Provenience Curation? The MFA’s response and responsibility


The Boston Globe has published an article on the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the much criticized alleged perpetrator of many a past art/antiquities crime.  With the hell-freezing-over return of the Weary Herakles this year, I wondered, with no solid information, if the MFA was starting to crack down, get serious, and try to repair their terrible image problem.

Perhaps this is an element of it. The article profiles Victoria Reed, the first “curator of provenance” at a major world museum. Her job is portrayed as tracking down the ownership history of historic art objects so that the museum doesn’t have a holocaust art explosion on their hands.

I do note, however, that Ms. Reed is curator of provenance, not a curator of provenience. I am a big fan of the distinction that has grown between these two words in academic circles. Provenance = ownership history, past sales, publications, museums, collections. Provenience = where did it actually come from, the physical archaeological site and geographic coordinantes, who illicitly smuggled the thing.

As you can imagine, provenience is usually only an issue when we are talking about antiquities. While I don’t profess to know the bounds of Ms. Reed’s job, the Boston Globe article only mentions her work with art, not any work with artifacts. Her dubious histories are all provenance based: museum robberies, personal property theft, etc. An interview with Ms. Reed by Art Info projects the same image: provenance not provenience, art not artifacts.

But then again, maybe this is a good first step. I thought for a moment, perhaps the MFA should hire me for provenience work, but I fear they wouldn’t get their money’s worth. I’d probably declare nearly everything to be un-acquirable. That said, I am into repentance and reform. I live in Boston, have some degrees in the subject, and would happy consult if it means fewer Maya sites in Guatemala get torn to shreds so that some pretty pottery can go on display in the new Americas wing. Give me a call, MFA.