Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Of Smugglers, Grave-Robbers and Shameless Curators


The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World
By Sharon Waxman, Times Books, 414pp
Reviewed:14 February 2009

Sharon Waxman, an American, studied the Middle East at Oxford then worked as a “culture correspondent” and foreign correspondent for the New York Times. This book applies journalistic reporting on places and personalities in a struggle within the world of museums and professional collectors: when should foreign objects held in museums be returned to their place of origin?

The Enlightenment idea that people become more civilised by appreciation of the classical past – essentially Greece, Rome and antecedents in the Near East - inspired development of the public museum.  From the time of Napoleon, this evolved from blatant displays of looted treasure and colonial curios into the sophisticated systems of archaeology, conservation and historical research now epitomised by the Louvre or the British Museum.
The Louvre and the British Museum were founded on overt imperial acquisitions, while the New York Metropolitan Museum continues to receive items of dubious provenance donated by those social-climbing hedge-fund operators not yet in gaol. For at least a century, the prevailing motto has been “Don’t ask, don’t tell” on the provenance of prized items.
Legal and illegal acquisitions seem always to have run in parallel, but formal legality has not discouraged new generations of cultural nationalists from demanding return of precious artifacts to their land of origin.
Waxman gives a fair account of the claims of those restitutionists of Egypt, modern Greece, Turkey and Italy. The happiest case histories undo blatantly unlawful acquisitions involving networks of grave-robbers, smugglers, shady dealers and shameless curators. 
Sadly, some of the cultural treasures recovered with heroic effort have since been lost again through corruption, incompetence, or lack of curatorial resources in the place of origin. Such cases strengthen the arguments of the big museums that they hold items not only for themselves but in safe trust for humanity.

Richard Thwaites has worked, among other things, as a publisher's editor 

Betrayed Americans Forsaken in Soviet Russia

The Forsaken

by Tim Tzouliadis, Little Brown, 472pp
Reviewed: 10 January 2009

Tim Tzouliadis  traces the horrifying fate of several thousand American citizens caught in Stalin’s Russia during the years of the Great Terror.

Most of the Americans had gone to the USSR voluntarily in the 1930s, either as Communist idealists hoping to build a socialist new world order, or as contract “experts” fleeing the unemployment of the Great Depression in capitalist America. They ranged from artists and assembly-line workers to architects and engineers. Most sold up their belongings and took their families with them.
The largest group comprised several hundred Ford Motor Company employees hired to run the Soviet Ford car plant at Nizhni Novgorod. At the time the USA did not have diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, and consequently no Embassy or Consulates to represent them.
Most were tricked or bullied into giving up their American passports and acquiring Soviet ones. As Stalin’s internal terror campaigns escalated from 1936, the lost Americans became targets. Attempting to leave, or even expressing a desire to go home, became acts of treason earning death or deportation to the burgeoning Gulags, from where less than ten percent would ever return.
There are many appalling accounts of culled from correspondence, from Soviet archives, from survivor accounts, and most sadly from the records of the US State Department and other official sources. Most chilling are the accounts of how these Americans were treated by other Americans. 
President Roosevelt is portrayed as almost willfully blind to the character of Stalin and his regime.
Not for those who prefer a rose-tinted world view, this book will confirm any conviction that civilization lies not in the mobilization of power over the people, but in the restraint of power by the people.

Ken Myer's Lasting Legacy of Power and Philanthropy

The Many Lives of Kenneth Myer

By Sue Ebury, Miegunyah Press, 621pp.
Reviewed: 12 December 2008

Even in egalitarian Australia, private philanthropy underwrites many of our prized cultural institutions. 

Kenneth Myer’s contribution to public life began soon after his return from wartime naval service which had taken him to China and Japan, as well as formative experiences in the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. With his younger brother Baillieu (‘Bails’) he set up the Myer Foundation (via a special Act of the Victorian Parliament) along the lines of philanthropic foundations he had observed in the USA, as a tax-effective vehicle for either public or anonymous support for worthy causes. 
Myer supported a truly impressive range of institutions through the Foundation, through personal donations, and through highly active participation in boards and committees. His earliest involvements were with the ANU’s John Curtin School of Medical Research and the development of Asian Studies, which became his life-long special interest.
Later he was instrumental in the founding of the Department of East Asian Studies at Melbourne University, and in securing the independence of the Howard Florey Institute for medical research, also in Melbourne.
Kenneth Myer’s personal legacy is obvious in the Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne's Alexandra Gardens, but few now would realize what an important role Ken Myer played over three decades in development of the National Gallery of Victoria, the Victorian Arts Centre,  the construction of the National Library whose Council he served on for twenty years from 1960 and chaired for seven. In his final years living in Sydney he gave major financial support to the Asian art collections of Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Power House Museum. He had also played a supportive role in establishment of the National Film and Television School.
To a general reader this book provides many insights into the way big things can be done in Australia. Mostly, it seems to be by maintaining the right networks and connections, and by seeding bold public initiatives with personal commitment of time and funds – what Ken Myer called “risk philanthropy”.
Richard Thwaites studied in the Myer-supported East Asian Studies Department at Melbourne University, and later was on ABC program staff during Ken Myer’s chairmanship. 

