31 July 2011

Glass Dildos and Palaeolithic Bronzes: Why Private Collections Are Not Always a Good Idea

Here's my first dispatch from Gaziantep, which I visited for 10 days this month. Gaziantep is an up-and-coming metropolis in southeast Turkey that's been making a lot of money off of industry (a lot of European firms make products for the Middle Eastern market in factories there), and also investing a lot of money in parks, museums, and restoration of historic buildings. Since our research was on exactly that, we stopped by some neat places like the new city museum, the Emine Gögüs Kitchen Museum, and the new Zeugma Mosaic Museum (all very cool).

We also stopped by the Medusa Glass Museum, which is a stunning private collection of ancient glass hosted in a charmingly restored Antep house.
It's hard to overstate the quality of the materials - the place is packed with Roman glass and jewelry. It's all completely unprovenienced, of course, and no doubt was all pulled from tombs by looters not too long ago. Not sure how they got the collection legalized.
Seriously, check it out. There's three floors of it: perfume bottles, wine jars, oil bottles, and water jars, all in ancient glass. The quantity and quality is stunning.

Despite the quality of the stuff on display, but there's a total lack of quality control on the labels, with hilarious results. This one is labeled  'ROMAN TIME SEXUAL OBJECT'.

Here's a close up, cause I know you want one.
Now look, I'm willing to call a dong a dong, as in the Swedish archaeo-dildo controversy last year. But these aren't phallus-shaped at all, and believe me, the Romans were not shy about realistic depictions of the phallus. (And, I gotta point out that this looks like a real uncomfortable dildo.) In fact, these look to me like the glass rods used as raw material in glassblowing, given a little 'extra imagination'.

Then we have this thing here, which is labeled 'BREAST PUMP, 2nd Century AD'. I have no idea what this particular vessel is for, but I'm pretty sure it's not a breast pump.

Here's another howler, though you have to be a nerd to laugh really hard: 'PALAEOLITHIC TIME AXE, 3500 BC'. It's made of METAL, dumbass! The Palaeolithic is the 'old stone age'! There was no metal stuff! Plus, it ended about 20,000 years ago in this area. Obviously whoever wrote this got confused with the  Bronze Age, but even then 3500 BC is still way too early.

And that axe head doesn't even fit the mold! Who knows, it could be modern, or a fake. There's no way to know.
Though I commend the creators of this museum for having information panels, they apparently used Google translate or something for the English, because it's hilariously incomprehensible. In all, I was left both thrilled by the stuff on the shelf and horrified by the inanity of the people who own it.

Now, I'm not saying this to rag on Gaziantep or Turkey, but rather to point out that private collections are prone to this kind of thing. When I was a kid I remember going with my grandfather to a lot of private galleries and homes with large collections of cool, weird, sometimes ancient artifacts. Inevitably these things were put together by super-enthusiastic collectors who loved the objects but had no idea about their history, and so just made up their own interpretations.

Now there's lots of art market types out there, like say the Getty Foundation's new director, who would like to make it easier to buy and sell antiquities. They run under the assumption that private collectors are all smart, sophisticated, fancy people who are just as good stewards of the past as a public institution or nation-state - therefore we should jettisoning protections against looting and loosening the scrutiny of stolen antiquities. Now, I'm a critic of the mania for state ownership of cultural property too, but let's be real. For every collector who is a highly educated aesthete with impeccable knowledge of ancient history, there's an uninformed dumbasses who can't tell a dildo from a doorknob. With these people you get bad conservation conditions, poor information for visitors (if visitors are even allowed to see the stuff), and ample room for the kind of hilariously ignorant fantasy we see here.

As I've said before, it's not just a question of being pedantic about ancient history. The truth about the past is COOLER than bullshit, and it can mean something to people. Letting random people make up whatever they want about history might be a good business model (see the 'History' channel), but it's a disservice to the future.


  1. I think this is very interesting and provocative - but what/whom are you going after? Private collectors or private museums? In the US, aren't these groups gradually differentiating themselves (...despite Cuno)? You might be interested in Larry Rothfield's 7/16 post, if you haven't seen it already: http://larryrothfield.blogspot.com.

  2. Thanks for the link, I should repost it here. Regarding your question, there's a big difference between well-endowed, international private museums and small idiosyncratic gallerys which may or not have an interest in accreditation or professional museum practice.

    I like Rothfield's taxation idea, but my initial reaction is to wonder whether the legal market is big enough to make any difference. I would prefer a vast expansion of artifact loans, combined with experiments in long-term leasing of artifacts to qualified collectors. The amount of amazing material sitting in warehouses and depots worldwide that has never been studied, much less displayed, is a scandal. Why not make some pieces available for lifetime or 99-year leases, with insurance? Or trade a lease for some conservation treatments?

    Obviously the administration of such a program could pose challenges for donor countries, but it's the only idea I've come across that would match the intense market demand and divert it somewhat from looting.

  3. The breast pump is obviously a vacuum pump with some sort of medical application.
    Heat the bulb, apply the funnel to the location (e.g. a suppurating boil) and as the bulb cools, the shrinking volume of air leads to a pressure differential, drawing fluid into the funnel, out of the wound.
    It could conceivably work as a breast pump, although warm milk hitting hotter glass could lead to an unpredictable outcome - such as those shown in the picture, as rapidly cooling glass is likely to shatter if cooled unevenly, such as if part of its surface comes into contact with a liquid that is much cooler than the glass itself. ;)

  4. Thanks for the comment. This vessel looks kind of like a bloodletting cup to me, though it's such an impractical shape. I've gotta find a roman glass expert...

  5. Wow what a great collections of glass dildos it is. Keep on posting!