researchers and historians who are, by nature, proprietary about their work for obvious professional reasons guided by publishing and career-enhancing considerations.  Historical archives starved for cash are resorting to commercial tactics to replenish their coffers. By doing so, they penalize their audience and make it more difficult and penurious to conduct historical research.

Nevertheless, in an ideal world, digital historical information should be publicly-available much as the database of art objects at the Jeu de Paume tries to do by unleashing on-line as a public service all that there is to know, as of now, on art thefts in German-occupied France.