Object lessons: The politics of preservation and museum building in the early 20th century

Sanchita Balachandran


The preservation of cultural property is never a neutral activity. The question of who is to possess, care for and interpret artifacts is highly politically charged, particularly when cultural property is acquired or removed under imperial or colonial rule. This paper examines how preservation was used as a justification for the removal of not only movable artifacts but also pieces of immovable archaeological sites, and was therefore an essential tool in building museum collections. This study focuses on a collection of twelve wall painting fragments from the site of Dunhuang, China, which were removed by art historian Langdon Warner in 1924 for the Fogg Art Museum (now the Harvard University Art Museums). The removal process resulted in significant damage to some of the painting fragments as well as to the site, calling into question what is preserved—an intact ancient artifact or an ancient artifact scarred by and embedded with its modern collection history? How do pedagogical institutions such as museums grapple with unsuccessful examples of preservation? This article also describes the early conservation efforts of the Fogg’s Department of Technical Research, and considers the contradictions in the conservation practices of Rutherford John Gettens and George Leslie Stout. Drawing from the Harvard collection as an example, this paper discusses the contradictions of early preservation ethics in China, and comments on the legacies of such policies for museums with these entangled objects as well as the sites from which they were originally removed.

Published in the International Journal of Cultural Property, Volume 14, Issue 01, February 2007, pp 1-32.

2007 | Richmond | Volume 14