March 17, 2024

Lady Six Sky’s New York Moment

The issues are complicated, of course, and I don’t know all the details of this case, but I think this is an example of what responsible exhibits by museums accused of buying loot would look like. Sort of.

Guatemala’s National Museum of Museum Art loans a famous, archaeologically excavated artifact — a carved-stone stele depicting Lady Six Sky Naranjo-Saa’al — to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with the expectation that it will be returned. The message: stop buying stuff looted from our ancient sites, and we will lend you high-quality, properly excavated pieces. The U.S. museums get to exhibit Maya artifacts with a clean conscience and no lawsuits. It’s the strategy the Italians have pursued with the Met, too, with good results. It has started to clean up its act, but the Met long had a reputation for acquiring artifacts that bore all the signs of having been looted from graves or standing monuments at sites around the globe.

I was in Guatemala in January, and many people I met in arts and culture who were not at all happy with lending Maya treasures to foreign museums, particularly the Met. The history of commercial pillage — and the way it was fueled by the collecting practices of some major U.S. museums in the 1960s and ’70s — is too recent and feelings are still too raw. Still, I think this is a step in the right direction.