17 November 2011

Landscapes of cultural plunder revisited

Vue de la zone entre la porte de Clignancourt el la porte Montmarte, 1943-1944
Source: BHdv / Roger-Viollet / Direction technique de la voirie parisienne via  Patrimoine numérique via Bibliothèque de l´Hotel de Ville de Paris
Today’s truism: history is geographic. Every event can be broken down into an infinite number of particles that become data points which can be translated into a longitude and a latitude.
So what?
So what???
Viewed through another lens, the study of history is as complex as you want it to be. Depending on the scale at which you approach it, it can be lofty and very top-down, “small-scale” as geographers would put it, or extremely “granular”, from the ground up, or “large-scale” if described by our friends in geography departments.

When working with loot, plunder, and its inevitable yield, each looted or plundered item is a potential data point. How can that be?

If you ask the following questions, you might actually begin to understand:
  1. Where was it when it was stolen?
  2. How was it moved?
  3. Where was it taken?
  4. Where did it go from there?
Each one of these questions produces a location. Space separates each location. The stolen object moves from one location to another and, by so doing, evolves through space and across time. All of a sudden, the stolen object adopts a spatio-temporal personality.
Now what?
We have an object, which moves through space and time. Each movement can be assigned a longitude and a latitude. Each coordinate can be anchored in a time frame. Hence, we can see the object evolve across a time line and a landscape.

Within each location, there is granularity. For instance, was the seized object inside an apartment or a house? If so, what room? What floor? Where was it? On the wall? On the floor? Inside a drawer? The level of detail can be excruciating, but for each level of detail, there is a corresponding scale, which allows the geographer to produce a visualization.

Once the object is removed from its original location, it must reach another site, more often than not a storage facility. How does it reach that destination? The itinerary alone invites all sorts of questions which we can or cannot answer.
Is that useful?
It all depends on what you are looking for.

For example, let’s take the database of objects that transited through the Jeu de Paume. Link: www.errproject.org/jeudepaume.

You’ll notice that, in addition to object-based information, there are locations and dates assigned to it. That was a deliberate attempt to anchor each object in space and time.

One statistic might interest you: a random study of 18th century French furniture confiscated from apartments across Paris indicated, not too surprisingly, that more than half of this highly-prized period furniture came from five ‘arrondissements’ of Western and Central Paris. None came from lower middle class and working class neighbors. Again, it might seem obvious to you, but mapping taste can yield a fresh look at the historical and art-historical data.

In the future, whenever that moment might come, we will ‘visualize’ the peregrinations of stolen cultural objects by type, by author, by medium, throughout the wartime period and even the postwar era. What use does that have for us?

This intellectual exercise produces an instant snapshot of esthetic preferences, the geographic distribution of objects according to taste, the uses and disuses of specific locations for processing and storing looted art, the temporal incongruities by object type and by artist. The visualization of cultural plunder will open new vistas of research and understanding that will inform and revise the current state of research in this emerging field as well as promote new lines of inquiry.