Chaos as a Modernising Force for China?

The Chinese Cultural Revolution

a History
By Paul Clark, Cambridge University Press, 352pp
Reviewed: 29 November 2008

Chairman Mao launched his Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966, ostensibly to challenge conservatism and elitism within the Chinese Communist Party and to create a new culture of Perpetual Revolution in China. Its scope was limitless, challenging and disrupting all cultural norms in China’s social, economic, political and even scientific fields, as well as in the arts and intellectual life.

This is a very specific, almost clinical, review of what was going on in the production of Chinese public culture over that period – mainly the mass media of film and public performance, but also painting, sculpture and literature. The “consumption” side of the analysis is limited, since Chinese audiences had very little choice, heard no independent critical voices, and experienced saturation marketing of state-prescribed products.
Clark argues that this period is not simply to be written off as an unmitigated disaster. His case is that the peculiar circumstances of massive state intervention, absolutist control over the arts, and insistent didactic purpose, also stimulated or facilitated some significant development and “modernization” of arts practice in China.
It’s a controversial, almost revisionist case to be making in relation to the Cultural Revolution, which Westerners generally associate with bizarre extremes of dogmatism, vandalism, and dictatorship, backed by personal violence against any artist thought possibly sympathetic to “class enemies”.
Clark argues that the long denial of public self-expression generated a sub-culture of private and mainly passive resistance, which would flower dramatically in artistic innovation as the reins began to slacken from the late 1970s. Well, yes. The lotus does grow from the mud.
He aims to show that the Cultural Revolution was not a “sidetrack” on China’s road to modernity, but firmly “part of the process”. Since the same could be said of civil wars, religious revolutions, invasions, natural disasters and other cataclysms in the history of any human society, I found the argument interesting but not compelling.
Richard Thwaites lived in China 1978-83, when the Cultural Revolution was known as “The Ten Years of Chaos” 

The Virtues of Wondering and of Skilled Biography

The Age of Wonder

How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
By Richard Holmes, Harper Press
Reviewed: 20 September 2008

Richard Holmes he turns a brass spyglass on a range of those ``natural philosophers'' who, through extraordinary effort and courage, established foundations for modern science. A number of these key British figures were discovering ``the beauty and terror of science'' during the so-called Romantic period, roughly between Captain Cook's first voyage to the Pacific and the emergence, around 1840, of the first generation of researchers to call themselves ``scientists''. 

His characters were pioneers, moving their intellectual world from belief-based examination of a universe that was assumed to be a fixed creation, towards broad recognition that the scientific method of rigorous observation, hypothesis and testing provided the only reliable basis for continual expansion of knowledge.  The ``wonder'' they shared was the intellectual excitement of a generation which realised that the process of discovery has no natural limit, so long as humans continue to speculate, to observe, and to test.
Sir Joseph Banks looms over much of this book, from his early role as a self-funded naturalist with Captain Cook's Pacific voyage (1768-9), through 40 years as president of the Royal Society, the principal sponsor of British science and exploration. Banks's journals detail how his anthropological research in Tahiti included spending most of his nights ashore observing, and practising, the Tahitian customs of sexual freedom. His intimate relations went far beyond sheer personal indulgence and deeply challenged his cultural assumptions. 
Years later, after he had founded the British Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, Sir Joseph shows up as a reliable supplier of good-quality Indian hemp to the poet (and natural philosopher) William Taylor Coleridge.
Coleridge would also write ecstatically of the psychedelic effects of inhaling laughing gas (nitrous oxide) as the guest of Sir Humphrey Davy, who succeeded Banks at the Royal Society. Davy became part of the circle including Shelley, Coleridge and Wordsworth whose Romantic quest was for new ways of thinking, seeing and feeling. 
The decades toward 1840 trace a transition from the gentlemanly practice of natural philosophy for its own sake, towards recognition of the new profession of ``scientist'' as a person applying scientific method to a practical economic or social purpose. The term ``scientist'' was in fact coined by the poet Coleridge (as was the term ``psychosomatic'').
The Age of Wonder makes a highly readable, informative and stimulating narrative of individuals making history, and made by their time a time with many parallels to our own.
Richard Thwaites is a Canberra reviewer who is still wondering. 

