I’ve criticised Western museums for buying or accepting as gifts looted Chinese antiquities. This practice, in my opinion, stems from an outdated and irresponsible fine arts perspective where the exact provenance of a museum piece is not very important. When you’re dealing with anonymous prehistoric or early historic art, you can’t attribute it to any named artist, and so an art curator will quite happily settle for “Han dynasty, probably the Yellow River area” as a date and a provenance.
As an archaeologist, I do not accept the category “fine art”, and I claim precedence for the classification as an archaeological find over that of a museum display piece. Any object that has been part of the archaeological record must have a recorded exact provenance: otherwise it is a stray find or loot. The beautiful pieces shown in exhibitions of ancient Chinese artefacts deserve a find-spot provenance recorded to the nearest centimeter, with photographs, field drawings, environmental samples and an exact record of what was found along with each piece.
Let’s be clear about this: archaeological context or provenance is not about when and where an object was made. It’s about when and where it entered the ground, and under what circumstances it was unearthed. The archaeological context describes an object’s find spot.
Today I visited a lovely museum in Hangzhou for the second time, the Southern Song Official Kiln (Guan Yao) Museum. And I was reminded of the fact that the Chinese themselves have a 2500-year tradition of collecting choice artefacts without recording their provenances. The museum displays hundreds of pieces of Chinese pottery from the Neolithic onward with emphasis on the 13th century when the site itself was an Imperial celadon factory. Not one of them has a provenance. Everything is generic: labelled only with functional category, type of ware, sometimes the kiln site, and dynasty with start and end dates. The pottery in the museum has no individuality. Each piece is just an example of a generic type belonging to a generic time frame. In some cases the visitor is told that the pottery was found during excavations on the kiln site itself, but we learn nothing about the closer context. Most of the pieces are incomplete and look like wasters, but you can’t be sure.
In the indigenous elite tradition, it is irrelevant where a certain Zhou dynasty bronze sacrificial cauldron-tripod was found. The important things are to be able to classify it and read its inscriptions. This gives some background to the on-going clash between the fine art world and the demands of archaeology. It’s not entirely a question of Western dealers, collectors and museums exploiting China’s heritage. The Chinese have had an established tradition of their own for collecting fine art for millennia. As a rigorous discipline, archaeology is barely 200 years old in the parts of the world where it has been practised the longest. We want the finds to speak to us about the past. Non-archaeologist Chinese want the nice ones to exemplify classical categories of fine art. And the not so nice ones, they don’t want at all.