In 1966, curators at the archaeological museum of the University of Pennsylvania bought a pile of gorgeous Bronze Age jewelry from a Philadelphia dealer. They couldn’t know their purchase would change how museums work.
The 24 gold objects had come to Penn with no trace of where they’d been unearthed, or how. That left scholars there without much clue about why and when the gold had been worked, or by whom— and with the suspicion that it had been dug up by looters. Frustrated, they decided to take steps to prevent this kind of “homelessness” for other antiquities. In 1970, they issued a declaration (a Philadelphia tradition, after all) insisting that the Penn museum would no longer acquire ancient objects whose history could not be properly tracked. Later that year, a UNESCO convention on cultural property suggested the same rule for all other museums, and since then, reputable institutions have pretty much toed that line.
Last week, Penn brought things full circle by announcing that it was more or less undoing the 1966 acquisition that had helped raise the issue.