Cultural heritage scholar to discuss stolen artifacts and illegal trade

Your typical museum curator’s wish list might include a choice sculpture or a generous benefactor. Richard Leventhal’s list involves throwing people in jail. Not just any people, but those involved in the black market trade for antiquities.

Cultural heritage scholar to discuss stolen artifacts and illegal trade

Leventhal is the founder and director of the Penn Cultural Heritage Center, a division of the Penn Museum that aims to educate the public and political officials about the value of the world’s cultural artifacts, and the illegal trade that endangers them.

“Cultural heritage has been stolen, put on the market and bought by mostly Western European and U.S. museums and individuals,” says Leventhal. “We want to create awareness that this is going on, and more than that, work with law enforcement to put a stop to it.”

To help inform the public about stolen artifacts and the need to protect cultural heritage, Leventhal will discuss “Stealing the Past: Collectors and Museums of the 21st Century” on Wednesday, March 16, as part of the Penn Science Café lecture series. The talk and Q&A begins at 7 p.m. at the MarBar, 40th and Walnut streets, above Marathon Grill.

Leventhal, who is also a professor of anthropology at Penn, says artifacts represent a people’s unique place in world history, and so only those people have a right to say how they are used and displayed.

“What if we woke up one morning and the Liberty Bell was in a museum in Nigeria?” he asks. “We’d be outraged.”

In the past, museums have routinely purchased precious cultural heritage pieces from countries to add to their collections, sometimes under dubious conditions. But as awareness of illegal acquisitions has become increasingly publicized over the last decade, many institutions are changing their practices, and some have even repatriated parts of their collections.

“These are not small, out-of-the-way museums,” says Leventhal. Included in this group are major artistic and cultural institutions, such as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others.

Leventhal will discuss his quest to recast museums as moral institutions and change their place within the landscape of history, anthropology and culture. He says wholesale acquisition of artifacts is itself an antiquated way of presenting world heritage; new methods will involve sharing, borrowing and dialogue between disparate cultures.

RSVPs are required. RSVP to Gina Bryan at 215-898-8721 or email bryangm@pobox.upenn.edu.

Originally published on March 10, 2011