A Letter From Malibu
This Letter from the Field was shared with us by Emma Sachs – MSP10.
The Getty Villa in Malibu, California, is the only museum in the United States exclusively dedicated to the cultures of the Ancient Mediterranean world, and it is here that I am lucky enough to fulfill my practicum. The site of the Villa is dreamlike: inspired by the Vila dei Papiri, a Roman villa in the Herculaneum that was buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, the complex occupies a small canyon that opens not to the Mediterranean, but to the Pacific. Visitors enter the Villa through its front door as if they were guests of some Roman momentarily absent; a series of bronze sculptures and wall paintings line the inner and outer peristyles to be enjoyed by different sets of eyes; the garden, which exclusively features plants cultivated on the ancient Meditrranean, suggest continued occupancy and a working kitchen. This is a museum that extends beyond its objects, one that encompasses authenticity as well as fantasy—the perfect setting for a visitor (or intern) to daydream….
My work at the Villa, under Dr. Claire Lyons, Acting Senior Curator of the Department of Antiquities, is primarily related to preparation of an exhibition with the working title Sicily: Between Greece and Rome, a collaboration with the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Sicilian Ministry of Culture. A product of the Getty’s 009 Cultural Agreement with Sicily, the exhibition explores innovations in Sicilian art, literature, and science from the 5th-3rd centuries BCE, when the island’s former Greek colonies emerged as wealthy Mediterranean powers. Apart from bibliographic research on objects planned for the exhibition and management of their records, I have been drafting loan letters, participating in meetings with Getty curators and staff, and contributing to preliminary installation design. I also helped navigate the complicated bureaucracy of the Sicilian Ministry of Culture: of the 100 or so objects planned for the show, a majority are potential loans from twelve separate Sicilian museums.
One of the aspects of museum work that I had never considered before was the amount of diplomacy necessary to work with museums outside the United States. Engaging with these museums, especially those in Sicily, has been a complicated affair. The Getty, a wealthy private institution, runs like a well-oiled machine, efficient and rigorous in its internal processes. The Sicilian Ministry of Culture, on the other hand might be described in opposite terms: it is highly bureaucratic to the point of inefficiency, its power structure nearly impossible to decipher. However, in order for the Getty to borrow Sicilian-owned objects, it must accommodate the complicated collaboration by translating correspondence in formal Italian, detailing potential loan agreements and describing the venue in Palermo; I have also been responsible for staying on top of the current regimes of the Italian Soprintendenze to ensure that we address our requests to the right people (this kind of information can change on a yearly basis, while websites are not necessarily changed on a yearly basis).
I’m also learning about the necessity of diplomacy within the United States as well. The Getty currently seems to be one of the most forward thinking institutions when it comes to its stewardship of antiquities and growing list of cultural agreements with Italian and Greek ministries. Yet it is also a very easy target for bad press, particularly due to past restitution claims of the Italian and Greek governments. Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum, published this summer, is the last exposé-style account of the Getty’s recent major restitution. This easy criticism extends to other aspects of the Villa as well: a Washington Post article recently criticized the museum for obscuring a work’s possible homoerotic meaning. At first I found all this bad press rather distressing, particularly because of my growing respect for the institution, but Claire assured me that this kind of news is part of a continuous, repetitive cycle, and that she has found it far more gratifying to stay focused on the important, mission-related projects concerning research, conservation, and education. While I only have a few weeks left at the Villa, I will carry these lessons from reality (despite their fantastical setting) long beyond.
Submitted May, 2013