Craig Childs: How much more of the world's treasures do museums need?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Craig Childs is the author, most recently, of "The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild."]

... How much more of the world's artifacts do we need?

In museum collections across the country, ancient bowls are stacked because there is no more room. I have walked the astonishing corridors locked within the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the overstocked storage space of the Peabody at Harvard University -- four stories of towering pre-Columbian ceramics. I say enough is enough.

A recent study of collections held in public trust in the United States found that 40% of all stockpiled artifacts are in unknown condition. Curators who actually work with their collections -- rather than in well-paid office positions -- complain of bags splitting open and boxes decaying. Some artifacts are being "de-accessioned" -- sold to collectors -- or in some cases, as with samples and specimens, tossed in the trash.

Shift your focus off the raids in Los Angeles for a moment. Look back to Tibet, where, for every artifact on display or in storage somewhere else in the world, there is a hole. A hole in a shrine, a hole in a tomb, a hole in a people's history. The statue at Jokhang is one of the fortunate few that remain. Nearly all the rest are replicas.

If a missing artifact has not been smuggled out, it has probably been destroyed. When the Chinese overthrew Tibet in 1960, tanks leveled the monasteries.

Looking for tangible remains of Tibetan history, I traveled to a remote monastery northeast of Lhasa, once one of the oldest in Tibet. In its day, it was a fortress of golden spires pointing at the sky. Now, you can buy pieces of it and scavenged statues from shady characters.

What is here now is but a meager reconstruction. I met a young monk who explained that when Chinese soldiers came in 1960, they killed or imprisoned the monks living here. But one monk escaped. He fled into the mountains with a set of 1,000-year-old texts. These were the holiest of writings in this part of Tibet, the founding prayers from the earliest days of Tibetan Buddhism. They belonged to this monastery alone....

Knowing that we have emptied much of the world of these precious secrets, this would be a good time to stop and breathe, and to let go our grip....

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