28 February 2015

Provenance research: let’s get real

by Marc Masurovsky

The din grows ever stronger in conferences, symposia, seminars, blogs, social media, museums, government agencies, whereby provenance research is a necessity, a duty. And yet, no concrete steps appear to have been taken in the private and public sectors to fold provenance research into their daily habits and to fund this highly-skilled service adequately.

Each institution that collects, acquires, and exhibits artistic, cultural and ritual objects should allow for at least one if not two full-time researchers to conduct their research in a professional and ethical manner in order to improve the quality of management of the collections, to raise the ethical bar of the institution and to better serve their public, general and specialized.

This lamentable state of affairs exists worldwide with few notable exceptions. It is simply outrageous to continue to encourage young and old, talented and enthusiastic, who want to work as provenance researchers, dangling the carrot of possibilities in front of their faces only to remind them that: sorry, no jobs, no opportunities, no funds.

In some sense, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, MA, has set the gold standard—relatively speaking, that is—by creating a full-time “curator of provenance”, a position masterfully filled by Victoria Reed. That’s one museum in the United States. Not the largest, not the smallest, and yet it was able to figure out how to raise the bar of accountability, research and diligence for its collection and the objects that it displays, curates and acquires. Was that so difficult? It must have been a rocky road leading to that moment. The point is that the MFA has turned the corner.

Should it remain the lonely exception to an otherwise dismal state of affairs exemplified by institutions that carry hundreds of thousands of items in their august bosoms and do nothing to ameliorate the landscape of research?

Believe me when I say that it is not a funding question. For every exhibit and acquisition that require major outlays of funds, a small portion of those funds could be allocated to provenance research. And yet they are not.

Perhaps, the only way to achieve this goal is to regulate the practice of research, mandate “professional” training in accredited institutions and programs, and deny accreditation to any institution that does not comply with minimum provenance research requirements. Why not? Does this proposal sound radical and off-the-wall? Perhaps, but it is the solution of last recourse.  Unfortunately, no state or national/Federal legislature will have the guts to regulate provenance research. The big ‘R’ is one scary beast.

If you do not want to be regulated, I suggest that you commit yourselves to a long-term strategy of funding full-time positions for provenance research and to encourage universities and colleges to teach the subject.  All it takes is one class in two parts for a full academic year.  Cultural institutions are in desperate need of assistance and contribution from provenance experts who can help to tell the story of the objects in the collections and, more importantly, to weed out the chaff from the collections, the toxic residue that imperils their good name because of historical thefts and plunder tied to acts of genocide and mass slaughter.