1434 - Chinese Odyssey Falls Off its Own Map

The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet sailed to Italy and ignited the Renaissance
By Gavin Menzies, Harper Collins
Reviewed: 6 September 2008

The publishing encourages readers to believe that there is a difference between  Fiction and Non-Fiction.

In Gavin Menzies’ two works 1431 – The Year China Discovered America, and now 1434 – The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet sailed to Italy and ignited the Renaissance, readers are being sold, as non-fiction, works that mix facts and wild speculation with an abandon that would embarrass the better historical novelists.
A large Chinese merchant fleet visited India in 1433-34, and part of the fleet continued westward as far as the Persian Gulf trade terminus of Hormuz. It followed trade routes developed and maintained for centuries by Arab maritime trading societies. 
The Chinese records tell us that the Admiral, Zheng He, died before reaching Hormuz and command passed to another admiral who completed the trade mission and returned to China with a rich fleet in 1434.
Gavin Menzies asserts that Zheng He’s commission from the Ming Emperor Yong Le was not merely to engage in trade, but rather to endow the Western barbarians with sufficient Chinese wisdom that they would flock to Beijing to recognize China’s global supremacy.
He suggests that Zheng He’s fleet carried copies of Yong Le’s state encyclopedia containing “more intellectual knowledge than any university in the world at that time”. Part of the fleet sailed up the Red Sea, through a canal to the Nile, and across the Mediterranean to Venice. His fleet bore encyclopedic gifts, ample translators, and apparently some thousands of slave girls who, on reaching the Adriatic Sea, would elope with sailors and populate Croatia.
Since there is absolutely no evidence of any magnificent Chinese fleet sailing to Italy and igniting the Renaissance, Menzies supports his thesis with attenuated chains of inference. On the slimmest of evidence or most unreliable documentation, he will say on one page that a certain connection with China “could” have happened. On the next page the link has become “would” have happened, and by the next chapter the far-fetched possibility is quoted as a factual assumption to underpin some even more far-fetched argument.
The sheer bulk of outright errors, misrepresentations and unsupported assertions is so great that it would be maddening to undertake a full refutation. 
He refers frequently to a 1418 Chinese map, that he calls “Zheng He’s map”, showing most of the modern world, including the Americas, as evidence of Chinese pre-Columbian knowledge of the entire globe. Only by chasing up the source of this map in an external reference can one confirm that the map is a “copy” made in China no earlier than 1763 (by which time its contents were common knowledge to seafarers), and probably a twentieth century fake. There is no 1418 map.
It’s difficult to sort the wheat (and there is some) from so much chaff.
Richard Thwaites has been reading Chinese history for forty years. 

Manning Clark's Tragic Grandeur - in letters

Ever, Manning

Selected Letters of Manning Clark 1938-1991
edited by Roslyn Russell, Allen and Unwin
Reviewed: 9 August 2008

Historian Professor Manning Clark was a catalytic figure in the formation of Australian self-image. His quest to construct a coherent sense of what it means to be Australian could strike cynics as tendentious, and strike angry sparks from either radical or conservative historians with competing visions of Australian history. Even those who reject his historical interpretation owe him at least the debt of provocation.

What value then is this volume of selected letters, authorized by the family and far from comprehensive? The material is exclusively Clark’s outgoing letters.  Like the sound of one hand clapping, we read Clark’s intense or humorous responses to voices that we can only infer. The effect is starkest in relation to the central correspondence of his life: that with Dymphna, his great love, wife and life’s companion through significant domestic drama. What Dymphna might have said or written to Manning at certain times would likely have scorched the page, had family and publishers agreed to print it.
This collection can better be read as a progressive self-portrait, a verbal analog for the self-portrait series of visual artists such as Rembrandt and van Gogh. The earliest letters (from Oxford, 1938) portray an earnest young post-graduate seeking out how to draw maximum academic nourishment from the British tradition, while sensitive to the slights offered so casually by the British to the “colonials” in their midst.
Over the decades, there are such cultural romances with Britain, with Ireland, with continental Enlightenment Europe, with (Potemkinised?) Soviet Russia, and finally with the Harvard world of the American liberal intelligentsia.
The letters reveal a man always in the process of self-construction and deconstruction – he refers often to himself in the third person in ways that might seem vain if they were not humorous and self-deprecatory. 
From the 1950s until his death in 1991, Manning Clark gave public support to many “progressive” causes and was considered radical, almost dangerous, by conservative academics and political commentators. 
The clergyman’s son sets out like a character in Pilgrim’s Progress, determined to be recognized for good works and to overcome human frailty in himself, while suspicious of anything smelling of superficial piety. By the end of his life, significant achievements and public recognition seem not to have assured him that he has justified his life through his works.  Manning Clark, fact or fiction, emerges from this volume with a quality he often ascribes to the human condition – a tragic grandeur.

