Thursday, January 24, 2008

Smugglers and Curators and Oprah--Oh My!

Two news items have the museum world a-buzz today: first, the reported sting operation that resulted in simultaneous raids on four Southern California art museums early this morning and second, Oprah Winfrey touching the Ruby Slippers on her show.

The raids took place at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Bowers Museum, the Pacific Asia Museum and the Mingei International Museum performed by federal and IRS agents armed with warrants. The raids were the "first public move in a five-year investigation of an alleged smuggling pipeline that authorities say funneled looted Southeast Asian and Native American artifacts into local museums." At the root of the pipeline are Robert Olson and LA gallery owner Jonathan Markell. According to the LA Times, the warrants clearly suggest that officials and curators at some of the museums were aware that the objects brought to them by these two men had been looted.

Meanwhile, Oprah fans seem to be as incensed as the museum community if not more so by Oprah's actions on her national television program earlier this week. Despite having been told by National Museum of American History Director Dr. Brent Glass that she could not touch the famous slippers and even going so far as to tell Oprah that he almost never touched the slippers, even with gloves on, Oprah insisted on not just on touching the Dorothy's ruby slippers but grabbed them and waved them around in the air. While comments on the Museum-L listserv (the listserv for the museum profession) have focused on how the Smithsonian could have been better prepared for Oprah's capricious behavior--as well as more generally how museums can better prepare for and protect against mishandling by celebrities and other VIPS--Oprah's fans simply shamed her for her actions, calling her a "spoiled child" and accusing her of thinking she is above normal codes of behavior.

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