I learned many things during my time working in a small museum in the UK, many strange, extraordinary, worrying things, but one of the real eye-openers for me was that all museums, no matter how great or humble, have objects in their collection for which they have no provenance.
What that means is that they don’t know how the hell these objects came into their possession, they just know that they’ve got them, they’ve had them for a very long time and they hope to god no one ever asks for their return. Loans last renewed in 1938, objects borrowed for research and never returned, objects bought at auction with no paperwork, years before we started worrying about the ethics of looting cultural heritage. Open up a museum acquisition ledger and you’re opening up a history of forgotten agreements and dubious purchases.
The opportunity can arise, however, to right past wrongs and this has been the case for the Cleveland Museum of art who, in 1982, bought a Cambodian statue in New York that had been looted from its home at the Prasat Chen temple in Cambodia’s Preah Vihear province.
Nearly five decades after a centuries-old statue of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman was looted from a temple in Cambodia, the Cleveland Museum of Art officially handed it over to the government Tuesday during a ceremony at the Council of Ministers building. Once part of a depiction of an epic battle between two other monkey deities, the statue was carved in the 10th century and housed at Preah Vihear province’s Prasat Chen temple, which was built as part of the one-time Khmer Empire capital of Koh Ker. Apsara dancers perform at the Council of Ministers Tuesday during a ceremony celebrating the return to Cambodia of a looted 10th century statue of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily) It is believed that thieves severed the sandstone statue from its base some time in the 1960s.
If only the British Museum could have the same attitude towards the Elgin Marbles.