Truth about China's Human Rights Record


The truth about its human rights record
By Frank Ching, Rider Books
Reviewed: 19 July 2008

In this short and accessible book, Frank Ching has provided a timely reality check. Many who seek good relations with China are uneasy about how to reconcile China’s economic and cultural strengths with its persistent disregard for a range of individual human rights that we claim to support.

This book offers a sober and thorough review of the broad environment of rights and restrictions that constrain the daily lives of all China’s citizens and of non-Chinese who interact with them.
Frank Ching is an American journalist of Chinese family who has been reporting on China for thirty years.  He recognizes where improvements have been made to human rights in China over time, but the overall picture remains bleak.
The heart of the matter is that the Communist Party refuses to allow any limitation to its monopoly of power. “The basic problem with China’s legal system is that there is no culture of the rule of law”.  The system remains heavily biased against the individual and in favour of anyone holding state authority, from internet censor or police constable upwards.
The Communist Party’s obsession with monopoly of power also motivates restriction of religious freedoms. Nominal freedom of religion in the Constitution is hemmed in by legal requirements for any religion to “promote unity” and to be subject to the guidance of the state. Ching’s up to date report makes clear that without changes in fundamental attitudes by those holding ultimate power, China is likely to remain near the bottom of the world’s human rights tables.
Richard Thwaites is a former Australian Broadcasting correspondent in China. 

Can Law or History Redeem Indigenous Australians' Grievances?

Rights and Redemption

History, Law and Indigenous People
By Anne Curthoys, Ann Genovese and Alexander Reilly, UNSW Press, 277pp
Reviewed: 5 July 2008

This is a scholarly but very readable examination of the ways in which Australia’s legal system has adjudicated the claims of Indigenous individuals and communities. Most of such claims are rejected because they can not be framed or supported, strongly enough, in terms that satisfy court evidentiary standards of admissibility and relevance.

The book draws upon interviews with participants in key legal processes. Unusually, this includes members of the judiciary and the legal professions, sometimes anonymously.
A clash of cultures limits legal process. Common law emphasises material proof and strict documentation. It devalues oral tradition, on which Indigenous claimants may rely to establish their case. Claimants and those opposing their claims may each enlist historians, anthropologists or other professionals to provide facts and interpretations to bolster their cases.
This book is not about the merits of claims or the justice of outcomes, but about the problems of method and purpose that divide lawyers, historians, and anthropologists in the processing of Indigenous claims and grievances.
The historian’s commitment to a broad and contextual understanding of events can be at cross purposes with a lawyer’s brief to accept information only where it advances one side of a case. Historians infer broad truths from scant hard evidence but a rich context, whereas lawyers select evidence for the limited purpose of a specific argument before the court. Judges have been reluctant to accept historians’interpretations of events or documents, believing that to be the judge’s own responsibility.
There is inter-disciplinary rivalry between expert advisers to the law. Legislated rights do not deliver much without more clarity on how Courts are to evaluate claims and counter-claims.  Redemption seems limited to the public politics of reconciliation, and to the continued pursuit of truthful history.

Blumenthal's Rage against the havoc of Bush and Backers

The Strange Death of Republican America
Chronicles of a Collapsing Party

By Sidney Blumenthal, Union Square Press.
Reviewed: 28 May 2008

Sidney Blumenthal, a committed Democrat and senior adviser to both Bill and Hillary Clinton, makes no pretence of impartiality in this chronicle of the U.S. Republican Party under the Bush Administration. Don’t expect much generosity toward Bush and his Republican Party supporters.

George W Bush is always in the cross-hairs, but Blumenthal does distinguish between those surrounding the Republican Administration who are simply misguided (such as Colin Powell, James Baker, Condoleeza Rice and George Bush senior) and those he considers to be irredeemably malevolent, dangerous to US democracy, and thus dangerous to the world.
The principle demons to emerge are Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, with a large cast of supporting trolls headed by Karl Rove, Paul Wolfowitz, George Tenet, and others whose names have passed through the headlines and, in most cases, to eventual ignominy.

Blumenthal says the press generally failed in their duty to keep the Administration accountable. He is passionate about the ideals of an American Democracy that he believes is being corrupted by power-hungry cynics. The exemplars are Cheney and Rumsfeld, both veterans of the Nixon Administration..
Read complete review

Richard Thwaites has been a journalist and has served politicians of many colours..